United's woolly-gloved need more protection

The Manchester United manager's voice is powerful enough to set agendas and manipulate headlines, very often to distract from the failings of his own team, writes Daniel Taylor.

Gary Megson was desperately trying to avoid saying anything critical of his "mate" but the Bolton Wanderers manager had a duty to defend his team from Sir Alex Ferguson's allegations that they had tried to kick Manchester United out of the game.

What, he asked, did Ferguson expect in a local derby, facing the Premier League's third-from-bottom team in the kind of weather Thor himself might have invoked? "We have to compete and I am not going to criticise them for competing," he argued. "I've got nothing to apologise for."

If Megson seemed nonplussed, it was with good reason. His team had just battled their way to his first victory since replacing Sammy Lee at the Reebok Stadium, yet all the talk was of it not being done through legitimate means.

This is what happens when Ferguson embarks on one of those classic diatribes. His voice is powerful enough to set agendas and manipulate headlines, very often to distract from the failings of his own team. The Scot is a master of the diversion technique and he was at it again, when even the most squeamish spectator would have struggled to pick out more than one bad tackle in the entire game.

Ferguson's complaint was that the Bolton tactics were, at best, primitive and, at worst, dangerous. Others would argue that the reasons for United's poorest performance of ? 2007 stemmed from their inability to pass the ball with the usual zip, the debilitating effects of being without Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo, the erratic finishing of Carlos Tevez and, in the absence of the injured Nemanja Vidic, Gerard Pique making a pig's ear of some basic defending before Nicolas Anelka turned in the winning goal for Bolton.

Contrary to what has been said, it had nothing to do with Kevin Davies roughing up Patrice Evra early on or with the referee, Mark Clattenburg, not giving United the "protection" Ferguson wanted.

Ferguson accused Clattenburg of allowing the opening 45 minutes to become a "shambles." His assistant, Carlos Queiroz, called it "intimidation football" and Ferguson made the point so forcibly at half-time that he was required to watch the rest of the match from the stands and is likely to get a Football Association charge.

"I told him just how bad I thought he was," said Ferguson. "Some referees don't like the truth."

The same goes for some managers. Clattenburg had, indeed, made a few mistakes but the important point is that United profited from as many as Bolton. If, as alleged, Clattenburg favoured Bolton, then why did the home supporters spend so long yelling obscenities at him?

This was not something Ferguson and his players were willing to contemplate after seeing their 10-game unbeaten run ended. "It was a big fight," said Evra.

"I received more tackles in one game than I've had in my entire life. It was the same last year, too. (Kevin) Davies kicked me then as well and I said to him, �Why did you do that?' He said, �Because I don't like you.' I didn't understand it. And today he did it again. His tackle should have been a red card (Clattenburg showed a yellow). It's bizarre. I spoke to the referee and I said, �You can't play football like that; this is not a football game.' When I play football I do it to play the ball, not to kick somebody."

Perhaps unsurprisingly an entirely different assessment was put forward by the alleged perpetrators. "I thought we were fantastic," said Andy O'Brien, the Bolton centre-half. "We put them under pressure, we battled and we made it difficult for them. I don't understand what the problem is.

"We were right at them from the start but, in all honesty, I don't think there was a malicious tackle in the whole game. There were some physical challenges but that is what you have to do. Evra, for example, gave as good as he got. But I don't think there was one malicious, nasty challenge."

There is nothing new, of course, about Ferguson telling his United players that, to succeed, they will have to do it the hard way. The Scot lets them think everyone is against them because, ultimately, he thinks it brings the players closer together. It is part of the Ferguson magic, you could say.

Yet there will be United supporters who can recall Arsene Wenger making the same complaints about United and the disdain with which it was greeted at Old Trafford. They will remember the way they used to sneer when Jose Antonio Reyes would whine about being singled out.

Then they will look at what Evra had to say and the fact that Pique, Tevez and Louis Saha wore woolly gloves to protect them from the cold. And as supporters of a team that has nurtured granite-jawed heroes such as Bryan Robson, Mark Hughes and Roy Keane, they will not appreciate the irony.

The Results

November 25: West Ham 1 (Cole 19) drew with Tottenham 1 (Dawson 66). Half-time: 1-0; Fulham 2 (Murphy pen-50, Kamara 62) drew with Blackburn 2 (Emerton 57, Warnock 79). Half-time: 0-0.

November 24: Newcastle 0 lost to Liverpool 3 (Gerrard 27, Kuyt 46, Babel 66). Half-time: 0-1; Arsenal 2 (Gallas 83, Rosicky 85) bt Wigan Athletic 0. Half-time: 0-0; Birmingham 0 lost to Portsmouth 2 (Muntari 33, Kranjcar 82). Half-time: 0-1; Bolton 1 (Anelka 10) bt Manchester United 0. Half-time: 1-0; Everton 7 (Yakubu 11 & 73, Cahill 17 & 61, Pienaar 42, Johnson 79, Osman 85) bt Sunderland 1 (Yorke 45). Half-time: 3-1; Manchester City 2 (Petrov 11, Ireland 90) bt Reading 1 (Harper 42). Half-time: 1-1; Middlesbrough 0 lost to Aston Villa 3 (Carew 45, Mellberg 48, Agbonlahor 58). Half-time: 0-1; Derby County 0 lost to Chelsea 2 (Kalou 17, Shaun Wright-Phillips 73). Half-time: 0-1.

November 12: Reading 1 (Shorey 87) lost to Arsenal 3 (Flamini 44, Adebayor 52, Hleb 78). Half-time: 0-1.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007