Ferguson set for defeat over referee demands

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The Independent Football

Manchester United's demands for fitter, elite referees to officiate in top fixtures are destined to be rejected, with the football authorities satisfied that the current regime does not need improving.

The case made by Sir Alex Ferguson last week before the Football Association, who had charged him with improper conduct, included his assertion that referees should be fitter. Club captain Gary Neville also weighed in at the weekend, with suggestions that a smaller group of elite referees should manage games between the top sides.

The Professional Game Match Officials Board (PGMO) believes that a small group of elite referees is already in place – in the form of the 18-strong group who take charge of Premier League fixtures and up to five Football League fixtures a week. There are no plans to alter that.

Despite Ferguson's requests, there are also no plans to increase the fitness levels demanded by PGMO, who test officials every season and who adhere to Fifa's testing regime. Ferguson's suggestion that continental referees are "fit as butchers' dogs", as he put it, unlike Premier League referees, takes no account of the fact that many continental officials are amateurs and that the slower build-up of play in continental European leagues means that they cover less ground than those in the Premier League.

PGMO argues that its annual £2.5m grant from the Football Association, Football League and Premier League has put the days of a system of amateur officials in the past and though they are unwilling to prolong the debate created by Ferguson's criticism of Wiley – which has seen him sent to the stand for Saturday's match with Everton and the visit to Portsmouth a week later – there is a feeling within the refereeing fraternity that he now needs to take this into account.

Alan Wiley, to whom Ferguson has apologised for suggesting he lacked the fitness to manage United's home game with Sunderland on 3 October, has avoided the Premier League champions this weekend. Instead, United encounter Steve Bennett, accused by Ferguson two years ago of having "loved the opportunity" to send off Cristiano Ronaldo in a 1-1 draw at Portsmouth.

Alan Leighton, leader of the referees' union Prospect, said referees will drop a threat to sue Ferguson if he admits Wiley is fit enough for the Premier League. "It's up to Alan, but if there was a full retraction he would probably say it is time to move on," Leighton said.

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