Manchester United officials were yesterday humiliated by a Football Association report that described them as "inconsistent" and "exaggerated" in their allegations of racism against a Chelsea groundsman. The full remarkable judgement, in which an FA commission cast serious doubt upon the truthfulness of the evidence given by Sir Alex Ferguson's staff in the hearing over Patrick Evra, has been revealed for the first time.
There is also criticism of the provocative behaviour of the United club captain, Gary Neville, and also "a couple of other players" who were guilty of starting the "trouble", along with "various other culprits".
The FA has taken the unusual step of releasing the full damning report by an independent commission into the "Battle of Stamford Bridge" in April when Evra was involved in a brawl with groundsman Sam Bethell. United claimed that Bethell had called Evra a "fucking immigrant" in the mêlée, but the FA's investigation uncovered serious inconsistencies in the evidence of Ferguson's assistant Mike Phelan, his fitness coach Tony Strudwick and goalkeeping coach Richard Hartis.
The decision to release the findings has caused grave damage to the relationship between the FA and the country's biggest football club. FA officials are in Japan at present, with United taking part in the Club World Cup, as they attempt to gather support for the 2018 World Cup bid among Fifa members.
Ferguson, the United manager, is understood to be furious with the FA's actions while David Gill, the club's chief executive, an FA board member and member of the FA's World Cup board, intends to take up the matter with the organisation's chairman, Lord Triesman, who has travelled to Tokyo, and demand an explanation. The FA has defended its decision, saying that it is a move towards greater transparency but United are unlikely to see it like that.
The 28-page commission report found heavily in favour of Chelsea, claiming that Strudwick's evidence was "exaggerated and unreliable". The commission, led by Nicholas Stewart QC, said that, as a witness, Phelan "particularly did not impress us" with his allegation of racism against Evra. They also said that Phelan and Hartis's statements were riddled with inconsistency which "cast serious doubt on the reliability of their evidence".
The full text demonstrates just how bad relations between England's two leading clubs have become. United have since described the verdict – in which Evra was given a four-match ban – as "a very poor decision" and "unduly harsh" but have decided not to appeal. They are bound to observe the rules of the FA, for whom disciplinary procedures such as these are decided by an independent commission.
In an extremely detailed analysis of events on 26 April in the hour after United's 2-1 defeat to Chelsea, the commission's report begins as a group of United players, substitutes and those who had only played for a part of the game, led by Strudwick, came out onto the pitch to warm down. Evra claimed in his evidence that as the players ran across the pitch, a groundsman with a lawnmower attempted to "cut his legs".
The report claims that the "atmosphere in the United dressing room and among its players was not good" after the defeat and said that several players "were in a rather wound-up state". The report then describes how Strudwick encouraged the United players to use the penalty area despite it being against Premier League rules to do so while the groundsmen were working on the pitch and without asking their permission. The report says: "Gary Neville in particular was behaving in an abusive and provocative manner towards Chelsea ground staff. However, we do not believe there was anything serious at that stage, and certainly nothing dangerous. We find Mr Evra's description exaggerated."
Then a row broke out between Jason Griffin, the head groundsman and Strudwick. The United man claimed Griffin was carrying a pitchfork and was "instantly aggressive and the tone of his voice was hostile and confrontational". After that Evra ran over and barged Griffin. Strudwick and Evra then claimed that Griffin said: "I'll shove the fucking fork up your arse." Chelsea's version of events was very different.
Griffin claimed that, when he asked Strudwick politely whether the United players would mind warming down elsewhere, Strudwick had said: "We can do what we fucking like and go where we fucking like." Griffin said that Evra had barged him to the extent that he was knocked off balance. The commission found overwhelmingly in favour of Chelsea over that part of the incident.
Strudwick was described as "distinctly more likely than Mr Griffin to have become angry and aggressive in their argument". In another slight aimed at the United fitness coach, the commission added: "We broadly prefer Mr Griffin's account. We were favourably impressed by Mr Griffin as a witness, who came across as frank, calm and sensible. Mr Strudwick we found less reliable."
The commission also described Evra's decision to run over and intervene as "unnecessarily and gratuitously aggressive" and that his claim that he felt Strudwick was in danger was "ridiculous" and "far-fetched". But worse was to follow for the United staff. Bizarrely, Phelan and Hartis, supported by the club, decided to make the allegation of racism against Bethell despite Evra claiming that he had not heard the alleged insult himself. It is on this point that Phelan's evidence completely fell apart.
Bethell and Evra came together and, although the DVD evidence examined by the commission was inconclusive, it accepted the groundsman had been struck on the side of the head, around his ear, by the French international and that it was the player's "violent conduct" which sparked a further mêlée. The verbal exchange between the two continued as both were led away. It was then that Evra broke free of those escorting him and ran back to Bethell who threw a punch at him and missed. Both men were then restrained by their colleagues.
It is during this time that the commission describes "the confusion and inconsistency" of Phelan and Hartis in "their placing of the alleged racist insult". The commission concludes "there are aspects of the evidence of Mr Phelan and Mr Hartis which raise serious questions about the reliability of their claims about the remark."
In Phelan's evidence – in which he submitted two statements – the commission finds that "the racist remark is placed at significantly different points in time. In the first [Phelan] statement Mr Bethell and Mr Evra are already squared up close to each other, in the course of the second altercation, when the remark is made. But in the second statement the remark comes before Mr Evra has even started to run back for the second Bethell-Evra altercation."
The commission also points out that at the time which Phelan and Hartis alleged that Bethell made the racist remark, photographs of the incident clearly show two Chelsea stewards Michael Headley and Joseph Quartey-Cofie – both of them black – attempting to intervene and well within earshot of any potential remarks. The commission said: "We consider that one or both of them [stewards] would have picked up the alleged remark, if it was made at all in the terms and anywhere close to the time alleged by Mr Phelan and Mr Hartis.
United were fined £15,000 as well as being hit by Evra's ban, but much more damaging was the commission's finding that their evidence was so unreliable. A United spokesman said last night: "Mike Phelan is one of our most trusted employees. He's been at the club for the best part of 20 years. This is not a description of him that we would recognise."