Sir Alex Ferguson will issue a second apology over his comments about referee Alan Wiley, in an attempt to stem the tide of indignation created by his suggestions that the 49-year-old lacks the fitness to officiate.
The Manchester United manager has been in contact with his legal advisers by telephone from New York, where he has been taking a holiday with his family during the international break, and has instructed them that the written explanation to the Football Association, which he must deliver by 10am on Friday, should include an apology.
It is not expected to be an unreserved one, but on similar lines to the statement issued on Saturday in which Ferguson broadened his point in a wider discussion of referees' fitness. Nevertheless, the circumstances behind Saturday's statement illustrate the manager's surprise at the intensity of the response to his suggestions, after United's 2-2 draw with Sunderland 10 days ago, that Wiley "wasn't fit" and "needing a rest" as he took 30 seconds to book a player.
It was Ferguson who initiated the unexpected statement. He contacted United officials on Friday evening, asking them to issue it, and after the wording and timing of the statement were agreed between him and the club, it was published on the club's website late on Saturday morning. Ferguson, who is expected back in Britain this afternoon, is understood to be indignant about the way that the refereeing fraternity has closed ranks around Wiley and believes that this will affect the FA's consideration of the case and render any appeal – if he is charged with misconduct – futile.
United are unhappy about the leak of ProZone statistics proving that Wiley ran further than all but four of their players in the Sunderland match. The club consider the leak to be a breach of their contract with ProZone, who are contractually obliged to keep match information confidential, but are undecided on whether to take up that issue legally.
Ferguson and United are in little doubt that the FA will level a charge against the manager. But Ferguson has also been told that Wiley would have a strong case in a civil court if he opts to argue there that the damage done to his professional reputation constitutes a libel. The law of libel stipulates that Wiley does not need to prove that his reputation has been damaged, only that the comments were made. The referee will take his case there if he does not feel the FA has responded strongly enough.
A manager has never been banned from the touchline for comments made in the media but Alan Leighton, national secretary of the Prospect officials union, yesterday reiterated his suggestion that he should be handed a Uefa-style ban, preventing him from conducting team talks before a game and at half-time, as well as removing him from the touchline. A civil case will not put Ferguson much out of pocket – a fine would probably be no more than £5,000, though there does not appear to be a legal precedent in this case – but the statement looks like an attempt to minimise damage ahead of a possible FA or civil hearing.
Sports lawyer Mel Goldberg, who represented Everton manager David Moyes in his libel case against Wayne Rooney, said Saturday's actions would help mitigate the damage, even though the statement was full of qualifications. "The initial apology will help in terms of possible damages claims against him," Goldberg said. "If the FA deal with this, I would expect it to be the end of the matter but they tend not to be strict and if they are not in this case I can see Wiley suing."
Wiley would be likely to give any damages he received to charity, as Moyes did, though it is in the FA's interests to resolve this issue before it reaches a civil court. The prospect of Wiley refereeing a United match in the aftermath of such a move would seem unlikely.
Though Ferguson said in his statement at the weekend that he would be contacting Wiley personally this week, Leighton said again yesterday that Ferguson's initial apology was hollow. "I think it probably exacerbates the position rather than resolves it," Leighton said.
"He clearly hasn't retracted his statement about Alan being unfit. He then widens it to question the fitness of other referees in the select group. He seems to be opening another can of worms, which I don't think is helpful at all. Referees always accept decisions are going to be pored over – they have no problem with legitimate criticism. What's problematic is when the integrity and key components of refereeing are being questioned in a totally unwarranted and unfounded way – and we will defend our members when they are."
The FA awaits Ferguson's comments and will probably rule on the issue within 48 hours of receiving them.
How the row escalated
*Ferguson, 3 October: "I was disappointed. He [Wiley] was not fit enough. It was ridiculous"
*Alan Leighton, 6 oct: "If Alan Wiley were not fit he would not be refereeing"
*Ferguson, 10 oct: "The fitness levels of referees must match the demands of the modern game"
*Leighton, 12 oct "He hasn't retracted his statement – he seems to be opening another can of worms"