Alex Ferguson’s latest display of petulance threatens to tarnish a formidable legacy

The FA’s failure to punish the biggest child in the playground makes a mockery of "Respect" campaigns.

As Sir Alex Ferguson strolled towards the tunnel at Old Trafford on Boxing Day, his arm draped around the shoulder of his match winner, Mexican striker Javier Hernandez, the most decorated coach in the history of English football could reflect on another job well done.

Rewind 45 minutes, however, and the 70-year-old Manchester United manager had been anything but calm and serene.

Fresh from watching his team concede two goals in a league match for the ninth time this season and incensed at what he felt was an offside strike against his side, the combustible Scotsman marched onto the Old Trafford turf to confront referee Mike Dean and assistant Jake Collin as the sides returned after half-time.

Dean, himself hardly a shrinking violet, was taken aback as Ferguson, more regularly a man to save his vitriol for post-match interviews, made a bee-line for the official and let loose - much to the delight of the watching 75,000.

Somewhat inevitably, once the tirade had passed and the match had been restarted, United shook off their festive lethargy and regained a stranglehold at the top of the Premier League.

Understandably, however, it was Ferguson’s conduct that attracted most column inches in the post-match press conference despite not registering a flicker of interest from the Football Association’s disciplinary committee.

While Harry Redknapp and Roberto Mancini found themselves in hot water over comments made about officials during the festive period, Ferguson also mysteriously evaded censure for his attack on Michael Oliver over the referee’s performance in the Manchester club’s draw at Swansea ten days ago.

To be fair, neither incident was much worse than any number of managerial indiscretions at league grounds all over the country every week and without a report from Dean, there is little under their own rules that the FA can do to punish Ferguson’s Boxing Day rant.

However, the sound of FA silence in the immediate aftermath of both fixtures was just another straw on the back of the most beleaguered of sporting bodies and an indication that there is one figure in English football operating above the law.  

I wrote in September how confused thinking over the Luis Suarez and John Terry racism sagas had drilled major holes in the credibility of the FA but this latest failure is arguably more damaging.

By neglecting to constrain the nation’s most prominent manager time and time again, the FA are not only setting a corrosive example to young players emerging in the professional game with an engrained sense of entitlement- but they are also adding to the entrenched sense of tribalism that continues to affect supporters, players and managers in England’s top division.

In fairness, respect for officials is only an easy notion to follow until your team cops a dodgy decision four minutes into injury time and Ferguson is not alone in failing to see the bigger picture.

For the man himself, such a series of rants are inconsequential and completely logical. If, by hammering an official or lambasting a journalist he can get a rise out of his players or, in last week’s instance, the crowd, he will have deemed the move justifiable.

And why not? The Scotsman is so rarely admonished for his displays of insanity that the risk of an occasional reprimand is more than worth the potential benefit.

But for a man so keen on securing his footballing legacy, surely Ferguson should be looking to leave a better impression as a human being as the clock winds down on his career.

As previous seasons have culminated in title winning moments for his club, Ferguson has been known to spend time away from the spotlight of the Premier League.

When his side captured a first league title in four years as Chelsea failed to win at Arsenal in May 2007, Ferguson himself was watching his grandson play a crucial school league game, rather than events at The Emirates.

In the wake of Ferguson’s conduct over the last fortnight, one has to ask what the 70-year-old’s grandson will have made of seeing his esteemed elder throw tantrum after tantrum on the hallowed Old Trafford turf.

Chelsea’s melodramatic former talisman Didier Drogba was eventually shamed into changing some of his ludicrous on pitch diving antics after a conversation with his young son, however it is difficult to see Ferguson having a similar conversation with his extended family.

This is where stronger FA action may actually help the godfather of the Premier League.

Ferguson could and should have been punished each and every time he missed mandatory press briefings at the end of matches covered by the BBC as a result of a 2004 documentary. Instead, the Scotsman was granted seven years of grace before the BBC themselves went to Old Trafford, bottle of wine in one hand and brokered peace.

The FA, fearing the influence of Ferguson, stood by and did nothing.

The reality is however, that Manchester United’s most successful manager would rather secure a third Champions League title of his tenure than temper any of his antagonistic instincts in order to be remembered as a great man as well as a fantastic manager.

Ferguson’s legacy, as he and millions of Manchester United fans may argue, will be defined by trophies captured and not by displays of occasional decorum.

Yet, if the FA are prepared to be harder on him and force some humility from Ferguson at times like these, the United boss might just be left with a debt of gratitude to the rulers of the English game when the final whistle is blown on his career. 

Alex Ferguson shouts at assistant referee Jake Collin during the Boxing Day match against Newcastle United. Photograph: Getty Images

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Despite new challengers, Andrew Marr is still the king of the Sunday-morning politics skirmish

The year began with a strong challenge from Sophy Ridge, who scored a coup with her Theresa May interview. By week two, though, the normal order was restored.

The BBC can declare at least one victory for its news division in 2017. In what was dubbed “the battle of the bongs”, ITV’s regrettable decision to shift the News at Ten to 10.30pm for a couple of months this year in favour of a new entertainment show means that the corporation’s flagship bulletin will be once more unchallenged. But the war among the UK’s television channels has shifted to new territory: now it’s Sunday-morning sofa skirmishes.

This year began with the equivalent of ravens leaving the Tower. The Prime Minister’s New Year interview, cherished for decades by David Frost and then by Andrew Marr, migrated from the BBC to Sky News. It was a coup for Sophy Ridge, whose new show marks the arrival of a woman into what had previously been male territory. It intensified the pressure on the BBC after the blow last year of the defection of Robert Peston to ITV, lured by the promise of his own show to rival Marr’s.

By week two, though, the normal order was restored. The biggest interviewee, Jeremy Corbyn, was on The Andrew Marr Show and his lieutenants John McDonnell and Emily Thornberry were deployed on Sky and ITV. These things matter because the Sunday-morning political programmes often generate the headlines for the rest of the day’s broadcasting and for the Monday papers; and the commercial companies want to dent the BBC’s reputation for setting the agenda. The corporation can often do it by the sheer volume of its output on TV, including the estimable Sunday Politics, and on radio; but it’s a plus for audiences if other voices can be heard.

The Andrew Marr Show has traditionally secured the A-list guests because it has by far the highest ratings. Its most powerful asset is Marr, who was a transformative political editor for the BBC and possesses, as New Statesman readers know, an original and free-thinking take on the issues of the day. The energy in the programme comes from him but he is not helped by a staid production: a predictable format, a set with a London skyline and a superannuated sofa. There aren’t many laughs. The review of the papers has become cumbersome with the addition of a statutory Brexiteer, and the supposed light relief is supplied by arts plugging of the kind that seems mandatory in every BBC News programme. We are invited, wherever we are in the UK, to pop along to the West End to see the latest production involving the actor-interviewee of the day. However, if there is a new political line to be found, Marr is the most likely to sniff it out.

By contrast, Peston on Sunday seems to have consumed a lot of fizzy drinks. It is sharp and contemporary-looking and it bounces along, thanks to the interplay between Peston and his sidekick, Allegra Stratton. It is more willing to take risks, as in the entertainingly acidic recent exchanges between Piers Morgan and Alastair Campbell, and it works as a piece of television even if it doesn’t have the top guests. It merits its repeat in the evening, when it gains a bigger audience than in the live transmission.

Guests may be more crucial to the success of Sophy Ridge on Sunday. It looks lovely in its sparkling new studio, but the prime ministerial scoop of the launch show was followed by an interview with Nigel Farage and a dull encounter with a union official. There is a commendable attempt to get out of London and to hear from the public, and it’s refreshing to locate an MP such as Tom Watson in a West Bromwich café. The programme is also trying to book more women interviewees, and one paper review featured a token man; but can it be a must-watch for news junkies or entertaining enough for a casual viewer?

There is only so much that producers can do to lure the right guests. If you meet any broadcaster these days, they immediately gripe about the attempts by Downing Street to control who appears where – which has been applied with particular vigour under the May administration: hence Boris Johnson recently appearing as duty minister on both Marr and Peston on the same morning, which neither channel finds ideal.

There is a trap, in that obtaining quotesfor the rest of the media is only part of the remit. In these uncertain political times, audiences need knowledge, too, and an interview that merely zips through the news lines of the day may add little to our understanding of policy and the choices faced by government. All of these shows feature presenters with formidable brainpower and it is perfectly possible to meld that into a programme that is worth watching.

Peston’s show makes an attempt with Stratton’s big screen to provide context and statistics, but it could do more – and it might painlessly lose some of the witless tweets that pass for interaction. It’s a further conundrum of television that Marr’s most interesting takes on current issues are often in his documentaries or writing rather than on his eponymous show. The guardians of impartiality may twitch, but viewers would benefit from him being given more freedom.

There is the rest of the world to consider, too. It was striking on a Sunday just ahead of the inauguration of Donald Trump that none of these shows had a major American player. While Michel Barnier was making the news in the weekend papers, no decision-maker from the EU was featured, either. This is not a phenomenon of Brexit: television has always found it easier to plonk a bottom on a sofa in SW1 than to engage in the long-term wooing that gets significant international guests. Yet, as we are allegedly preparing to launch ourselves into the wider world, hearing from its key decision-makers is part of the enlightenment we need, too.

Roger Mosey is the master of Selwyn College, Cambridge, and a former head of BBC Television news

Roger Mosey is the Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge. He was formerly editorial director and the director of London 2012 at the BBC.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era