Do Premier League Refs Favor Manchester United?

Joe GSenior Writer ISeptember 22, 2009

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 20:  Michael Owen of Manchester United celebrates scoring the winning goal in injury time with team mate Wayne Rooney during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Manchester City at Old Trafford on September 20, 2009 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

It's safe to say that most football fans have, at one point or another, been told that the Premier League referees favor Manchester United.

Supporters of losing sides have been crying foul for years, complaining that referees never award the visitors a penalty at Old Trafford, or that refs like Mike Riley and Howard Webb exhibit a pro-Manchester United bias.

According to a recent study by the Guardian, those rumors might not be too far from the truth.

There is no evidence to suggest that United have been unfairly given penalties at home—not in this study. Instead, the Guardian's statisticians focused on United's penchant for scoring late. Specifically, in stoppage time.

After Michael Owen hit a controversial winner in the sixth minute of stoppage time against Manchester City when a minimum of four minutes had been given, Mark Hughes felt an investigation was warranted.

In his post-match remarks, Hughes made mention of historical timekeeping inaccuracies at Old Trafford.

"Historically it has happened before," Hughes said. "I was on teams here who had that benefit and I never thought it was an issue because I actually thought we had a bad time by referees. Since I left I have probably changed my view."

Understandably, Hughes and his squad were upset by Owen's match-winner. The four minutes of stoppage time shown by the fourth official is only a minimum guideline, but very rarely will a referee exceed that amount by a minute and a half.

In fact, Martin Atkinson ended up adding a full seven minutes of extra time—an excessive amount by even the most liberal of standards.

In the wake of the liberal dash of stoppage time received by United, the Guardian—in conjunction with the the Opta Statistics Bureau—decided to take a look at the stoppage time in Manchester United matches at Old Trafford since the 2006-2007 season.

What they uncovered will not raise the Citizens' spirits.

United were ahead after 90 minutes in 48 matches over that time span. In those matches, they were given an average of 191.35 seconds of stoppage time, roughly three minutes.

In the 12 matches that United were behind after 90 minutes, they received over a minute of extra stoppage time, an average of 257.17 seconds. That's four and a quarter minutes of stoppage time, folks. More than 65 seconds better than the extra time given when United was ahead.

This season, the discrepancy is nearly two minutes. In the two matches they led after 90 minutes, the referee added an average of 304 seconds, just a smidge over five minutes. On Sunday, United was given 415 seconds, just five seconds shy of seven minutes.

This is a disturbing trend, to say the least.

There have long been rumors of referees being intimidated into making decisions by the Old Trafford faithful. Is this study the manifestation of that intimidation?

One extra minute might not seem like a significant amount of time, but in the harried exchanges between a team desperately defending and a team searching for an equalizer or a winner, that can mean an extra couple of attacks. Two, maybe three extra chances to grab that valuable goal.

In a game where matches can be decided by a single shot, that is a wealth of chances.

Judging by the numbers, it seems like Hughes has a legitimate gripe. Would Manchester United be able to score as many late goals as they do without these extra seconds tacked onto their matches?

It's a legitimate question, and United's opponents at Old Trafford deserve an answer.