James Lawton: Why the FA has to give Ferguson a taste of the hairdryer treatment

One problem is the grisly prospect of a generation of Ferguson imitators
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The Independent Football

What are we going to do with Sir Alex Ferguson? No, let's be more precise. What is football, and what passes for its authority, going to do?

No doubt the rest of us passed our verdicts some time ago. We love him or loathe him. We love him for his life-enhancing lust for glory, his absolute commitment to the idea of winning football matches. We loathe him for his bullying tone and because when things go against him he increasingly displays the grace and the objectivity of a ravening wolverine.

The vital point, though, is that while we can enjoy the luxury of extreme ambivalence football can't. Not, at least, as long it likes to pretend that no one, not even arguably the most successful manager in the history of English football, can stand above the game, making his own rules and flaunting his own prejudices. This is what is happening at the moment and what it is doing to the Football Association's campaign to win more respect for match officials is tantamount to rolling it up as though it is a piece of grubby paper and tossing it into the nearest bin.

So far Ferguson has made two apologies, if we want to stretch the term to its outer limits, for his outrageous attack on referee Alan Wiley, and when one hara-kiri inclined sports reporter had the nerve to raise the issue the other day he was told he had posed a "silly question". It wasn't a silly question. It was a highly pertinent probe into the possibility that the great man had had sufficient time to reflect on a verbal assault on a match official probably more damaging than any since Jose Mourinho's career-ending diatribe against Swedish referee Anders Frisk.

Plainly not, and this impression can only be intensified by the fact that on Sunday, after his team had failed quite woefully to meet the predictable "wounded animal" ferocity of Liverpool at Anfield with anything like the resolve of reigning champions, he found another scapegoat referee, this time the relatively inexperienced Andre Marriner.

As it happened, Ferguson's irritation on this occasion was a lot easier to understand. While Wiley's performance during Sunderland's visit to Old Trafford was virtually flawless to most neutral eyes, the same could hardly be said of Marriner's.

He made several crucial errors, almost all of them in favour of Liverpool, and most potentially decisive when he refused to hand Jamie Carragher, the last defender, a red card for bringing down Michael Owen. However, Wiley and Marriner unquestionably shared one misfortune. It was to preside over games in which United performed sufficiently below their normal standards to enrage any manager, let alone the most combustible of them all.

Ferguson's device, though, of shifting attention from the deficiencies of his team on any passing day with criticism of the referee has done more than wear thin. It is becoming a sustained challenge to football authority – one which recent evidence suggests is hardly likely to be met with any significant force when the FA comes to render its decision on the Wiley affair.

Really, the question is quite simple. Does the FA have the cojones to take on Ferguson, tell him that no one can separate himself so frequently from some basic demands of discipline – and of setting a proper example in a game which is so relentlessly cheapened by the one-eyed self-interest so rampant in most corners.

This isn't to say that referees should be immune from criticism, they are professionals in a game which can punish, ruinously, poor performance. But the manner of Ferguson's attack on Wiley, its essential unfairness and the damage and hurt it inevitably caused, was way beyond any reasonable level of censure. Referees should not be sacred cows, no more than anyone else in the game, but nor should they be chopping blocks for the ire of managers for whom a match has gone sour.

It means, surely, that when the disciplinary commission comes to pass judgement it simply cannot afford to be seen to be deferential to one of the most powerful, and influential, men in football. Nor should anyone be in any doubt about the extent of that influence. It is inevitably vast because when a man wins so much, and shows himself to be so impervious to the opinions of others if they happen to collide with his own, he is bound to collect disciples as a magnet does filings. One problem is the grisly prospect of a whole generation of Fergie imitators, men who have swallowed the idea that they should take the best of the great manager and live with the rest.

The point here, though, is that Ferguson, like his late compatriot Bill Shankly, is beyond imitation. His strengths are so often his weaknesses if you stretch them beyond the narrow confines of the matter of winning and losing.

Ferguson sees what he wants to see, and how else can we explain his enduringly ferocious appetite for the action and unbreakable belief that victory almost invariably can only be denied by malign circumstances.

Here, you have to remember the stunning post-game verdict of Shankly after Liverpool had conceded five goals to Ajax on a misty night in Amsterdam. "The most defensive team we've ever played," rasped Shankly. Ferguson, too, is capable of such assaults on logic and perhaps, who knows, it is part of the requirement of a great manager because if he doesn't believe, at all times, in the rightness of his cause, who will?

This is not to challenge the essential shrewdness of Ferguson's assessment of any given football situation. He knew as well as anyone that his team had underperformed grievously at Anfield at the weekend, but for his own reasons – as most always – he chose to blur the issue.

He was right, no doubt, to believe that the referee had seemed vulnerable to the intensity of a crowd which normally prides itself in its respect for classic values and achievement in the game but on this occasion reserved its greatest fury for the re-appearance of one its most distinguished former players, Owen. Yet Sir Alex Ferguson, of all people, can scarcely complain about unacceptable levels of partisanship. Recently, he has been striding away in the One-eyed Stakes. It means that the FA is obliged to stop his gallop. Either that, or fish around for a white flag.

Can rugby survive rates of attrition?

It is both ironic and a little poignant that when English rugby union is posting casualty figures that might have come from a sporting equivalent of the Somme, a point of optimism is the latest resurrection of Jonny Wilkinson.

No one paid a heavier price for the increase in physical pressure created by the march of the professional game than the man who so willingly crossed the old demarcation line separating the behemoths at the front and the cavaliers at the back.

Yet if Wilko's endurance has proved phenomenal, and his success in France one of sport's most inspiring stories, it should be remembered that it is the result of both unique character and resilience.

In terms of speed and physical strength rugby has made remarkable progress in the professional era. But is it sustainable? Has it become too quick, too physical for its own good? Recent events, in the hospital wards as well as the courts of discipline, are not exactly reassuring.

Gibson an undeserving victim of Boro backlash

Gareth Southgate has received a flood of sympathy, much of it sentimental, with his dismissal as manager of Middlesbrough.

There are some good reasons and not least that Southgate is an engaging, civilised young football man in a game that doesn't always seem to be overpopulated with such figures.

However, translating regret for Southgate's hopefully temporary setback into animus towards his former boss Steve Gibson seems to be an excessive leap in the business of partiality.

Southgate had three years to impress Gibson that he was the right man for the job, and that he failed to do so is unfortunate for the ex-manager but hardly reason to question the instincts and attitudes of a chairman who has given so unstintingly for so long to his local club.

He once kept the young manager Bryan Robson around while at the same time turning to the experienced Terry Venables in order to fend off relegation. Now, with promotion back to the Premier League the challenge and many of his millions given up to the cause, he has turned to another older hand, Gordon Strachan. In the demonology of football, this surely still leaves Gibson some considerable way out of the picture.