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by Mike Hopper
20 09 10

The little matter of referees and timekeeping has been a massive source of controversy for as long as I can remember, but even more so in recent years with live football on the television. There is no longer any hiding place for officials and of course, last season when Martin Atkinson played 7minutes added time in the Manchester derby having only signalled five will not be forgotten in a hurry, especially in the sky blue half of that city.

That day the official justified the extra, extra time by saying that he'd added on more because of excessive goal celebrations. Plausible, I guess, though since only two goals were scored in the time added on, how long were the celebrations of the two goals?

Of course how many times do decisions like that come back to haunt you? Certainly David Moyes was not especially pleased when the referee added a mere 40 second on for two goals scored in extra time recently in the Everton -Man. Utd match. And the official that afternoon? None other than Martin Atkinson.

So did Moyes have a point?

And than a week later Sunderland scored in the tenth second after the time added on had been completed. Nothing happened in that period to justify extra, extra time, declared an angry Arsene Wenger. Well, I suppose he would say that wouldn't he, but there are some interesting side issues here which are well worth exploring.

Many pundits have been pushing for an independent time-keeper to sit in the stands, rugby style, and stop the watch accordingly. Of course in both codes once the signal times up, the game then goes on until play is halted for say, a line-out. So why not in football?

Well it would seem that soccer referees guard their time-keeping responsibility extremely possessively. They have repeatedly balked at the notion that it should be somebody else's job. So why?

A clue to that came in the Merseyside derby three or four years back at Anfield when Rob Styles was in the middle. With Liverpool leading but down the ten men, there was an argument between the official and some of the visiting team. Play had been stopped and at which point one Everton player came over and demanded he added time on. To which Styles clearly stated with a visible shaking of the head that he wasn't going to add time on because the delay was entirely due to the blues' protests.

And then there is the morality of adding time on. After an away side has been using every time-wasting ruse in the book to hold play up in an effort to get a draw, the home side scores with a couple of minutes left. Should the visitors actually gain more time because of their gamesmanship? I suspect that referees might well want to have enough scope and flexibility to use their own judgement in such a scenario.

You think not? Well, that kind of flexibility is already in play. Refs have, I hear, been given advice by their lead singer Mike Riley that to prevent controversy they should always attempt to blow when the game is in a somewhat neutral situation (For those of you old enough, memories of Clive Thomas blowing when a corner was in flight and was about to hit the net back in a long-ago World Cup game). That even if it means playing a few seconds over.

Which you could argue is exactly what Phil Dowd was doing at Sunderland. But then what about Martin Atkinson at Goodison? Man Utd took a corner and when the ball was cleared Everton broke, four against two; they were in full flight and indeed were arriving at the Manchester penalty area with an overlapping player in Jagielka, when Atkinson blew for full time.

Theoretically, the referee was well within his rights -as indeed they always are when it comes to time-keeping. But it was entirely understandable why David Moyes was so upset even, though in reality, he didn't have a leg to stand on.

But what about Wenger? It does seem that the two officials in question clearly adopted totally opposite stances in similar situations. I'd hate to think that our referees became robotic in their styles, but blatant inconsistency, it seems to me, does absolutely nothing to enhance their standing or make for everyone respecting them.

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