Manchester United were astonished to learn last night that Wayne Rooney is set to miss next weekend's FA Cup semi-final with Manchester City after being hit with a Football Association charge over the verbal abuse he delivered into a television camera during Saturday's hat-trick celebration at West Ham United.
Rooney faces a standard two-game ban for his abuse, which he claimed had come "in the heat of the moment" and insisted "was not aimed at anyone in particular". United had expected a letter from the FA admonishing Rooney and warning him about his future conduct and the club's manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, is likely to blame the media today for compounding his current war with the FA, through the volumes of coverage Rooney's outburst has commanded since Saturday.
Ferguson's likely claims of an anti-United bias were severely dented by the unexpected decision of Tottenham Hotspur manager, Harry Redknapp, to intervene on the issue in Madrid last night, while discussing his side's Champions League quarter-final tie.
Redknapp, whose decision to back the FA will come as some relief to the organisation, said: "Why [do] some of these young players have to be so angry with the world? They're getting hundreds of thousands of pounds to play. I respect him as a player but he's a silly boy and he shouldn't have done it."
United's options include accepting the FA charge of "offensive, insulting and/or abusive language" and seeing Rooney miss Saturday's home match with Fulham as well as the semi-final. Denying the offence is another option, though the chances of such action appear to be remote in the extreme since the FA's evidence is all but irrefutable and United would isk the penalty being increased.
The most likely course of action is to accept the charge but appeal against the severity of the sentence on the grounds that it is excessive, in the hope that Rooney would miss only the Fulham game – for which he might have been rested in any case. United would not be penalised for contesting the severity of the sentence, though the commission may view the initial punishment as inadequate and rule that the 25-year-old should also miss the Premier League match at Newcastle United, two weeks today.
Any appeal would be heard by an independent regulatory commission tomorrow, under the new FA fast-track procedures which give United the opportunity to provide written mitigation but not to be represented in person. Ferguson, currently serving a five-match FA touchline ban, is due to speak at 5.30pm this evening in London, at a press conference convened to discuss United's Champions League tie against Chelsea and, with Rooney – a re-emerging force who was United's match-winner in last month's Old Trafford game against City – possibly out of such a crucial semi-final, the manager will find to difficult to conceal his anger.
There are very few precedents for a player being banned by the FA for an offence such as Saturday's. Rooney's outburst at a TV camera after England's goalless draw with Algeria in last year's World Cup elicited no action from Fifa. Didier Drogba was banned for five matches by Uefa after his outburst, directed through the cameras, at the end of Chelsea's Champions League semi-final with Barcelona two years ago in which he called referee Tom Henning Ovrebo "a fucking disgrace".
The FA believes that it has to draw a line against conduct which renders its Respect campaign meaningless and considers foul and abusive language to cameras to be no less serious than that towards officials. Gaël Givet was sent off by the referee Mark Clattenburg after returning to the pitch after Blackburn's 3-2 defeat at Fulham last month and abusing the referee for a late penalty awarded after he had been substituted. Blackburn's manager, Steve Kean, later welcomed Givet's passion. The Birmingham City captain, Stephen Carr, received a one-match retrospective ban for abusing Aston Villa fans in the 1-0 defeat at Villa Park at the end of last season.
Though the FA perceives these as comparable offences and the Premier League is understood to feel the strongly worded reproach United's legal advisers had told the club to expect was not enough, the charge risks poisoning Ferguson's relationship with a media he feels is anti-United. But Redknapp's intervention strengthens the case for a ban.
Redknapp said he had not heard radio reports of Rooney shouting the words "fuck off" into a camera after his third goal. "On TV I looked at the coverage and they had blocked out the sound. Why is he so angry? I don't remember Bobby Charlton doing that when he scored or smashed one in from 30 yards, or Jimmy Greaves when he scored."
The pressure for sanctions against Rooney grew during the day. The Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore's declaration only last week of his intention to clean up the game hardly helped and when the Professional Footballers' Association deputy chief executive John Bramhall condemned Rooney's actions yesterday, the prospect of a ban seemed more likely. Bramhall, speaking on behalf of the PFA, told the BBC: "Taking into account the highly pressurised situation, it is still an action that wasn't acceptable and Wayne's apology confirms that. He has apologised immediately after the game and has clearly realised they are not the actions you would expect of a player in his position."
United's crime sheet
Manchester United may feel they are being victimised; this is the third time they have been charged this season:
* Rafael (£8,000 fine)
Admitted improper conduct charge after red card at Tottenham in January.
* Sir Alex Ferguson (five-game ban)
Punished after appealing against improper conduct charge following criticism of referee Martin Atkinson after 2-1 defeat at Chelsea last month.
* Wayne Rooney
Charged with using offensive language after swearing at camera following hat-trick at West Ham last Saturday.
If he accepts the charge, Rooney will miss Saturday's league visit of Fulham as well as the FA Cup semi-final with Manchester City on 16 April.