Sir Alex Ferguson's 63rd birthday present from the Football Association tomorrow will be a three-match ban for his striker Wayne Rooney which will leave the Manchester United manager with only one international striker at his disposal.
The FA's new fast-track disciplinary system caught up with Rooney last night when the 19-year-old was charged with violent conduct for the gentle slap he administered to Tal Ben Haim in Sunday's match against Bolton Wanderers - an offence that was missed by the referee, Dermot Gallagher.
The decision by the FA is unlikely to improve the fractious temper of the United manager, who on Monday scattered reporters' dictaphones in a rant against coverage of the incident. Ferguson's mood will also be darkened by the fact that there is nothing he can do to contest the charge.
Rooney has until the end of today to either "admit or deny" the charge before an FA disciplinary commission meets tomorrow to decide the punishment. Unlike the previous system, which still operates for certain cases, Rooney has no right to request a personal hearing. That means United are powerless to delay the ban and they will not have the option of representing the player at tomorrow's commission.
The only consolation for United is that one of the games Rooney will miss will be the visit of Exeter City to Old Trafford in the third round of the FA Cup on 8 January. His ban will start on Saturday for the match at Middlesbrough and he will also be unavailable for Tuesday's home game with Tottenham Hotspur.
For those three games Alan Smith will be United's only fit striker and is almost certain to be partnered in attack by Ryan Giggs. Ruud van Nistelrooy is not expected to recover from an Achilles problem until the end of February and Louis Saha is still struggling with a knee injury.
There is little chance that United will be publicly contrite over Rooney's punishment. Ferguson is convinced that the scrutiny of his teenage striker has become unreasonable and was furious at the way in which the incident with Ben Haim was flagged up on the BBC's Match of the Day.
In private, however, United will admit that their £22m striker raised his hands to an opponent which is an automatic sending-off offence, and carries with it a three-match ban.
It is the second time that a United player has been charged with violent conduct this season on video evidence after Van Nistelrooy was punished with a three-match ban for stamping on Ashley Cole during the match against Arsenal on 24 October.
The decision will also re-open old wounds about the bias that Ferguson believes exists against his club within the FA. Although United's chief executive, David Gill, is now a member of the FA council, Ferguson has always been suspicious of the influence of the Arsenal vice-chairman, David Dein, at the governing body. He is also understood be ambivalent about the new chief executive, Brian Barwick.
In an added twist, Ben Haim was charged with improper conduct for his exaggerated reaction to a hand in the face by Rooney. That offence, which was also missed by referee Gallagher, is the first time that a player has been charged with cheating, or "simulation" by an FA disciplinary commission reviewing video evidence. It means that the FA have made a major decision to take on players who dive in order to get opponents punished. This season there has been criticism of those who have been shown to dive: most notably Arsenal's Patrick Vieira who, replays showed, threw himself to the ground against Liverpool.Reuse content