The Football Association's ruling that managers must not talk about referees before games was in tatters last night when the governing body exonerated Sir Alex Ferguson and Carlo Ancelotti with a warning for praising Howard Webb before their clubs played each other on 8 May.
Manchester United manager Ferguson and his Chelsea counterpart Ancelotti were both "warned as to their future conduct" by the FA in a judgement that made a mockery of a rule that has proved one of the organisation's most difficult to implement. The disciplinary commission chairman – whose identity was not disclosed – said that the example of Ferguson "should be taken as a warning to all managers in the future that any such breach, even positive comments, are likely to result in a charge by the FA."
Remarkably, the FA only became aware of Ancelotti's comments about Webb when its attention was brought to an article in the Ealing Gazette, a weekly newspaper in west London, in which the Chelsea manager's remarks, made in his weekly Friday press conference, had been reported. Most national newspapers had judged them too innocuous to report.
The key problem for the FA in the future will be monitoring pre-match remarks. Not every manager's words are subjected to the same scrutiny as Ferguson's and even in his case not every word is published or broadcast. The governing body faces the possibility of having to ask journalists to report any breaches of the rule.
Ferguson had said that Webb, who was officially appointed to the game between United and Chelsea on 3 May, five days before the match, was "the best man for the job". He said at the time: "We are getting the best referee, there is no doubt about that. But [getting a bad decision] is definitely our big fear. We have the players to do it all right. We just hope it's our turn for a little bit of luck."
The same day, 6 May, that Ferguson made his remarks, Ancelotti had been asked whether he feared that the United manager could put pressure on the referee. The Chelsea manager instead praised the standard of refereeing in England and Webb in particular.
Ancelotti said: "I think it's not good to speak about the past, and also it's not good to speak about the referee because I don't want to put pressure on the referee. Howard Webb is a fantastic referee, he has experience, he has skills, but this is football and sometimes when things are not good you speak about the bad decisions against you."
Both were charged with improper conduct under rule E3 which forbids managers from talking about officials before matches. Sources at the FA pointed out yesterday that the ruling had been brought in at the beginning of last season with the support of all stakeholders in the game, including the clubs and the League Managers' Association, and that it had written to all managers on 21 October reminding them of their responsibilities.
Yesterday the FA Commission said of Ferguson's comments: "In this case, it was considered to be a minor breach, but a breach nevertheless, and it should be taken as a warning to all managers in the future that any such breach, even positive comments, [is] likely to result in a charge by the FA.'
The problem for the FA is that the next manager it charges is likely to argue on the basis of preferential treatment for Ferguson and Ancelotti. Ferguson himself had refused even to acknowledge the FA's improper conduct charge. In the end there was correspondence between the FA and the club yesterday.
The rule was brought in to prevent managers from speaking about referees, with remarks made by Everton's David Moyes about former referee Mike Riley two years ago the catalyst. Ahead of Everton's FA Cup semi-final with Manchester United, to which Riley had been appointed, Moyes told the official Everton website: "A member of the press asked me if Mike Riley is a Manchester United supporter – I think that is something you would need to bring up with the FA."
Although it was not a direct accusation that would incur Moyes an FA charge, it was felt to be sufficiently damaging to warrant bringing in a rule in which managers were banned completely from talking about referees before games. This month was the first time in almost two seasons that the rule had been invoked.