Sir Alex Ferguson moved to avoid a breakdown in his relationship with Rio Ferdinand yesterday by holding talks in which he accepted that the defender will not apologise for refusing to wear a Kick It Out T-shirt.
The two met after Ferdinand had arrived for a training session yesterday, when the United manager explained that it was the lack of advance notice from the player of his intention to boycott the anti-racism campaign – in contravention of Ferguson's orders – which had angered him. The 33-year-old has apologised to Ferguson for that but has not voiced any contrition for the act itself.
The outcome of the meeting, at the club's Carrington training ground yesterday morning, allows both men to save face and appears to have taken some of the sting out of the issue, though Ferguson's tendency to allow things to fester when a player pulls rank does store up trouble for the future. Ferdinand will be severely indignant if he finds himself fined two weeks' wages – £220,000 – by Ferguson when plenty of Premier League players have been given freedom of choice in the matter by their managers.
A fine seems unlikely and Ferguson would be wise not to impose one, having boxed himself into a corner over the issue by first criticising Reading's Jason Roberts for his boycott and then declaring, after Saturday's home game with Stoke City, that Ferdinand's actions were "embarrassing". Visibly angry, Ferguson said that the player would be "dealt with". The Professional Footballers' Association backed the player's stance yesterday and Ferdinand would be likely to appeal against any fine.
Ferdinand's boycott was not staged lightly and he was undecided throughout Friday about the merits of rejecting a T-shirt. It is understood that his boycott was substantially motivated by the personal indignation he felt about comments made by the chairman of Kick It Out, Lord Ouseley, on Friday afternoon, six hours after Ferguson had stated that all his players would wear the T-shirts. Lord Ouseley told the BBC that he had "no intention of speaking for black footballers who are very wealthy and earning a lot of money" who "have to be organised and speak for themselves". Ferdinand does not feel that, after his tough upbringing in Peckham, south London, that he needs to be told by Lord Ouseley how he should be dealing with racism in the game.
Ferdinand already has grounds to feel that his England career has been ended because of the John Terry affair and a club fine now over this, of all issues, would certainly be very hard for the player to take. With only a year left on his contract, it could drive him towards one of the many lucrative offers which would come his way from the United States – where the Chicago Fire would relish the chance of signing him – China or Russia.
There is a view among many within the game that Ferguson was too quick to make his attack on Roberts, at his press conference on Friday, instead of waiting to discuss the issue with his players as some other managers had done.
Roberts, who also thought deeply about his decision not to wear a Kick It Out shirt, will this week offer to meet the organisation to discuss how he can help it to make more of an impact in counteracting the racism which still permeates the game. Since Kick It Out operates with five staff and a budget of only £300,000, lobbying for more realistic funding is part of the battle.
A caller to the BBC's 606 phone-in programme on Saturday evening provided evidence of the casual racism of an Aston Villa supporter towards the club's Belgian forward Christian Benteke, who is of Congolese extraction, at Craven Cottage that afternoon. The caller related how he was standing in a neutral area near the cottage at Fulham's ground when Benteke came on from the bench and a white supporter in his thirties shouted "give the coon the ball and he'll score". The caller, who later told the BBC's producers he had not reported the incident to the Metropolitan Police, said no Villa supporter had challenged the abuse. "Nobody confronted him," said the caller, Phil, from London. "I didn't confront him. There were six people with him and I was on my own. He'll know who he is. That's the problem we've got. We can all pay lip service but who will tell fans what [the repercussions] will be?"
Though there was support for Roberts' stance from many quarters yesterday, Twitter revealed once again what a vile repository it can be, when the 34-year-old player received more openly racist abuse.