Last week Alex Ferguson was given a three match touchline ban for comments he made about referee Martin Atkinson:
“It’s hard to take, we didn’t deserve that. You hope you get a really strong referee in games like this. It was a major game for both clubs and you want a fair referee, you know… you want a strong referee anyway and we didn’t get that. I must tell you – I must say that when I saw who was refereeing, I feared the worst. Decisions again, it’s been three years in a row now down here.”
This also instigated an already-suspended two game ban for comments made about Alan Wiley:
“He was walking up the pitch for the second goal needing a rest. He wasn’t fit enough for a game of that standard. The pace of the game demanded a referee who was fit.”
What is clear firstly is that Fergie deserved punishment. Referees make mistakes, this much is clear. And their mistakes are analysed and pored over, replayed an infinite amount of times to a worldwide audience. When Jermain Defoe missed an open goal for Spurs against West Ham on Saturday, we saw three replays of the incident (in total both during and after the game). When the assistant referee incorrectly awarded a penalty to Liverpool on Sunday, Sky showed the replay an incredible 22 times. How much is Defoe paid, and how much the referee?
But what Fergie did is lower than this. He attacked two referees for aspects of their character that were both hurtful and untrue. The Manchester United manager did not call Atkinson a cheat outright, but for our greatest manager to even suggest that a top level referee was in some way biased or skewed against his team makes a mockery of both the Respect campaign and the appreciation officials deserve for their thankless task.
Bribery and corruption within officialdom is the last taboo, because if proved, it undermines the game itself. How can we be passionate about our club if the players are not in control of the destiny. Watching football simply becomes watching Eastenders, dipping in and out to merely keep tabs on a predestined outcome.
And so Ferguson was punished. In the weakest possible way.
The FA rules on a touchline ban state that a manager is prevented from occupying his technical area during the match. So what? Ferguson is able to arrive at the ground with his team. He can then assist in the warm up, giving advice where necessary. He then delivers the pre-match teamtalk, and sends the players out. He can speak to the players again at half-time, and throughout the match can deliver instructions to the players through constant communication with Mike Phelan (such as sending on Dimitar Berbatov to score the winner). He can sit possibly ten metres away from his normal position.
In fact, it is not unthinkable to think of the ban as almost an advantage. Firstly, technology can be used when watching from the stands, allowing Ferguson to have an insight into exactly what ttactics will prove successful. Secondly, and clearly the most important, it creates a siege mentality around the club, ‘us against the world’ syndrome if you will. When Jonny Evans went through Stuart Holden on Saturday and received a deserved red card, United fans sung “Fergie’s right, the refs are shite”.
Now call me old-fashioned, but punishments are supposed to instill a sense of “Oh dear, I shouldn’t do that again”. Ferguson should be chastising himself for potentially derailing United’s title challenge.
The Scottish FA impose their touchline bans by disallowing access to the tunnel or technical area from an hour before kick off until after the game. UEFA’s rules go even deeper, stating:
“A team manager/coach who is suspended from carrying out his function may follow the match for which he is suspended from the stands only. He may not enter in the dressing room, tunnel or technical area before or during the match, nor may he communicate with his team.”
Does something not need to change? If a Respect campaign is to be successful, should we not be clamping down on the highest-profile offenders? If a manager knows the rules, and breaks them, should he not be banned from communicating with his players?
As a personal opinion, I would allow the manager to pick the team and deliver a pre-match teamtalk. He should then be placed in the stands and allowed to watch the game on television, with an FA official, if necessary. No communication should be allowed with his players or peers until after the game.
Ferguson should be receiving criticism for his irresponsible and inaccurate allegations, not just from journalists but also internally. His misdemeanours should result in suitable reprimands. This will simply not happen whilst our ‘bans’ are in place in name only.
Until then, and adapting a chant sung by the home fans themselves at Old Trafford:
“They’re Man United, they’ll do what they want.”