Fergie dropped the ball

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Manchester United manager Alex Fergusons behaviour during his teams tense 4-3 victory over Newcastle has come under the spotlight. Photo by Clive Brunskill

During a difficult few weeks for Mark Clattenburg earlier this season, Sir Alex Ferguson’s support, and indeed his implied criticism of the referee’s accusers at Chelsea, was helpful.

For all the noise that surrounds English football, when Ferguson speaks people tend to listen.

This is precisely why, however, the Manchester United manager’s behaviour during his team’s tense 4-3 victory over Newcastle on Boxing Day was so unhelpful when the gap between those who play the game and those who try to keep order seems to be widening.

Ferguson’s primary responsibility is to his football club, of course.

If he feels — as he did two days ago — that a referee’s decision has gone against his team, then he is quite within his rights to say so.

There are, however, ways and means, and his haranguing of referee Mike Dean and his colleagues in the wake of Newcastle’s controversial second goal at Old Trafford saw him standing squarely on the wrong side of the line.

Players, remember, take their lead from their manager. Supporters take theirs from the team. And so it goes on, all the way down the football food chain until the 10-year-old on the park verbally abuses the referee of his Saturday morning game.

The connection — indeed, the responsibility — really is that straightforward. It is four years since the FA launched their ‘Respect’ campaign in an effort to encourage tolerance, understanding and dialogue between all parties. In the interim, nothing has fundamentally changed and here was the evidence.

Ferguson is not alone. Football’s ill-treatment of its officials is so well established as to be almost a tradition and the likes of Tony Pulis, Mark Hughes and Alan Pardew have all been notable offenders. Indeed, an hour after the Scot pursued Dean on to the field after half-time in Manchester, his rival from across town Roberto Mancini accused referee Kevin Friend of eating too much over Christmas.

A throwaway gag, perhaps, but one designed to embarrass and question the man who had overseen City’s defeat at Sunderland at a time when the Italian should perhaps have been asking questions closer to home.

It all looked and sounded rather ugly and yesterday brought no relief as we discovered, to nobody’s surprise, that Ferguson’s behaviour would not form part of Dean’s report to the FA.

This is the bit where responsibility needs to be shared a little.

Dean, by all accounts, believes Ferguson didn’t cross the line of what is acceptable when he entered the field before the start of the second half to complain about Newcastle’s goal. Why is this? In moments like this, one of the Premier League’s most experienced and respected officials should be brave enough to set an example.

As for Ferguson’s subsequent badgering of linesman Jake Collin and fourth official Neil Swarbrick, Dean apparently didn’t see it as his back was turned. Why, though, didn’t one of them tell him? They wear microphones and earpieces for precisely these moments.

Why, also, did Collin or Swarbrick not inform Dean that Ferguson spent much of a fractious second period standing yards outside his technical area? These matters are clearly their responsibility.

Perhaps they, too, were caught up in the emotion of the afternoon. Maybe their minds become scrambled and poor decisions are the result. Or maybe they are nervous about upsetting Ferguson. Old Trafford is the grandest domestic setting in English football and all officials crave the opportunity to work there. Those who have upset the United manager have sometimes waited a while to return.

Martin Atkinson, for example, annoyed Ferguson during an FA Cup loss to Portsmouth in March 2008. Ferguson was charged by the FA for his post-match comments (he was later cleared) but the real victim was the official, who was not asked to work at Old Trafford again until the very end of that year.

Certainly, this is key to the issue. Our referees and their assistants must take charge of the big games on the big stages confident that their performances, rather than people’s reactions to them, will count when the next match lists are being put together.

On Boxing Day, Ferguson didn’t cover himself in glory but neither, it must be said, did Dean.

The majority of his decisions were correct — including the one he made in awarding the controversial Newcastle goal — but it looks from the outside as though he allowed Ferguson to go too far in the moments before the start of the second half and has therefore done the game, and his profession, a disservice.

Ferguson, for his part, knows how great is his responsibility. He probably won’t have enjoyed looking at the replay on Wednesday night.

His sympathy for Clattenburg earlier this season was genuine. He did his bit.

In the heat of battle on a wet Manchester Wednesday this Christmas, though, the United manager lost his way a little and those paid to keep him, and all the others, in check have now allowed him to get away with it.

***

The FA are unable to take action against Sir Alex Ferguson because they and their stakeholders, including FIFA, agreed not to act retrospectively when an incident is seen by at least one match official.

If the FA want to change their stance on retrospective action — something they are not allowed to do during a season — it has to be agreed with Fifa, Uefa, the Premier League, the Football League, the PFA, the League Managers Association and the Professional Game Match Officials Board. – Daily Mail


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