During the Cold War, government advice was that, in the event of a nuclear strike, we should stay in our inner refuges for forty-eight hours and indoors for around ten to fourteen days, in order to allow radiation levels outside to drop to something approaching a “safe” level. It felt today as if we should still be in our inner sanctums as the fallout from yesterday’s Manchester derby match fell around outside, infusing everything with the Premier League’s favourite luminous green toxin, controversy.
Much of this controversy surrounded United’s winning goal, scored five and a half minutes into stoppage time at Old Trafford by Michael Owen and much of the complaining about this seems to stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of the rules of the game. Shortly before Craig Bellamy scored for Manchester City – and as the clock ticked over the ninety minute mark – the fourth official held up a board confirming that there would be a minimum of four minutes added for stoppages. In that time, City scored and there was also a substitution which meant that, by the fifth minute over the allotted ninety, they were playing stoppage time for stoppages in stoppage time, as it were.
Bearing this in mind, there was probably nothing wrong with Owen’s goal. The key to unlocking the mystery of why the two teams were still playing in the sixth minute of stoppage time is in the phrasing. The sign held up by the fourth official at the end of the match refers to the minimum amount of time that the referee should add. The decision on how long exactly to add is left to the referee’s discretion. If he felt that the City goal celebrations were worth adding a minute for and the substitution was worth adding an extra thirty seconds for (which is most likely what happened), then they were still inside what could be defined as a reasonable definition of “stoppage time”. The FIFA guidelines on this definition are deliberately fuzzy, so as to allow referees the utmost discretion on how much time to allow. Here is what they have to say on the matter in their “Laws Of The Game 2009/10” publication:
Allowance is made in either period for all time lost through:
• Assessment of injury to players
• Removal of injured players from the field of play for treatment
• Wasting time
• Any other cause
The allowance for time lost is at the discretion of the referee.
The perception that the two teams would be kept playing until Manchester United scored is, of course, nonsense and has to be treated as such until evidence beyond Manchester United scoring goals in stoppage time is unearthed. The notion that referees are biased towards Manchester United at Old Trafford has its origins in Steve Bruce’s late, late goal against Sheffield Wednesday in 1993, a goal that came after four minutes of stoppage time and is often credited with being one of the defining moments of their first title win since 1967. The truth of the matter is that, rather than getting it wrong on this occasion, officials may even get it wrong most of the rest of the time. How many times do referees blow for full time at exactly the point that the time indicated by the fourth official has elapsed? On a balance of probability (especially when taking into account the likelihood that one team will be trying to run the clock down), too many.
There has been some talk of changing the way that time added on is calculated at the end of the match, with some advocating a minimum period of time followed by the whistle blowing as soon as the ball is considered out of play, as happens in rugby. It’s difficult to see how this would be workable in football, since the ball spends such a high proportion of the match effectively “out of play” anyway. The most likely scenario if such a rule were to be adopted would be at best that the ball would be lumped out of the ground as soon as the stipulated time was up and at worst that players would use even less moral methods than that to make the ball inactive after this point.
Depending on how sympathetic you are feeling towards them, City could stand accused of one of two miscalculations. On the one hand, we could argue that Mark Hughes – who, unsurprisingly, complained long and hard about the amount of stoppage time added – miscalculated if he believed that exactly four minutes only would be added to the ninety. If we are more generous, however, we could argue that City were guilty of following the convention of adding only the time that had been indicated by the officials. What we know for certain is that, even in the immediate build-up to the goal, City had four or five chances to gain and keep possession of the ball and failed to do so. It was this more than an extra ninety seconds that cost them a point at Old Trafford yesterday.