The Ferguson affair

Published : Nov 28, 2009 00:00 IST

Sir Alex Ferguson has always lived by his own rules and more often than not things have worked in his favour, writes Brian Glanville.

The recent decision by the Football Association disciplinary committee to punish Manchester United’s combustible manager Alex Ferguson for his criticism of Alan Wiley, who refereed United’s home 2-2 draw against modest Sunderland, has led to furious controversy. A four-match suspension from the touchline with two of those games suspended, plus a £20,000 fine. The first such sanction of its kind and very much the first of its kind for Ferguson though, of co urse, he has been in trouble and has been fined before. Indeed, it sometimes seems that a Manchester United game which doesn’t end with Ferguson crying injustice is a rarity.

In this instance, it might seem to the neutral observer that Ferguson didn’t have a leg to stand on. In a word, he impugned Wiley for being unfit, for not being able to keep up with the play as a Continental referee (which, you might ask?) would. That he had to take occasional breathers, prolonging the periods in which, for example, he had booked a player.

Fair or unfair? Surely unfair in the extreme, since statistics subsequently released showed that far from being short of breath, Wiley had kept with the play just as well as the majority of the players themselves. Peter Griffiths, a Queen Council barrister, who presided over the hearing, made no bones about it. The remarks, he inveighed, “were not just improper but were grossly improper, and wholly inappropriate. He should never have said what he did.”

The sentence, though accepted by Ferguson, did not however in any way satisfy prospect, the referees’ union who dismissed the sentence as “a slap on the wrist” and threatened legal proceedings on behalf of a devastated Wiley.

Griffiths duly paid tribute to Ferguson’s outstanding managerial record in the game, the long, long list of titles won in England and in Europe. But this could hardly be thought to be any kind of palliative.

So to the violently conflicting factions to the sentence. For Graham Poll, a former leading English referee of huge experience, it was “a total sham. Too weak, no deterrent against future comments and just what I expected. The FA have wilted so often in the face of celebrity no one can be surprised their hands were tied in this case…. This is not the first referee to have been let down by the FA and until they change their disciplinary procedures, he certainly will not be the last.”

An opinion emphatically not shared by the leading football writer, Henry Winter, who has thundered, “When certain people sign up to work for the Football Association, they seem to take the hypocrite oath. They berate and banish Sir Alex Ferguson for a stupid comment about a slightly chubby referees and cravenly ignore all the good the Manchester United manager has done, all the glory he has brought to English football, all the talent he has helped mould for the cause of St. George…. Ferguson’s verdict was undoubtedly insulting and iniquitous. Referees, even those like Wiley slightly lacking sleekness (but surely not stamina, one asks) deserve respect….

The FA seems to have been swayed by a Union man (Alan Leighton of Prospect) stamping his feet and spouting off on the airwaves…. “Ferguson should show more respect to referees — and football should show more respect to Ferguson.”

There is some case, perhaps, to say that football, in the shape of officialdom, has shown excessive respect to the choleric Ferguson. Not least in the case of the Premier League, which for years has let him escape from giving any Press conference after a match. There is a certain ambiguity here over whether this is in fact obligatory, but with only very occasional exceptions, every other Premiership club manager turns up to talk to the journalists. When it comes to European Cup games, Fergie is obliged to give interviews, which indeed he does, sometimes even at half-time, for which, it’s rumoured he is richly rewarded. Meanwhile, for years he has pursued a feud with the BBC TV to whom, again, he will not talk. There was a bone of contention it seems over the function of his son, in the Elite footballers’ agency, from which he has subsequently withdrawn. It was, around that time, alleged that Ferguson was trying to persuade his younger players to join Elite, rather than remain with their original agency.

One remembers all too well the furious verbal assault which Ferguson made on the hapless and benign BBC TV commentator, John Motspon who, in obedience to his producer, asked him, whether he intended to punish his aggressive Irish midfielder Roy Keane, sent off on that afternoon. At which Ferguson unleashed a tirade of abuse, insisting that he had agreed with the BBC that the episode should not be mentioned; Motspon being the harmless recipient. The BBC themselves did not show the rant that evening, but other stations got hold of it and did.

It would be foolish to underestimate Ferguson’s inspired longevity and there are those who would go way back in time and assert that his finest achievements came when he managed Aberdeen in Scotland, transforming them splendidly from a mediocre club overshadowed by mighty Celtic and Rangers, into glorious winners of the European Cupwinners’ Cup against Real Madrid and the finest team in Scotland. Manchester United, however, duly brushed his team aside when they then met in the European Cup; though United then made him their new manager.

How nearly he lost his job early on; only to be saved by goals scored in the FA Cup by young Mark Robins, now manager of Barnskey, who says that Fergie never thanked him! Then came triumph in the Cup Winners Cup, and the rest had been largely splendour.

Though when United did at last reconquer the European Cup in Barcelona against a superior Bayern Munich, it was arguably despite Fergie’s mistaken tactics rather than thanks to his wisdom. Very late goals by subs in Solksjaer and Sheringham giving his team the title. But among his glittering successes was his bargain acquisition of Eric Cantona from Leeds and his shrewd, careful handling of a phenomenal player who would transform his team.

Other odd episodes, at times. Such as the acquisition of the USA keeper, Tim Howard, after his brilliance in the French Confederations Cup. The paying of a vast bonus to an obscure Italo-Swiss agent for helping to get Howard a work permit when I, two years a member of the Government appeals committee, knew no agent who ever got near us. Much of that money went on to an English agent in Monaco and from there to Ferguson junior at Elite.

When Fergie fell out with the millionaire racehorse owners, Irish Magnier and McManus, over breeding rights in a horse called Rock of Gibraltar, they drew up a list of some 100 questions to be put to him, in case that they’ve given him share in the horse’s winnings, but that he wanted breeding rights, too. I hoped then the full Howard story would emerge: but Fergie’s sons reportedly persuaded him not to take his case to an Irish court.

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