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Ferguson zips his lips after charge

Sir Alex Ferguson has withdrawn from all media duties - including Manchester United's in-house MUTV - after he was charged by the FA over his criticism of referee Martin Atkinson.

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Ferguson is facing a touchline ban for questioning whether Atkinson was "fair" or "strong" enough to handle United's high-profile clash with Chelsea and saying he "feared the worst" when he saw the referee had been appointed to the fixture.

Ironically, those comments were made exclusively to United's own TV station, MUTV, a fact that has convinced Ferguson and the club to cut off its access to the manager. Ferguson criticised Atkinson's decisions in his other post-match interview but did not question his ability or impartiality.

Ferguson has cancelled his pre-match press conference ahead of Sunday's visit to Liverpool, which could be his last match in the dug-out for some time unless he successfully appeals the FA sanction. Unless he can have the charge overturned, he will automatically be banned for two games from a previous suspended punishment plus whatever new measures are taken against him for this latest breach. He has until Tuesday to decide whether to accept or challenge the charge.

Meanwhile, the head of the union which represents referees said Ferguson could have escaped a ban had he issued a swift apology. Alan Leighton, head of the Prospect union, told BBC Radio Five Live: "Everybody would prefer to see an apology and an explanation and then move on. In the absence of that, a charge is going to take place.''

Leighton does not feel referees live in fear of Ferguson's criticism.

"I don't think they fear anybody, I think they referee without fear or favour and that is absolutely right,'' Leighton said. "I think there is an issue in that (Ferguson) isn't the only one - all managers need to think about what they say in terms of criticising referees. All of the referees understand that their performances will be criticised and their decisions will be criticised, and they are absolutely fine with that, not a problem.

"But when the fundamental ability of the referee to do his job is criticised - in terms of physical fitness or integrity - then that line has been crossed. If managers are going to start questioning the integrity of referees, then they can't be surprised when action is taken against them.''

Ferguson at least has some support in the form of League Managers' Association chief Richard Bevan, who said the manager's outburst was to be expected after Atkinson failed to send off Chelsea defender David Luiz for two unpunished yellow card offences.

Bevan said: "Since 1986, he has been building high-performance teams and when mistakes are made he will get angry, and in the 76th minute that was a big mistake. If you're going to interview managers after a game when so much is riding on these games, particularly a game of such high profile, then unfortunately you will get emotions going over."


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