When BBC last August contentiously discontinued its custom of reading out the classified results on Saturdays at five o’clock, one of the reasons cited was that it was eating into their coverage and build-up of another Premier League match starting at 5.30pm.
And so it was farewell to those distinctive intonations famously established by James Alexander Gordon. With everyone now able to follow every goal and almost every kick on their iPhones, Sports Report invariably had to go the same way as the pink pages. By virtue of the Beeb’s powers-that-be opting to be as pragmatic as George Graham in his pomp there could be only one result: Modernity and the 5.30pm game 1, Tradition and five o’clock Nil.
Times change. But some times weren’t – aren’t – supposed to. Although there are now fewer games “cross-channel” that start at 3pm every Saturday, there’s still a glut of them that you can set your clock by, time that toilet break, boil that kettle. The teams will be heading down the tunnel somewhere between quarter to four and ten to. Which means they’ll be back out a few minutes after the big hand has gone past four. Which means their game will be over somewhere between ten to and five to five. They’re certainly all finished by 5 for Jeff Stelling & Co to rattle through.
At least up to now.
Had the Beeb bowed to Mark Lawrenson and others who bemoaned the ditching of Sports Report as “an own goal” only for such a U-turn to be followed shortly thereafter with the Premier League and Football League adopting the added-time rules FIFA have landed on us at this World Cup, any stay of execution for the classified results would have been short-lived. Not because of any game starting at 5.30pm, but because the majority of 3pm kickoffs still wouldn’t be over by 5pm.
In almost every sport over the last decade we’ve become accustomed to seeing a considerably greater amount of added time and greater measures to tackle any wasting of time.
Maybe it’s because this column is from Cork but it still grates that in the 1999 All Ireland football final Michael Curley played only a minute of additional time which was taken up by Seán Boylan craftily bringing on Tommy Dowd as a sub; not only did the introduction of a favourite son who was just back from a cruciate injury lift the Meath crowd and team, it ate up whatever time Cork had left to manufacture an equalising goal.
Neither have we forgotten that in Cork’s sole game in the 2001 hurling championship there wasn’t a single second of injury-time played in their one-point loss to Limerick. We’ll conventionally overlook that there was barely any added time played in the 1999 hurling final, another one-point game. In those days anything beyond two minutes of added time was an eternity; if you saw the number three flash up on any fourth official’s board you assumed the full-back was being replaced.
Nowadays elite GAA teams are built to play six, seven minutes of added time.
"I now have a thing in my head where I want the referee to play an extra 10 minutes all the time,” Philly McMahon wrote in his 2017 book. Supporters have become conditioned to it too – at least five or six minutes extra anyway at the end of the game. Substitutions, injuries, some blatant time-wasting, our eyes and finally our clocks are more attuned to them.
But seven or eight more minutes at the end of a first half? And possibly 12 or 14 more after the initial 90 has been played? The World Cup has been a quantum leap – and a step too far.
It’s only right that football’s guardians – if you can call Fifa such a thing – are being vigilant and proactive in tackling one of the insidious blights on the game – the gamesmanship, the feigning of injury, killing of momentum, the wasting of time.
“If you want more active time,” FIFA referee committee chairman Pierluigi Collina explained, “we need to be ready to see this kind of additional time added on.”
As ridiculous as it was to foist such a radical measure practically unannounced on everyone, it was based on logic and evidence. According to Soccermetrics Research, the average effective playing time in the 2018 World Cup was 52-58 minutes whereas at the 2014 World Cup it was 60-67 minutes. The supporter was seeing less active time and more wasting of time. And that obviously was worthy of an intervention.
What seems to be overlooked by everyone in this debate is that it’s possible to be against time-wasting while believing we can have too much active time.
The Premier League ref Mark Clattenberg believes football should go the same way as basketball. Stop the clock for everything. In every adult basketball league outside the NBA you’ve 40 minutes of active time. In the NBA itself it’s 48 minutes. Clattenberg believes in football it should be 60 minutes. But the question is: how long would that typically take?
Watching an NBA game, you can be 15, 20 minutes out on when you’d estimated or hoped it’d be over. One of the traditional upsides of football has been that you’ve been able to calculate, give or take a few minutes, when it’ll be finished by. When to boil that kettle. What time the kids can stay up until and then go to bed. Even when there’s the possibility of extra-time or penalties, they’re scenarios you’ve factored in.
But whatever about us sitting in the stands or on our couch, there’s only so long the players should be out there.
It seems ironic that at a time when other sports are increasingly aware of how decreasing our attention spans are that football wants to go on even longer. For sure it is the global game, our appetite for it seemingly infinite. But you can have too much of a good thing, or at least a good thing can go on too long.
The prevailing sense seems to be that few domestic leagues will adopt Fifa Time going forward; that as imperfect as the sport’s traditional timekeeping has been, you can or should only account for so much. A team that has conceded a fifth goal; does it really need anyone tut-tutting and totting up how long the obvious victors are taking to celebrate and glory in their latest strike?
Yet there’s merit in FIFA Time. The less gamesmanship, the less deliberate timewasting we have, the better.
So perhaps the question football should start asking itself is this: instead of the staple 45 minutes per half we’ve known all our lives, it should be looking at 40. That way you still save us the timewasting but also all the added time. And maybe you still get in that cup of tea and toilet break just before knowing all the day’s results at five o’clock.