Sir Alex Ferguson has suggested the Manchester City executive Patrick Vieira was in breach of Football Association rules when he claimed that Manchester United have been the beneficiaries of refereeing decisions this season.
The Manchester United manager's sunny demeanour yesterday revealed an individual clearly revelling in City's struggle to shut down the verbal sideshow, which led to their excoriating criticism of the BBC, late on Wednesday, for an interview in which Vieira discussed refereeing iniquities as he perceives them. Ferguson twice qualified his response yesterday with an acknowledgement that Vieira and City had retracted the comments – made in response to the question of Fulham being denied a late penalty at Old Trafford on Monday. But he still made hay.
"I can bring [Roy] Keane back if he wants – make it interesting!" said Ferguson, in an allusion to the France international's battles with Keane as an Arsenal player.
Vieira's public discussion of City has been a part of the drive to be heard by a club who lack the generations of former playing legends who give United a voice.
But Roberto Mancini and his management team do not want distractions and Ferguson said he thought it possible that Vieira was deliberately trying to create one.
"I'm trying to analyse that, you know," he said. "I'm not sure. He [Vieira] is more or less saying all the refs have been wrong this season – and you're not supposed to discuss referees. He is a paid official, isn't he? I think he is, isn't he? Apparently, he's retracted it. It's interesting."
FA rules governing media comments state that a club official may not make comments about a match official which imply bias, question his integrity or are of a personal nature. It is understood that Vieira's comments seem non-specific enough for the FA not to consider him to be in breach.
Ferguson also rebutted Vieira's claim, made at Manchester's Soccerex convention, that City deserved to win the title as they had played the best football.
"They were playing great football in the first half of the season, there's no doubt about that. Everyone recognised that," he said. "We felt the brunt of it when they beat us 6-1. But a season lasts for a bit longer than three months."
Vieira's comments on refereeing were prefaced with his comment that: "I have to be careful what I say because if I say something you will make more noise than if it was a Fulham player or a Fulham coach. I don't want to get into that kind of comment." It was when he was asked: "You don't think United get any kind of advantage because they have been dominant for so long?" that he provided the answer that generated the BBC website article which angered City.
Ferguson pointed to Gareth Barry's clip on Glen Whelan's left ankle at Stoke City last Saturday, which left the Stoke manager, Tony Pulis, insistent that his side deserved a penalty.
"City could have had a penalty kick against them at Stoke, as everyone saw, Gareth Barry. So you get breaks here and there," Ferguson said. "Every club gets good breaks, they get bad breaks that even themselves out over a season and that will never change. We've had some terrible decisions at Old Trafford, when Newcastle got a penalty kick [with Rio Ferdinand adjudged to have fouled Hatem Ben Arfa in November.]
"Tottenham could claim the same when [Mario] Balotelli wasn't sent off and ended up scoring the winning goal [in January]. You could go through millions of things like that.
"I think you maybe have a point that the smaller clubs feel that way. Someone said that to me some years ago that United always get penalty kicks at Old Trafford but you go back through the 25 years I've been here, it's only averaged three a year, or three and a half a year, or something like that. You can't say that's a lot when we're attacking teams every minute of the day."
Mancini, whose side will go back to the top of the Premier League by beating Sunderland at home tomorrow, is expected to appear before the press this morning for the first time since the exchanges between Vieira and Ferguson began.
Vieira insists that he twice told the BBC on Wednesday that he didn't want to enter the debate, though he has never shown a lack of appetite for renewed, head-on confrontations with United. In his first press interview after returning to England with City in January 2010 he said United "don't look as strong as they used to. I don't know why. They are not dominating like they used to. United used to be top and so many points clear. That is no longer the case. You have Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool so it is not easy to go away and win games any more."