Fletcher and O'Shea fuel United's rifts with referees

As Ferguson is cleared by FA for latest rant, players claim Wenger influenced official
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The Independent Football

The hounding of referee Martin Atkinson continued yesterday, this time by Manchester United players Darren Fletcher, Wes Brown and John O'Shea. While Sir Alex Ferguson was cleared by the Football Association over his comments following Sunday's 1-0 defeat at Chelsea and Wayne Rooney was merely warned over his future conduct after seemingly mouthing "12th man" at TV cameras, the trio could face sanctions for their criticisms.

Fletcher bizarrely blamed Arsène Wenger for the defeat, saying comments made by the Arsenal manager in August, which implied the United midfielder was dirty, meant he was singled out by Atkinson on Sunday.

Fletcher is unhappy at Wenger who accused the champions of being "anti-football" and pointed the finger at "a certain player" who had gone unpunished despite making several fouls in United's 2-1 win over Arsenal in August. It is widely accepted Wenger was talking about Fletcher, a perception the midfielder now believes has made him a marked man for referees.

Fletcher yesterday continued to contest Atkinson's decision to award Chelsea a free-kick for the Scot's challenge on Ashley Cole. The decision ended up being pivotal, as John Terry scored from the resulting set play.

Fletcher said: "It was clearly not a foul. I knew at the time and I have watched it again on the replay. I back-heeled the ball and Cole just jumps up in the air and the ref gives a foul. I think we are starting to see Mr Wenger's comments starting to influence referees, which is a shame really."

United defender Brown then carried on the attack on Atkinson, saying the club had been "let down" by the referee who allowed Chelsea's winner to stand. Brown claimed he was fouled by Drogba as the ball was played into the Manchester United penalty area.

"I don't think the referee played well and we've been let down by that goal," Brown said. "The decision to award the free-kick was harsh. Then Drogba was holding me and pulling me down, obstructing me from challenging for the ball when the free-kick came in the box. The ref didn't see that either – what can we do about it?"

O'Shea joined in the criticism of Atkinson, claiming he was influenced by the reaction of Chelsea players in giving the decisive free-kick. The United defender also attacked the referee over his positioning for the resulting set play, describing it as "terrible".

O'Shea said: "We didn't think it was a foul in the first place. Fletch went in and came out with the ball. The ref's angle of it and the Chelsea players' reaction won them the free-kick. And then Wes was clearly fouled by Drogba as the ball came in. The referee's position was terrible. He was stood right behind one of the Chelsea players and was too far away to see it.

"Lots of decisions seemed to go against us. I crossed the ball towards the end and [Frank] Lampard clearly stuck his arm up. It was just outside the box, but the linesman was 10 yards away and surely had to see it. The little things just didn't go for us and we're very disappointed in that sense."

The players' attacks came as the FA indicated Ferguson will not be charged for his comment that Atkinson's position to see Drogba's clash with Brown was "absolutely ridiculous". It is understood the FA does not consider his criticism of Atkinson to constitute an attack on the referee's integrity.

Ferguson had said after the match: "The referee's position to make a decision was absolutely ridiculous. He can't see it. It was a bad decision but what can you do? You lose faith in refereeing sometimes. It was a bad one."

Ferguson has already admitted a charge of improper conduct for his comments about referee Alan Wiley's fitness after United's 2-2 draw with Sunderland last month and his hearing will take place this Thursday.

The FA's decision not to charge Ferguson for his comments about Atkinson follow claims made by Wigan manager Roberto Martinez that the FA is intimidated by the Scot. Martinez said last month: "The truth is that they're almost apologising to him for punishing him. Any other coach would have been crushed for that."

The ire of Fergie: Previous run-ins with the FA

*August 2003 Launched attack on fourth official Jeff Winter after referee Uriah Rennie decided not to send off Andy O'Brien for a foul on Ryan Giggs at Newcastle. A two-match touchline ban and a £10,000 fine ensued.

*November 2007 Sent to stands for 'using abusive and/or insulting words' towards Mark Clattenburg at half-time of loss at Bolton. Received two-match touchline ban and a £5,000 fine.

* March 2008 Branded Martin Atkinson a 'disgrace' after United were beaten 1-0 in the FA Cup quarter-finals by Portsmouth and had Tomasz Kuszczak sent off. A charge of improper conduct was not proven.

*November 2008 Confronted Mike Dean over a number of controversial decisions after a 4-3 victory over Hull City. Given a two-match touchline ban and a £10,000 fine.