Do we need the fourth official’s board?

The Manchester derby this weekend has sparked up a debate about the amount of injury time allowed at the end of the match by Martin Atkinson. The Yorkshire referee signalled a minimum of four minutes time to be allowed for stoppages, via the electronic board of the fourth official, yet the game was into the sixth added minute when Michael Owen scored the winning goal. With the referee allowed to add time on at his discretion for various incidents, it is a subjective matter as to whether the game should have lasted in to the 96th minute or not. What we need to be more objective about now is whether we need the fourth official to indicate publicly the amount of time to be added on in the first place.

The board used to indicate stoppage time has an obvious limitation. A single figure display allows only for whole minutes to be displayed. The laws of mathematics encourage figures to be rounded up or down to a whole number but the use of the word ‘minimum’ would make it fraudulent to round up four and a half minutes and call it five minutes. Therefore, the scenario where a board indicates the number four could effectively mean that the referee intended to add on almost five minutes. If the referee has kept time properly, and stopped his watch for genuine amounts of time rather than a neat 30 seconds here, a minute there, the exact figure of time still to play should rarely be a whole minute. In the case of the Manchester derby, it could be argued that Atkinson intended to play closer to five minutes rather than four, meaning only another 30 seconds was needed to explain the timing of Owen’s goal. With United making a substitution during stoppage time, an occurrence that FIFA encourage the adding of additional time for, there would have been enough valid time for Owen’s goal to be considered within fair time. Add in other minor stoppages in the additional period and Atkinson has a defence for continuing the match as long as he did.

The point here though is not about whether Atkinson was right or wrong in this particular instance, but instead what merit there is in indicating the amount of time to be added on. This is a relatively new feature of the professional game, one born out of the television age rather than serving any traditional purpose. Letting the crowd and viewing audience know how long is left to play can add a sense of excitement and anticipation. Knowing that your team still has another four minutes to find that elusive equaliser or winning goal can change the mood of the crowd, which can have an effect on a team’s performance.

However, it more often than not leads to controversy, irritation and differences of opinion based on a team’s position going into stoppage time and the outcome of the game. Mark Hughes and his Manchester City team would no doubt have found room to complain about the amount of time added on regardless of how much was indicated. Yet giving a visible indicator of four minutes, when it is easily forgotten that this is just a minimum amount, means that there is ammunition for complaint when the game reaches its 6th minute of time added on. Sometimes it seems like time has to be added on just to give the fourth official something to display. Even in the most uneventful game, it is very rare to see no added time indicated, even in a substitute-less first half.

To continue displaying the amount of added time in this fashion requires an adaptation of the technology used. Displaying a more accurate amount of time via a board that features space for part-minutes, for example four minutes 40 seconds, would be a start. Alternatively, adopting a rugby style method of timekeeping, where the clock is stopped and then the game continues until it has reached the total 80 minutes, might work. Instead of adding time on to the 90 minutes, the stoppages are not included on the clock and the game runs until the clock then reaches 90. It might only be a change in the way the time is displayed, but it would alleviate some controversy like that seen yesterday. Another idea is for the referee to visually indicate stoppages inside the already allocated stoppage time, so that there is more anticipation of exactly when the game will end. The simplest solution though would just be to scrap the fourth official’s board and to trust the referee to end the game when time is up and let teams fight to the death habitually. People will still find room to complain as they have done for all eternity, but at least the referee would not be supplying extra bullets for his own execution.

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