In May 1994, 40,000 fans saw an Essendon team featuring James Hird, Dustin Fletcher and Mark Thompson play Carlton (Greg Williams, Steven Silvagni, Anthony Koutoufides) at Waverley Park. At three-quarter time, the Bombers led 7.7 to 4.14 and, in a real rarity, the Waverley Park architecture was more attractive than the game it was hosting.
But, as the final quarter progressed, the game gradually became a classic – of a sort. The Bombers held on to a one-point lead – 9.9(63) to a regrettable 7.20(62) – and as the final seconds dwindled, a sequence of throw-ins started, which the Bombers repeatedly smashed back over the boundary line. The Bombers wound the clock down to zero and when the siren went, they and their fans celebrated whilst the Blues and their fans were, I imagine, pretty annoyed.
The annoyance stemmed from two things:
- There was a basis for penalising the Bombers: the deliberate out-of-bounds rule. But in 1994, it was rarely enforced, and when it was, its rarity gave rise to legitimate claims that singling out an isolated instance was unfair. What official would choose this moment to step in and open themselves up to possible criticism and certain abuse?
- Putting the ball out of play was an effective method of eliminating game time, but – unlike, say, creating a sequence of contested packs – was not seen as a legitimate means of eliminating game time. It was a way of finishing the game without accepting the challenge from the opposition to beat them; it was un-football-like. (Unspoken – or spoken, but not clearly defined – is the concept of what football should be: a contest where players attack, carry or kick the ball forward, contest for the ball and try to outscore the opposition. Footballers in the 1980s didn’t kick the ball backwards, play a twelve-man defence or play kick-to-kick to kill the clock. Somewhere deep inside they might have suspected it could be done, but prevailing culture and wisdom dissuaded players from trying. In the 1970s they barely even handballed backwards.)
From the neutral fan’s point of view, Essendon had done something else unpalatable – taken the closing minutes of a close, exciting game and made them less exciting. No chance of an after-the-siren kick, unless the boundary umpire had a ping.
From the early 90s onwards, the AFL was making changes designed to stop this sort of thing happening.
There are two ways to change player behaviour on the field: penalise when it happens (“penalising”), or remove the advantage of the behaviour, making it pointless (“disincentive”). If you take the first path, your officials will need to consistently enforce a rule until players are crystal clear about what they can and can’t do – so it better not involve difficult judgement calls. If you take the second path, players will change their own behaviour. (In soccer, for example, AFL’s problem is partially solved by handing possession to the team not putting the ball out; time is still wasted, but the process can’t be repeated – obviously, a change which if football contemplated it, would completely change the nature of the game.)
In this instance, with the problem defined as “players wasting time late in the game”, both the penalising and disincentive paths were open to the AFL. Ultimately they took a bit from each column, with initiatives over a number of years (apologies for no references): players were instructed at the start of the several subsequent seasons that deliberate out-of-bounds would be more closely policed; knocking a boundary throw-in out of play on the full was penalised automatically; quarters were reduced to 20 minutes, with game clock stopped for throw-ins and ball-ups.
It was a clever set of solutions. In a close game in 2014, Essendon’s 1994 strategy would become a risky one. To kill 30 seconds you’d need to knock about six throw-ins out of play; under the new rules you’d have to knock each ball out on the bounce (knowing that a cluey team would likely park one of their players near the line) and disguise your intentions so as not to give away a free by being judged to have done it deliberately (tough to method-act that after the second or third go). At the same time, it doesn’t put all the onus on the official to make a difficult judgement call in what are likely to be tense circumstances (it’s all very well to say that officials should do their job, but let’s be realistic; there’s plenty of research showing that fans don’t like officials stepping in, and officials are less to intervene in close contests).
Not too obsess too much over Bombers-Blues – but the Mike Fitzpatrick-style time-wasting rule is gone too. Once again, I wish I had the citation (late 90s? Early 2000s?): no need for serious intervention from officials when a player holds the ball and won’t restart play – just call “play on” and let players sort it out. This has the added benefit of not only stopping players killing the clock late, but also delaying when on the attack, waiting to find a leading player inside the fifty-metre line – it’s not fair play for the defence to have to cover leads indefinitely.
As far as I know, there hasn’t been a repeat of May 1994, so this rule change has been very effective (happy to be contradicted – I’d love to know what happened), with the only unintended consequence being that quarters are now longer than they were twenty years ago (citation required – I have no research on this; in an era where soft-tissue issue is a significant concern for the sport, extending each quarter by a couple of minutes is a non-trivial concern).
So, football may have its rules concerns, but time-wasting isn’t one of them. I may be in the minority, but I don’t have a problem with kick-to-kick in the last minutes – it still requires a team to win possession and find an open teammate, both of which it is within their opponents’ power to prevent, and even then only to kill 15 seconds per pass; it feels like “legitimate” football to me, unlike standing still with the ball waiting for an arbitrary intervention from an official, or knocking the ball over the boundary line.
Soccer, meanwhile, does have a time-wasting problem. (I make this judgement on the basis that coaches, players and fans complain about both time-wasting and ineffective time-keeping in soccer (just Google “football time wasting”); they don’t in the AFL and NFL, where the problem has been solved. Try Googling up time-wasting in either league. I’d be fascinated if you find anything other than legitimate possessing of the ball, within prescribed limits, whilst time runs down, in either Australian Rules or gridiron.
But when the issue is brought up, such as in this article, you get a barrage of logical fallacies in response – for example:
“If the clock stopped automatically for each dead ball matches would go on forever, as players would try to get instructions from the bench for each throw or free kick.”
Sorry, but speeding up restarts is a separate issue from making sure the playing time in each game is the same. Keeping an accurate game clock simply removes one incentive to delay restarts. So, let’s not conflate issues, and instead solve them one at a time – starting with quantifying the problem.
As fivethirtyeight reported during the World Cup, “Out-of-play time is five or 10 times as long as the time referees add back on… The second half of the U.S.-Portugal game included 22 minutes and 50 seconds in which the ball was out of play — yet no one was expecting the referee to add 23 minutes at the end.”
There is considerable variation in the time taken to return the ball to play, particularly at injury delays and from free kicks (around 90 seconds for a free kick close to goal), and variation in the number of free kicks in a game. Whilst some of this is subject to cultural indifference – the delays are simply part of the game – the game also has scarce remedy written into its laws. Reflecting its past, where the referee was the only official (which we should note is also its present, at the park-soccer level), the referee is also the timekeeper, and is free to add (or not add) as much time as he sees fit at the end of each half. In theory, this opens the door for any game to be extended to accommodate wasted time, but in practice it merely results in the addition of between one and four minutes, correlated with the number of goals and substitutions which have occurred. Tacitly, it’s accepted that around 15 minutes will be lost each half by waiting for free kicks, or the ball out of play to be restarted.
Where blatant time-wasting is occurring, by its rule-book soccer purports to use both penalising (yellow card) and disincentive (addition of time), but in reality it uses only penalising, and that sparingly. Consider again the official’s dilemma: what is seen as more sensible – waving my hand and appearing assertive at a player who is delaying, or giving a yellow card and seeming over the top? Once one yellow card has been given, the referee is somewhat locked in to continuing every time a delay happens (awkward when the player has already been cautioned – sending someone off for a time-wasting second caution seems pedantic in the extreme). Charting a “sensible” path between keeping the game going, the referee will probably opt for some hand-waving, maybe a caution if it gets really bad (but only in the last few minutes of the match – after several minutes have been wasted cumulatively – by which time who would know when the match should actually end but at least the ref won’t have a notebook full of cautions). The consequence can be that the final stages of an otherwise entertaining game can be marred by delays, frustrated challenges leading to more delays – all of it very much un-soccer-like (although, as often as it happens, Stockholm Syndrome might make us think it’s the essence of the game).
So, this week’s thought experiment is: what would be better, what would suffer, and what would be the unintended consequences if soccer used the disincentive method, or supplemented the penalising method? The table below summarises the rationale, intended and unintended outcomes. I’m sure there are more.
I should point out that the intention of accurate time-keeping, and no time-wasting isn’t to “change the game” as such. Here’s a list of things that I enjoy seeing in soccer, none of which would be removed from the game: a players scores a goal, an attempt at goal is saved, attempt at goal is missed, great pass sets up attacking play, great defence ends some attacking play, great individual skill to make the most of a difficult situation / control ball / keep ball in play / beat another player, great interchange of passing to set up an attack, great interchange of passing to keep possession, a team’s tactics broadly speaking work well to set up continuous attacks, a team defends their lead with desperate defence / a team chases an equalising goal with all-out attack, a team’s tactics broadly speaking work well to blunt opposition attacks.
Here’s a list of things which you might see less of: players standing still, player waits before delivering a throw-in, corner kick, free kick, goal kick, player takes a long time to get up after soft foul, ball boys / girls not returning the ball to visiting teams, players fighting for the ball in the goal net after a still-trailing team has scored.
The main difficulty I can see with these rules changes in soccer that, culturally, time-wasting has been part of the game for a very long time; or that like faking injuries to draw cautions, moving the ball up at free kicks and other cheating-lite strategies: both sides do it, it evens out and is fair. (Of course, if you gave both goalkeepers a baseball bat and license to use it, that would also be fair, but not really in the spirit of the game.)
But, as of 1992 the back-pass ceased being seen as something not worth preserving. Maybe soon time-wasting can be too.
 One bizarre and contrary sidenote to this. The NFL marshalls the game-clock to a pedantic degree, and game re-starts equally so. A team has 40 seconds to start each play, and is penalised for being a single second too slow. However, once the penalty is announced and applied, the referee signal for the clock to start again and other 25 seconds starts running off. This clock re-start doesn’t happen in the last 2 minutes of the first half, or the last 5 of the second half, but I do wonder how many times this could be repeated at some point earlier on by a team wanting to erase a chunk of the game.