Ferocious Fergie

Referee Mike Dean (left) awards New castle United a goal for which he faced the ire of Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson.-AP Referee Mike Dean (left) awards New castle United a goal for which he faced the ire of Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson.

That Ferguson is a formidably effective manager with a long succession of honours including two European Champions League to his great credit is unarguable. It is also remarkable that in this post Bosman freedom of contract age, he has managed to maintain his formidable authority over his players. By Brian Glanville.

At long last this season Alex Ferguson, long serving and famously successful manager of Manchester United, graciously assents to being interviewed post matches by BBC television. Having for years refused to appear, as the result of a BBC Panorama programme, nothing to do at all with BBC sport, which investigated the activities of the so called Elite Agency run by his son Jason. How you might ask could he get away with this when it was surely incumbent on all Premiership club managers to appear on BBC Match of the Day TV after their games? The answer seemed all too clearly to be that the Premiership was simply too nervous, even intimidated to do anything about it. The ever formidable and often explosive Scotsman being a law, or a lack of it, unto himself.

Recently, however, there has been yet another Fergusonian explosion, and it appears that he will escape once again without any kind of sanction or sequel. It occurred after United at Old Trafford had won a hectic match against Newcastle by 4-3 having several times been behind. Ferguson, once a worker in a Glasgow shipyard and an effective if combative centre forward for Rangers — his elbows were supposedly put to good purpose — was incensed by the decision by the timid Mike Dean to award the Magpies a goal when an attacker was clearly in an offside position.

Fergie ranted and roared not only at the hapless Dean but at his assistants, even following the referee briefly on to the pitch still expostulating when the teams took the field after half-time. The Football Association, however, announced that there was nothing they could do about it since the ruling was that if a referee himself had failed to report such an infringement as Dean so bizarrely even inexplicably did, there was nothing further to be done.

The word was, however, that Dean, like other referees at Old Trafford in the past, had been intimidated; afraid to report the Ferguson tirade for fear that he would get no more appointments at Old Trafford in the future. Which in turn raises the question of how and why any individual club can veto the appointment of a chosen referee, which in practice they seem to be able to do.

Ferguson’s outburst in itself was wholly indefensible but did he have a point; or did Milke Dean? The curious and contradictory ruling on offside now is that even if a player be in an offside position he cannot be given offside if he is not “interfering with the play”. Which recalls the words of another robust Scottish manager the late Bill Shankly, “If he isn’t interfering with the play what is he doing on the field?”

To many, not least to myself, it seems a daft confusing and illogical ruling, but like it or not it does exist and Mike Dean was correct in his interpretation of it.

This of course was by no means the first time that Ferguson has excoriated a referee. It wasn’t so long ago that his behaviour was bitterly and comprehensively criticised by Rafa Benitez when he was still the manager of Liverpool. And there is suggestion that the FA did not simply have to let sleeping dogs, or ranting Fergusons lie; that they might have devised a charge on the lines of his bringing the game into disrepute. Meanwhile Dean has been widely accused of timidity.

Mention of Jason Ferguson and Elite revives memories of what might be called the Tim Howard affair. After the American goalkeeper had played splendidly for his country in France in the so called Confederations Cup, Ferguson wanted to sign him for United. Initially the rigid laws of qualification being what they were he was technically ineligible for a permit in that he had not played three quarters of recent international games for the USA, the way having been blocked by Brad Friedel. On appeal to the Department of Employment committee however Howard was duly cleared to join United.

A newspaper subsequently revealed that in consequence of his signing, United had paid a substantial sum of money to an obscure Italo-Swiss agent for allegedly seeing that the appeal was successful. It was reported that most of this payment was then transmitted to British football agent Mike Hammond based in Monaco and then passed on to Jason Ferguson’s Elite. The fact being, one I knew so well as a member of that Appeals Committee which met every month at Mayfair, central London hotel, that no agent was ever allowed anywhere near our deliberations. Though I was not in attendance when Howard received his permission, I knew perfectly well how the system unquestionably worked.

It also became known that when a young player joined United, and was already committed to an agent, Ferguson brought pressure on him in certain cases to leave that agency and instead join Jason Ferguson at Elite. Which, in fact, has subsequently ceased to exist.

That Ferguson is a formidably effective manager with a long succession of honours including two European Champions League to his great credit is unarguable.

It is also remarkable that in this post Bosman freedom of contract age, he has managed to maintain his formidable authority over his players. It was the French revolutionary Saint Just who observed, “You can’t govern without blood on your hands,” and figuratively at least, Ferguson has always been inclined to confrontation. It was evident enough in his days at the famously resourceful and innovative period in charge of Aberdeen, whom he transformed from a marginalised Scottish club into one capable of winning the European Cup Winners Cup beating Real Madrid in the final.

At United in fact he made an uneasy beginning and had Martin Edwards, a chairman deeply unpopular with the United fans who made vast sums of money out of the club only to be fleeced by a confidence trickster, to thank for staying in his role. The tide turned when he guided United, like Aberdeen before them, to the winning of the Cup Winners Cup.

When it comes to mind games, Ferguson has been a stable practitioner of that art. Used to particular purpose when Kevin Keegan was managing a Newcastle United team well ahead at the top of the Championship. But Keegan seemed to be demoralised by Ferguson’s criticisms and dismissive statements. He and his team fell sharply away and it was United who went on to win the title.

Then there was the controversial case of the racehorse Rock of Gibraltar owned by the Irish millionaire JP McManus and John Magnier. They generously allowed Ferguson to race it and pocket the winning but refused to give him breeding rights. He bitterly objected but backed down ahead of an Irish court case. For once giving up and in.