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

You can follow Cameron on Twitter here.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn sitting down with President Bernie Sanders no longer sounds so outlandish

Both men have a certain authenticity and unpretentiousness that their rivals lack.

Unlike many of us, Bernie Sanders never doubted Jeremy Corbyn. The week before the general election, the independent US senator from Vermont was addressing a crowd of progressive voters in Brighton during a whirlwind tour of the UK. An audience member asked him what advice he might have for the leader of the Labour Party. “I don’t think Jeremy Corbyn needs my advice,” Sanders replied. “I think he’s doing quite well.”

The week after the election, a delighted Sanders invoked Corbyn’s election performance in a New York Times op-ed. “The British elections should be a lesson for the Democratic Party,” he wrote, urging the Democrats to stop holding on to an “overly cautious, centrist ideology” and explaining how “momentum shifted to Labour after it released a very progressive manifesto that generated much enthusiasm among young people and workers”.

Sanders and his growing movement in the United States offered more than mere rhetorical support for Corbyn.

With the help of former members of the senator’s presidential campaign team, Momentum – the grass-roots organisation set up to support and defend Corbyn in 2015 – ran 33 training sessions across the UK, preparing thousands of Labour activists.

Momentum’s national organiser Emma Rees says that the Sanders people made a “significant contribution” to the Labour campaign with their emphasis “on having empathetic conversations that focused on the issues the voter cared about, and actually trying to persuade voters on the doorstep rather than just collecting data”.

“In the final stage, I recruited a bunch of former Bernie volunteers from around [the United States] to . . . help get out a last [get out the vote] texting assignment,” recalls Claire Sandberg, who was the digital organising director for Sanders and spent the 2017 election campaign working with Momentum in the UK. “It was an amazing thing to see them volunteering . . . while we were all asleep the night before election day.”

Is it really surprising that Sanders supporters, thousands of miles away, would want to volunteer for Corbyn? Both men are mavericks; both have a certain authenticity and unpretentiousness that their rivals lack; both, in the words of Emma Rees, “have inspired tens of thousands of people to participate in the political process and to realise their collective power” and they want “to transform society in the interests of ordinary people”. Perhaps above all else, both men have proved that left populism can win millions of votes.

According to the latest polls, if another election were held in the UK tomorrow, Corbyn would be the winner. Sanders, however, has a much higher mountain to climb in the US and faces at least three obstacles that the “British Bernie” does not.

First, Sanders leads a growing grass-roots movement but does not have the support of a party machine and infrastructure.

Corbyn may have been a backbench rebel who voted against his party whip more than 500 times before becoming party leader, but he is a lifelong Labour member.

Sanders, on the other hand, is the longest-serving independent politician in US congressional history. He declared himself a Democrat in 2015 only in order to seek the party’s presidential nomination and promptly declared himself an independent again after he was defeated by Hillary Clinton last summer.

Such behaviour has allowed establishment Democrats to portray him (wrongly) as an opportunist, an interloper who is using the Democratic Party as a vehicle for his own benefit in a country where third-party candidacies cannot succeed.

Second, Sanders has to confront an even more hostile and sceptical media than Corbyn must. Under US law, Fox News is under no obligation to be “fair and balanced” towards Sanders – nor is CNN, for that matter.

Thanks to the UK rules on broadcaster impartiality, however, Corbyn was “able to speak directly to the voters who still get their news from TV instead of the internet”, Sandberg notes. “In contrast, Bernie was completely and totally shut out by broadcast media in the US, which considered his campaign totally irrelevant.”

Third, Sanders failed to connect with minority groups, and especially with African Americans, whereas black and Asian British voters flocked to Corbyn – a veteran campaigner for the anti-racism movement.

Two out of every three ethnic-minority voters voted Labour on 8 June. “Bernie would’ve won [the Democratic nomination] if he’d had a message that resonated with 50 per cent – just 50 per cent – of black voters, because Hillary got upwards of 90 per cent in many states,” the activist and journalist Naomi Klein, who is a supporter of both Sanders and Corbyn, told me in a recent interview for my al-Jazeera English show, UpFront, which will air later this month.

Nevertheless, she is confident that Sanders can learn lessons from his own campaign for the 2016 Democratic nomination, and “build a winning coalition” next time which ties together the narratives of financial, racial and gender inequality.

Just as it was a mistake to write off Jeremy Corbyn, it would be wrong to dismiss Bernie Sanders.

Despite media bias, and even though he doesn’t have a party machine behind him, Sanders today is still the most popular politician in the United States. And so this may be only the beginning of a new, transatlantic partnership between the two self-declared socialists. Those of us on the left who grew up watching Reagan and Thatcher, then Clinton and Blair, then Bush and Blair, may wish to pinch ourselves to check we’re not dreaming.

“I think by 2021,” Sandberg says, “we may see Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn sitting down with President Bernie Sanders.”

Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496