Craig Bellamy and Gary Neville were last night cleared by the Football Association for their actions during the chaotic Manchester derby last Sunday as the governing body decided against a major disciplinary clampdown.
It came as a relief for Manchester City manager Mark Hughes who said earlier in the day that Bellamy was only acting in self-defence when he jammed his hand into the face of pitch-invading Manchester United fan Jake Clarke. But the City manager may feel aggrieved at Neville's let-off because of the similarities his behaviour bore to Emmanuel Adebayor's actions against Arsenal that earned him a three-match ban.
Both players were warned as to their future action by the FA. The governing body had been expected to charge both with improper conduct, and the delicate nature of the situation was reflected in the FA's decision to release their verdict in the early evening.
The FA said that they had made the decision not to ban Bellamy because the referee Martin Atkinson said later that had he seen Bellamy strike Clarke he would still not have sent him off. A statement from the governing body said: "The FA would repeat its previous advice that players should not become involved with or approach fans in such circumstances.
"The FA would also take this opportunity to remind fans, managers and players of their joint responsibility towards the game and strongly condemns any pitch invasions by fans."
Neville ran towards the City fans in the away end at Old Trafford when Michael Owen scored the winning goal in the 96th minute, only checking himself at the last minute and to pretend that it was part of his substitutes' warm-up. He was given a £5,000 fine and a similar warning for a more demonstrative celebration in front of Liverpool fans three years ago. It was not deemed as dramatic as Adebayor's 80-yard dash to goad Arsenal fans on 12 September, for which he was given an improper conduct charge and awaits punishment.
United have also escaped any fine or censure for the coin that was thrown at Carlos Tevez as the players left the pitch at half-time but struck the substitute Javier Garrido. Instead United were let-off with a light slap on the wrist, warning them that they should "use all available means to identify and deal with the culprit".
Hughes will simply be relieved that Bellamy is still available to play with Robinho and Roque Santa Cruz injured and Adebayor suspended. Yesterday the City manager claimed that Bellamy had not been the instigator of the clash with Clarke. "Everyone has to look at it in the context of the game at the time," Hughes said. "The guy should not have been on the pitch.
"Craig went over to tell him to get off the pitch as quickly as he could, the guy made an aggressive move towards him and Craig has instinctively put his hand up in a defensive manner and pushed the lad away.
"It's very difficult [to judge]. All these incidents are taken out of context and viewed in isolation. At that point in time, the vast majority of people were screaming 'get that idiot off'. And that is all Craig has done."
Hughes denied that some of his key players had a problem controlling their emotions. He said: "You can't take emotion out of football because that is fundamental to what you are trying to create – that passion is fundamental to how they develop as a player.
"Every player who plays for Manchester City has passion but there will be varying degrees of it, because all players and personalities are different."
Bellamy is unlikely to figure in tonight's Carling Cup game against Fulham because Hughes is concerned about the likely reaction to a long standing knee problem that prevents the player from playing more than twice in a week. The City manager said that he was unconcerned by Ferguson's dismissive description of his club as "a noisy neighbour".
"I don't think we made as much noise as is being made out. A noisy neighbour? Well, in terms of the amount of noise our fans made then you could say that. If that is people's perception [that Ferguson is starting to worry about City's threat] then we are quite comfortable with that. After our performance against Arsenal and the character we showed at Old Trafford, they know we are not going to go away. They know we are going to have an influence on who wins the Premier League in the seasons to come.
"Obviously our ambition is to win it ourselves but we know that we can go up against any team in this league and take points off them so while we might not be in a position to win the league or get in the top four or get anywhere near, for a number of seasons, we will stop other teams from doing it."
Clough's cuff paved the way for game's vigilantes
When Craig Bellamy swung his right hand at an errant supporter at Old Trafford on Sunday he joined an angry brigade that boasts Brian Clough and Eric Cantona as its figureheads: football men who have got their own back. It's a club that surely has plenty of wannabe members as it cannot be easy being on the receiving end of mass, sometimes hysterical abuse week after week. Is it not understandable if occasionally those on the receiving end are transformed into football's vigilantes and give a bit back?
Absolutely, appears to be the FA's take as they toe the line first trod by Mark Hughes, the latest manager attempting to handle the combustible Bellamy. "I seem to recall Brian Clough clipping someone around the ear, and he was lauded as a national hero," said Hughes. "Maybe it will be the same case with Craig – but I doubt it [who doesn't?]."
Clough slapped a couple of Nottingham Forest fans during a pitch invasion in the middle of a League Cup tie against QPR in 1989 but while the police hailed his actions (this was the eighties), others were less impressed. One MP, no doubt spotting a passing bandwagon at a time when the sport was considered by those in authority to be little more than a national embarrassment, said Clough "should be prosecuted and banned from games like any other yob." The FA did not consider such a draconian move but did impose a £5,000 fine.
Cantona's kung-fu moment at Selhurst Park in 1995 took it to a different level, but there have been other less macho confrontations over the years, notably Dida's tangle with a jubilant Celtic fan in 2007. The Glaswegian ran on to the pitch and brushed his hand across the Milan keeper's cheek. The Brazilian took stock and then hit the turf to universal hilarity.
As for Clough, he felt moved to apologise, subjecting the two men he had clobbered to another physical assault by kissing them live on the local television news. Perhaps the fan on the receiving end of of Bellamy's ire has got off lightly after all.
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