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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Hannan Fodder: This week, Daniel Hannan gets his excuses in early

I didn't do it. 

Since Daniel Hannan, a formerly obscure MEP, has emerged as the anointed intellectual of the Brexit elite, The Staggers is charting his ascendancy...

When I started this column, there were some nay-sayers talking Britain down by doubting that I was seriously going to write about Daniel Hannan every week. Surely no one could be that obsessed with the activities of one obscure MEP? And surely no politician could say enough ludicrous things to be worthy of such an obsession?

They were wrong, on both counts. Daniel and I are as one on this: Leave and Remain, working hand in glove to deliver on our shared national mission. There’s a lesson there for my fellow Remoaners, I’m sure.

Anyway. It’s week three, and just as I was worrying what I might write this week, Dan has ridden to the rescue by writing not one but two columns making the same argument – using, indeed, many of the exact same phrases (“not a club, but a protection racket”). Like all the most effective political campaigns, Dan has a message of the week.

First up, on Monday, there was this headline, in the conservative American journal, the Washington Examiner:

“Why Brexit should work out for everyone”

And yesterday, there was his column on Conservative Home:

“We will get a good deal – because rational self-interest will overcome the Eurocrats’ fury”

The message of the two columns is straightforward: cooler heads will prevail. Britain wants an amicable separation. The EU needs Britain’s military strength and budget contributions, and both sides want to keep the single market intact.

The Con Home piece makes the further argument that it’s only the Eurocrats who want to be hardline about this. National governments – who have to answer to actual electorates – will be more willing to negotiate.

And so, for all the bluster now, Theresa May and Donald Tusk will be skipping through a meadow, arm in arm, before the year is out.

Before we go any further, I have a confession: I found myself nodding along with some of this. Yes, of course it’s in nobody’s interests to create unnecessary enmity between Britain and the continent. Of course no one will want to crash the economy. Of course.

I’ve been told by friends on the centre-right that Hannan has a compelling, faintly hypnotic quality when he speaks and, in retrospect, this brief moment of finding myself half-agreeing with him scares the living shit out of me. So from this point on, I’d like everyone to keep an eye on me in case I start going weird, and to give me a sharp whack round the back of the head if you ever catch me starting a tweet with the word, “Friends-”.

Anyway. Shortly after reading things, reality began to dawn for me in a way it apparently hasn’t for Daniel Hannan, and I began cataloguing the ways in which his argument is stupid.

Problem number one: Remarkably for a man who’s been in the European Parliament for nearly two decades, he’s misunderstood the EU. He notes that “deeper integration can be more like a religious dogma than a political creed”, but entirely misses the reason for this. For many Europeans, especially those from countries which didn’t have as much fun in the Second World War as Britain did, the EU, for all its myriad flaws, is something to which they feel an emotional attachment: not their country, but not something entirely separate from it either.

Consequently, it’s neither a club, nor a “protection racket”: it’s more akin to a family. A rational and sensible Brexit will be difficult for the exact same reasons that so few divorcing couples rationally agree not to bother wasting money on lawyers: because the very act of leaving feels like a betrayal.

Or, to put it more concisely, courtesy of Buzzfeed’s Marie Le Conte:

Problem number two: even if everyone was to negotiate purely in terms of rational interest, our interests are not the same. The over-riding goal of German policy for decades has been to hold the EU together, even if that creates other problems. (Exhibit A: Greece.) So there’s at least a chance that the German leadership will genuinely see deterring more departures as more important than mutual prosperity or a good relationship with Britain.

And France, whose presidential candidates are lining up to give Britain a kicking, is mysteriously not mentioned anywhere in either of Daniel’s columns, presumably because doing so would undermine his argument.

So – the list of priorities Hannan describes may look rational from a British perspective. Unfortunately, though, the people on the other side of the negotiating table won’t have a British perspective.

Problem number three is this line from the Con Home piece:

“Might it truly be more interested in deterring states from leaving than in promoting the welfare of its peoples? If so, there surely can be no further doubt that we were right to opt out.”

If there any rhetorical technique more skin-crawlingly horrible, than, “Your response to my behaviour justifies my behaviour”?

I could go on, about how there’s no reason to think that Daniel’s relatively gentle vision of Brexit is shared by Nigel Farage, UKIP, or a significant number of those who voted Leave. Or about the polls which show that, far from the EU’s response to the referendum pushing more European nations towards the door, support for the union has actually spiked since the referendum – that Britain has become not a beacon of hope but a cautionary tale.

But I’m running out of words, and there’ll be other chances to explore such things. So instead I’m going to end on this:

Hannan’s argument – that only an irrational Europe would not deliver a good Brexit – is remarkably, parodically self-serving. It allows him to believe that, if Brexit goes horribly wrong, well, it must all be the fault of those inflexible Eurocrats, mustn’t it? It can’t possibly be because Brexit was a bad idea in the first place, or because liberal Leavers used nasty, populist ones to achieve their goals.

Read today, there are elements of Hannan’s columns that are compelling, even persuasive. From the perspective of 2020, I fear, they might simply read like one long explanation of why nothing that has happened since will have been his fault.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.