Sir Alex Ferguson will be urged by his legal advisers this morning to plead guilty to a Football Association charge of improper conduct and told that he may face a three-match dugout ban after his latest outburst against a match official.
The Manchester United manager is unlikely to respond with an immediate guilty plea to the FA charge, though, as it would see him forced into the stands for Sunday's match at Liverpool.
In a sign of how indignant and wronged Ferguson appears to feel, he has cancelled his daily press briefing today – giving Kenny Dalglish the platform ahead of a fixture that could see United take another substantial step towards overhauling Liverpool's record 18 titles. Neither is he scheduled to speak to United's in-house TV station, whose footage of Ferguson's post-Chelsea comments the FA was seeking before ruling on the latest improper conduct charge. Though his own intentions remain unclear, he will be told in the meeting at United's Carrington training complex that the risks attached to denying the FA charge are the ban being extended by a further one or two games.
The FA's decision to charge Ferguson does not appear to have been clear-cut. Ferguson clearly implied bias – one of three ways of breaching rules on post-match comments – when he told MUTV that Yorkshire official Martin Atkinson was not a "fair" referee after Tuesday's defeat at Chelsea. But he did immediately row back from this claim. "You want a fair referee, you know ... you want a strong referee anyway and we didn't get that," the manager said. "I don't know why [Atkinson has] got the game. I must tell you – I must say that when I saw who was refereeing it, I feared the worst."
Ferguson was warned when hit with a two-game ban and £20,000 fine in November 2009 over comments made about Alan Wiley's fitness that any further offences before the end of the current campaign would see him sent to the stands for a further two games. The ban could be extended by a further game when the latest incident is appended, though some within the game feel a fine is more likely than an extension. Comments made to the media after a game generally bring a fine, rather than a ban, and the Wiley case was exceptional. Ferguson has until 4pm on Tuesday to respond to the charge and would certainly miss the FA Cup tie with Arsenal and league match at home to Bolton a week later, with the ban stretching into April and the game at West Ham if the Chelsea incident brings another one-game exclusion from the dug-out.
There was indignation from many quarters yesterday about the way Ferguson had praised official Mark Clattenburg for not dismissing Wayne Rooney for what looked like a deliberate elbow on Wigan's James McCarthy last Saturday but turned on Atkinson. "Rank hypocrisy" was the former England manager Graham Taylor's description of this, while Alan Leighton, head of the referees' union Prospect, said the United manager's comments had been "unacceptable". Leighton told the BBC: "We've discussed in the past what an effective penalty is and there is experience of people being given stadium bans and that's got to be part of the armoury. In any judicial form you can't keep on giving the same penalty to a serial offender – I am being general now – if people reoffend the natural course is that the penalties get ratcheted up."
Ferguson's thoughts are on Sunday's match at Anfield. He was waiting yesterday to see how Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans had responded to a full indoor training session on Wednesday. Neither can be entirely ruled out of contention for Sunday, despite Ferguson's claims that Chris Smalling and Wes Brown will be in central defence, with Nemanja Vidic suspended.
Michael Carrick has signed a new contract with United that will keep him at Old Trafford until 2014, despite two seasons in which he has fallen well short of the heights of the 2008/09 campaign and led United to maintain their need of Paul Scholes as a creative fulcrum.
Meanwhile, Dalglish has insisted he is unmoved by the prospect of Ferguson overhauling Liverpool's 18 titles. "You take greater satisfaction from when your own team is successful and they've been more successful than Liverpool over the past 20 years," he said. "But we've still got bits we can hang on to. We've still won five European Cups."