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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Richard Burden
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The warnings Bosnian gravestones carry for us in 2016

Xenophobia does not usually lead to Srebrenica. But it can do.

Two weeks ago, I joined a visit to Bosnia organised by Remember Srebrenica. If you have ever seen one of the Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries in Northern France, you will have a sense of what the cemetery in Potocari, near Srebrenica, is like. Row upon row of identical white headstones stretching into the distance. Whereas in France, of course, most of the headstones are marked by the cross, in Potocari they are white obelisks. Overwhelmingly, they mark the graves of Muslims.

In the 1990s, the old battery factory of Potocari was the headquarters of Dutch troops. They had been deployed to uphold the United Nations designation of the enclave as a safe area. Their presence, however, did not stop Serb troops from rounding up around 25,000 people sheltering at the base in July 1995. Once the UN troops stood aside, families were divided. Most of the women and children were loaded and sent west to areas of the country still controlled by the Bosnian government. The men and boys were loaded on to separate trucks. Within days, most of them were systematically shot.

Many other men and boys had already taken to the woods to escape, only to face shells, snipers and ambush on the way. Some, like 19-year-old Hasan Hasanovic, made it through to free territory around Tuzla. Many did not. Those did not die in the woods were either persuaded to give themselves up, or were captured. Like the men and boys who had been taken from outside the UN base at Potocari, most simply disappeared. To this day, their bones are still being found in or near mass graves in eastern Bosnia.

And so, 21 years on, I met Hasan at Potocari. July1995 was the last time he saw his twin brother Hussein, his father Aziz or his uncle, Hasan.

The former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan described the Srebrenica massacre as the worst crime on European soil since the Second World War. Indeed, the word massacre doesn’t convey the enormity of what happened. Earlier this year, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia found 1990s Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic guilty of involvement in genocide. The verdict in the trial of military leader Ratko Mladic is expected later this year.

Nobody who visits Potocari can fail to be moved by what you see there. For me, it brought back memories of how, as a new MP back in the 1990s, I was one of those calling for more assertive international action to stop the carnage that was unfolding in Bosnia. It was an unfamiliar position to find myself in. All my political life until that point, I had been amongst those opposing involvement in military action abroad. Now I found myself supporting intervention. For three years before the Srebrenica genocide, people in Sarajevo had been starved of food, medicines and even the means to defend themselves as their city was remorselessly pounded from the hills that surround it. We knew it. We could see it on TV. We also saw that neither Europe nor NATO nor the UN were taking action that could have stopped it.

There were always so many geopolitical reasons not to intervene effectively. I heard them day after day from Ministers in the House of Commons. But that did not help the men, women and children who were dying in Sarajevo, and in 1995 it did not save Hasan’s twin brother, his father, his uncle or the 8,000 others who ended up in the mass graves around Srebrenica.

Since I have returned from Bosnia, two things keep dominating my thinking. The first is about Syria. The political circumstances that have led to the destruction of Aleppo today are not the same as those facing Sarajevo in the 1990s. For people trapped there though, the parallels must feel much more real than the differences. I don’t claim to have an off-the-shelf action plan for what the international community should do today any more than anyone else does. I just keep thinking how in twenty years’ time, people visiting Aleppo - hopefully reconstructed as Sarajevo has been today - will ask: “How could the world have let this happen in 2016?” What will be our answer?

The other thing that dominates my thoughts is that the genocide in Bosnia hit people like me. A man I met, who unexpectedly found himself becoming a soldier in 1992, told me how, before the war, he wore a t-shirt, jeans and an earring. On a good day, he would to listen to the Ramones. On a bad day, it would be the Sex Pistols. I am a bit older than him, but this was still my generation. And it happened In Europe.

What is more, the murders and the ethnic cleansing were not committed by strangers. So often, they were committed by neighbours. These were normal people who had been whipped up to dehumanise those who they were told were “different”. They were told that their way of life was under threat. They internalised it. They believed it. And, down the line, they no longer needed persuading it was “them or us”.

Most of the time, xenophobia does not lead to the horrors that have scarred Srebrenica forever. But it can do. That a lesson for all of us must never forget. So next time you hear someone talking about people living either down the road or across the sea being "them" not "us", don't shrug and walk away. Speak up and speak out instead.

Richard Burden is Labour MP for Birmingham Northfield and a Shadow Transport Minister. He visited Bosnia with the Remembering Srebrenica charity in October 2016. You can find out more about the Remembering Srebrenica charity here.

Richard Burden is MP for Birmingham Northfield. Follow him on Twitter @RichardBurdenMP.