Ferguson to reignite row over 'unfit' referees

Defiant manager confident he will escape with a fine as he prepares to go on offensive at FA hearing
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The Independent Football

An unrepentant Sir Alex Ferguson will risk further condemnation over his attack on referee Alan Wiley today by telling a Football Association tribunal that the fitness of officials should be better.

Ferguson will be at Wembley for his personal hearing in front of a four-man FA tribunal, having been charged with improper conduct over his claim that Wiley "just wasn't fit enough" to referee Manchester United's 2-2 draw with Sunderland at Old Trafford on 3 October.

Ferguson will plead guilty to the charge and is hopeful that his punishment will be limited to a £25,000 fine and a suspended touchline ban. He is not expecting the FA's independent regulatory commission to break with its previous practice of fining managers for media comments but not sending them to the stands. The United manager, who is uncowed by the fury and threats of a libel suit which his comments have provoked, will argue that the fitness levels demanded of referees are not high enough. He is expected to suggest that the tests referees are put through by the Professional Match Game Officials Ltd could and should be more rigorous.

Though the public and professional reaction to his highly personal claims that Wiley was "needing a rest" during the Sunderland match has had an impact on Ferguson, he has always stood by the general point he was making. Even when he initiated and supervised the release of a public apology to Wiley from his holiday in New York during the last international break, he maintained that the general proposition about referees was correct. "The fitness levels of referees must match the demands of the modern game," he said in that statement. The referees' union Prospect was incensed, with its head Alan Leighton responding that Ferguson's words had opened "a new can of worms."

The manager's conduct towards officials over the past six weeks has illustrated that the controversy of the Wiley case has had little tangible impact on his response to officials and their decisions. After United's defeat at Liverpool on 25 October, the manager questioned whether Andre Marriner had the experience to handle such an intense fixture and he also doubted the competence of Martin Atkinson on Sunday evening, saying that his positioning when Chelsea were awarded the free-kick from which they scored in the 1-0 win over United had been "ridiculous" and that players were beginning to lose faith in officials. Neither comment has incurred a charge from the FA.

It is unclear how much higher Ferguson expects the bar to be raised where referees' fitness is concerned. Wiley, like every other referee, undertakes a testing regime which demands he complete six 40m sprints in 6.2 seconds each, with 90 seconds recovery in between. He also has to run 150m of a running track in 30 seconds 20 times under the current testing system. Leaked ProZone statistics of United's game with Sunderland revealed that the 49-year-old Wiley covered more ground than most of the players that afternoon and led to a feeling that the official might have been an easy target as one of Premier League's oldest referees who happens to have a stocky physique.

The controversy leaves the FA in an invidious position today. Ferguson is also expected to express his view to the commission that a fair "trial" is impossible, given what he sees as a campaign being waged against him through the media by the referees' fraternity and by Prospect. But Leighton has been among those who suggest Ferguson's comments are libellous and referees feel that if this episode is allowed to pass without a ban the United manager will not think twice before making such claims again.

Ferguson is also adamant that continental European referees are fitter and has described them as being "fit as butchers' dogs."

Two private security guards employed by United have been charged with causing grievous bodily harm after a City fan was allegedly pushed down a flight of stairs during the derby match at Old Trafford in September.