Referees hit back over Ferguson's fitness jibe

Attack on Wiley draws anger from officials as FA demands explanation from Ferguson
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The Independent Football

The Premier League's referees were privately indignant yesterday that the fitness of the oldest of their number has been called into question by Sir Alex Ferguson, in a season when their testing regime has been made even more rigorous.

The Football Association wrote to Ferguson last night, requesting an explanation of his claims after Manchester United's 2-2 draw against Sunderland that Wiley "wanted to take a rest" – comments that put him in line for a fine if his explanation does not prove satisfactory. Though no Premier League referee is willing to discuss the case openly during the FA's inquiry, there is a general view that Ferguson has made a cheap hit that has overlooked the fact Premier League officials are asked to reach the highest standards of physical fitness in Europe.

Wiley, 49, has passed what was once the retirement age for Premier League referees, 48, which has now been scrapped in line with EU law preventing age restrictions. He is only one year off matching the age at which Dermot Gallagher, the oldest referee to officiate in the Premier League, retired but has had to pass the same tests as other Professional Game Match Officials Limited officials, designed to ensure that he is capable of running the 11.2km referees cover during a typical game.

Ferguson has seven days from today to respond to the FA's letter though the prospects of him facing a touchline ban are remote. A misconduct charge for media comments generally tends to bring a fine. The FA clearly place Ferguson's comments in a different bracket from those of Blackburn Rovers manager Sam Allardyce's criticism of Peter Walton, the league's other 49-year-old referee. No further action will be taken against Allardyce as his comments related to a specific incident – the apparent trip of David Dunn in Arsenal's penalty area at the Emirates.

The former Premier League referee Gallagher – who is a close friend of Wiley – said that Ferguson's comments had plumbed new depths where criticisms of officials by managers were concerned. "In the 17 years the Premier League has been going, this is the first time I have ever heard a manager use that criticism of a referee," Gallagher said. "I hear all kinds of things and I have never known a manager to say a referee wasn't fit enough."

Any referees who fail the fitness tests face demotion from the elite group of Premier League referees and as of this season, there are only two re-test dates for those who fail the test in the summer. Any referee who has been injured for four weeks must also retake the tests.

Meanwhile, United insisted yesterday that Ben Foster's absence from Fabio Capello's England squad for the two forthcoming internationals was a result of a chest injury he had sustained in the 2-2 draw with Sunderland and not a consequence of his indifferent form. The goalkeeper underwent a hospital medical assessment yesterday, the club said, though the precise nature of the injury is unclear.

Ferguson yesterday had kinder words for his veteran midfielder Ryan Giggs than he managed for Wiley at the weekend, calling him the best player of the Premier League era. The former Wales international, who will be 36 in November, continues to be one of United's best performers and has proved already this season he can still have a major impact on matches.

Giggs has won 11 league titles, having made his debut in March 1991, and is just one goal away from becoming only the 17th player to score 100 Premier League goals. Those are just some of the reasons Ferguson believes no one can match the reigning PFA player of the year in terms of achievements in the modern game.

"We have had a lot of top-class players in this league – and some have probably made more of an impact than Ryan – but nobody can boast the same sort of longevity and consistency," said the United manager. "He was there when the league started and he is still there now. I think you would have to say Ryan is the best."

Giggs scored his 150th United goal against Wolfsburg in the Champions League last week and is also the club's record appearance holder (currently 814). His adaptability and extraordinary fitness have helped him stay at the top and, as a result, he gives Ferguson options. Giggs won his first PFA player of the year award for performances mainly in central midfield but this season he has been moved back out to the left wing, where he has spent most of his career.

The ability to switch seamlessly between the two is something his manager is likely to utilise later in the campaign. "We have played him out wide in a few games recently because he is fresh at the moment," Ferguson added in Inside United magazine.

"It's the beginning of the season so he has got plenty of running in him and he can do a lot of damage in the wide position.

"But I think you will find as the season progresses he will move back into the middle of the park where he can dictate the games."