Does Sir Alex Ferguson seriously have a point here?

Sir Alex Ferguson Manchester UnitedSir Alex Ferguson didn’t mind straying into self-parody last weekend after he bemoaned the lack of added that his Manchester United side were given to mount a comeback in their defeat to Tottenham at Old Trafford, and while there may be more than a faint whiff of hypocrisy in the air about his comments, does he have a point that the job shouldn’t be the referee’s to handle anymore?

The job of a referee or match official in today’s game is tantamount to some sort of vindictive self-harming spree; it’s a thankless task and more often than not, while their incompetence may irk and irritate, they’re not doing it on purpose and they don’t really have an agenda, despite the often flawed arguments of those fans that clearly do have one.

Controlling 22 players on a pitch at such a frantic pace while simultaneously trying to add up the correct allotted time is a tricky proposition and could even be seen as an extra burdening pressure on the referee, so should we not be doing more to help them and in the process lighten their load, allowing them to focus on the rigmarole of actually making the sort of decisions that  do matter?

After all, the referee’s job is to make decisions, no matter how arbitrary they may seem and it’s not as if added time at the moment is in any way scientific. Whenever an official holds up the sign with five minutes or four on it, it can often be met with groans by the home supporters or the away fans if the result is or is not going their way, but isn’t it just about what we’ve come to expect? Even in games with little of note to report, token minutes of injury-time are inevitably added on and it’s just become the accepted norm of how things are done.

Ferguson told reporters after the Tottenham defeat: “They gave us four minutes [injury time], that’s an insult to the game. It denies you a proper chance to win a football match. There were six substitutions, the trainer came on, so that’s four minutes right away and the goalkeeper must have wasted about two or three minutes and they took their time at every goal kick. That’s obvious to everyone today and it’s a flaw in the game that the referee is responsible for time keeping. It’s ridiculous that it’s 2012 and the referee still has control of that.”

Setting aside the ridiculous notion that Manchester United received either unfavourable treatment from the official on home turf or that Chris Foy’s performance was down to incompetence or a loose grasp of the rules, which Ferguson is clearly insinuating here, what other alternatives are there really out there at the moment?

The main one would be to adopt a ‘real time’ approach to matches, sort of like they do in the NFL or NBA, where the clock is stopped every time the ball is not in play. Sky Sports used to provide the somewhat useful, often pointless ‘ball in play’ statistic at any given point during one their matches for whenever you clicked on the red button and this system, in its most basic principle, would operate in a broadly similar way.

The average amount of time that the ball is in play during a Premier League match can range from 50-65 minutes, which is hardly the most level of playing fields and fairest of systems around the more you think about it. On any given weekend, Manchester City could play West Ham and have only 50 minutes to win the game, while Manchester United could play Swansea and have 65 minutes to get a result. While these fixtures will of course balance themselves out over the course of a campaign, again, like is the case with added time, it’s far from scientific.

The argument put forward in favour of this system being introduced is that it will greatly reduced time-wasting, gamesmanship and the ability for managers to criticise match officials. Of course, for those of you that watch the NBA and NFL more than me, you’ll have a keener insight into this, but there are always ways for teams to push the rules in seeking to gain an advantage and time-wasting is still common-place in both these sports, as is play-acting with suspected ‘injuries’.

The solution that Ferguson puts forward of a sort of independent time-keeper is again flawed, for what is the referee but an an independent time-keeper and upholder of the rules of the game? It’s a bureaucratic move that simply wouldn’t work and would just shift the blame to a man up in a studio with his finger on a button or stopwatch rather than the man out on the pitch. The blame is not removed, simply the person it’s aimed at.

There’s no groundswell of popular support for a widespread rule change as there is with goal-line technology and FIFA are under no sort of pressure to change the current system, no matter how flawed it is. It would take a game of huge importance and a miscalculation of massive proportions for them to even consider acting on it, such is their inability to lead the game, seemingly content to play catch-up on issues such as this instead.

To my knowledge at least, I oppose any change to the current system, despite its flaws, for the precisely same reason that I’m not for goal-line technology being introduced into the game. What makes sport what it is, it’s very essence, is human error. Take away the human part of the game and it suddenly becomes a much more joyless, soulless form of entertainment much more reminiscent to the American sports which I simply can’t get my head or heart into.

Tradition in itself is not a strong enough reason to keep something around, particularly if it causes needless friction and controversy, much like with the current handshake ritual before games as we’ve seen recently. Nevertheless, at the same time, unless it’s a major problem having an impact on countless results, which I can at least accept goal-line technology would be a step towards eradicating, then it’s perfectly understandable that there’s no pressure to change the current rules as aside from a minute here or there, it’s really just an excuse for a manager to vent at a poor result.

Take away the human element from the game and the healthy debate that comes with it, and it takes us down a slippery slope. While accuracy is of course important, that’s not the reason why we all lose ourselves and ritually immerse ourselves in the game every weekend. Yes it can be hugely frustrating when things don’t go your way, as I’m sure that’s all Ferguson was feeling in his post-match interview after the Tottenham loss, but we shouldn’t trivialise a trivial issue too much. If that sounds somewhat naive and hopelessly romantic, then I’ve been outed, but I simply can’t see what the game has to gain from making a substantial change to the way its currently run over this matter.

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