Football / The Premier Kick-Off: Ferguson's false start

Sheffield United. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2

Manchester United. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1

DAVE BASSETT'S stunt of staging a Christmas party last week may have tricked slow-starting Sheffield United into their New Year form. If it seemed rather early to be posing as Santa Claus, Alex Ferguson proved there is no sanity clause by talking afterwards as if it were last Easter and the fates were again mocking Manchester United.

At Bramall Lane in April, a Leeds victory sealed by a bizarre own goal from Sheffield's captain, Brian Gayle, crushed Ferguson's title hopes. Now, standing where Howard Wilkinson had diplomatically insisted it was far from over, the Manchester manager's frustration was directed at the referee, Brian Hill.

Livid at losing to a penalty after being refused an indisputable one when Ryan Giggs fell under Simon Tracey's lunge, Ferguson claimed Old Trafford would have 'protested vigorously' had they known beforehand who was officiating.

Hostility to Hill - 'We don't want this man' - dates back to 1988-89 when Ferguson alleged that the Kettering official 'denied us three penalties' in a League Cup defeat at Wimbledon. There was also an FA Cup loss to Nottingham Forest, when Hill refused a goal after a Brian McClair shot apparently crossed the line.

After that, Ferguson revealed, his club asked for Hill to be kept away from their fixtures. He inferred that the Football League had complied, though Hill took United's game at Tottenham a year later. Told of the remarks, Hill said: 'I'm totally amazed - I get on fine with their players.'

The episode raises some interesting questions. Was it coincidence which kept Hill and United apart so long, and if not, did Ferguson dictate who should handle their matches? Was he suggesting that Hill is biased against his team? And did the country's richest and most powerful club, who incidentally could not raise a substitute goalkeeper, really not know who the referee was? Ferguson's outburst may have implications, with the FA confirming yesterday that it will examine his comments with a view to possible disciplinary action.

The controversy detracted from a hard-earned home win and the historic first Premier League goal, headed by Brian Deane under the scrutiny of the England manager, Graham Taylor. The Tracey- Giggs incident, 14 minutes later, assumed greater significance when Gary Pallister toppled Alan Cork and Deane converted Sheffield's first spot-kick in 18 months.

In a twist on the new back-pass rule, the opening goal had its origins in a Tracey clearance under pressure. The second followed a pass by John Gannon, the most accomplished midfielder on view, when he might previously have turned the ball back. Mark Hughes's reply, after Peter Schmeichel's up-and-under, was sardonically described by Bassett as 'a Sheffield United goal'.

That, plus the late appearance of the former Cambridge target man, Dion Dublin, does not mean Manchester now espouse the long-ball game. Even without Bryan Robson, Neil Webb and Paul Ince, who is likely to miss Wednesday's visit of Everton with a rib injury, they looked more fluid. Boxing Day - the real one, not Bassett's version - might be a better time to assess their prospects.

Goals: Deane (5) 1-0; Deane pen (50) 2-0; Hughes (61) 2-1.

Sheffield United: Tracey; Gage, Barnes, Gannon (Hartfield, 86), Beesley, McLeary, Bradshaw, Lake, Cork, Deane, Hodges (Bryson, 68). Substitute not used: Kelly.

Manchester United: Schmeichel; Irwin, Blackmore, Bruce, Ferguson, Pallister, Kanchelskis (Dublin, 68), Ince (Phelan, 7), McClair, Hughes, Giggs.

Referee: B Hill (Kettering).

(Photograph omitted)