ADRIAN RUSSELL: Why Fergie time is always ahead of the game

WITH the smell of drying paint in my nostrils and freshly-laid grass under my feet, I giddily surveyed the new Lansdowne Road stadium when it swung open its just-hung doors recently.

The elegant structure floats above the capital’s skyline and is as impressive inside as out. There’s room for 50,000 sports fans – and space for 50,000 pairs of legs to stretch out towards the sideline in the wide, comfortable rows of British-racing green seats.

The Aviva – if you’re going to call it that – boasts better media facilities than Montrose, Shane MacGowan will no doubt write stanzas about the length of the bars and the pitch doesn’t look too bad either.

However, like Gaudi’s famous Sagrida Familia cathedral in the heart of Barcelona, it’s beautiful but is unfinished. Or seems unfinished, at least.

Like a Celtic Tiger imagining of Hill 16, one end offers a mere 3,000 spaces, which are framed by a glass-like wall behind. Many a drop kick or wayward Leon Best shot will bounce back onto the turf after hitting its transparent tiles.

Compelled to fold the new stadium into an existing patch of expensive real estate in Ballsbridge the architects cut their cloth to measure. But though the flow of the undulating structure is broken at one curva by the shallower end, at least the opposition will feel the warm breath of Ireland’s soccer and rugby fans on their necks when they visit Dublin’s southside.

I spoke with two economists this week who explained – very slowly – research which showed that referees officiating in stadia with running tracks around the pitch are less likely to give hometown decisions and play less added time when the home side is drawing or losing.

Croke Park is magnificent obviously. But when the tenants from D4 lined out in an area too big for their specific purposes, some of the atmosphere was lost. It was only – I’d suggest – the Italy and France games last autumn that saw the football crowd find their full voice at last in Drumcondra.

And as that immeasurable commodity – atmosphere – is leaked into the dark Dublin sky, so too the referee is less affected.

Last month, I wrote of research that Robbie Butler – a lecturer in the economics department of University College Cork – and his brother David, a commerce student in the college had presented to the FAI on the effect a child’s birthday has on participation rates in soccer. The response from readers was impressive.

So when Robbie offered to talk me though their work on so-called Fergie Time, we put on another pot of coffee.

When the Aviva hosts its first soccer game in less than two weeks’ time, Alex Ferguson will be patrolling the touchline. A meaningless friendly against a Damien Richardson-managed Airtricity League XI, the Manchester United boss is unlikely to spring from the bench after 90-odd minutes and point at his famous wrist watch. When he goes – for he must someday – surely the statue they’ll erect of him outside the Stretford End will be cast in a wrist-watch-tapping pose.

Nevertheless, it was this habit of constantly querying additional minutes – and United’s perceived talent for scoring late, late goals, in particular Federico Macheda’s vital winner against Aston Villa – that prompted Robbie to examine the economics of added time.

“What we did is collected data from the BBC website for the 2009-2010 Premier League season,” says Robbie, as he leafs through pages of data he’s thrown on the table in front of us. “It’s all there. So that’s every match in the season, that’s the amount of goals in the game because we thought that was important. It’s all the home teams first — who was winning, drawing, losing on 90.

“What the score was at 90, the margin, the actual outcome, the amount of subs, the amount of added time.

“It took me a few weeks — I should’ve been doing my PhD maybe but I enjoy doing it,” he laughs.

And, after hours of slogging over a hot keyboard and collating data neatly and carefully, the results were instructive.

“What was very interesting was what we found if you look at the tale when the home team is winning; on average, there was four minutes, 22 seconds added. When they were losing there was four minutes, 27 seconds and when they were drawing there was four minutes, 30 seconds. And that’s what you’d hope to find — that suggests there’s no bias. They’re playing roughly the same amount of time whether you’re winning or drawing or losing. So we were really happy when we found that. The next step was asking do the big teams get a bias?”

Robbie and Spurs fan David’s ‘hunch’ is backed up by the stats. “You want to get more time when you’re drawing obviously and look at who we have,” he says pointing at one end of a bar graph, “Arsenal, Man City, United, Chelsea, Tottenham. They get over five minutes when they’re drawing.

“And then look at the graph for when they’re losing — Arsenal, Hull (they had Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink knocked unconscious for 10 minutes and Jimmy Bullard broke his leg – skewing the figures, interestingly), Spurs, Chelsea, Man City, and Liverpool. Again the bigger teams get more time when they’re losing.”

So the myth is true. Fergie time exists.

“Ferguson and (Arsene) Wenger are the ones unhappy with the situation regarding added time, amazingly, and the exact opposite should be true,” says Robbie. “Ferguson is beyond rules. He’s untouchable and to be fair to him, he’s created that himself. He once said ‘we don’t lose a game we just run out of time’.”

But it takes the sands in United’s hourglass that bit longer to run out, we now know for sure. Twitter: @adrianrussell


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