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Mar 16, 2011

A leopard can't change its spots

By handing out a five-match touchline ban and a £30,000 fine to Sir Alex Ferguson, the FA has made a point that contrary to both popular belief and the chant that has echoed around Old Trafford this season, Manchester United are not above the law. But the latest in a long line of punishments for the longest-serving manager in English football will not be able to change the habit of a lifetime.

"We'll do what we want, we'll do what we want, we're Man United, we'll do what we want," has been a favourite ditty of the United fans this season; it is a chant that reeks of the sort of arrogance that has served to provoke resentful claims of favouritism from opposition supporters.

Ferguson, too, has dealt with accusations of arrogance for many years and though he would probably not say it out loud, he likely feels that his unprecedented success and remarkable longevity should afford him a certain level of self-assuredness. But while Sir Alex's record of course demands respect, so do football officials. The FA's Respect campaign has been running for two-and-a-half years but it is turning into a joke, regularly undermined by managers across the country. It is an idea that oozes morality in principle, but if the FA truly wants it to become a reality, it must be better enforced.

The sentence handed to Ferguson is a brave one that is certainly designed to send out a message to other bosses that public criticism of referees will not be tolerated. But while Sir Alex may have felt the brunt of the FA's book, there is one thing for certain: he will not change. This year is his 25th in English football and run-ins with the country's footballing authorities have been as regular a part of his quarter-century tenure at Old Trafford as the infamous hairdryer treatment.

Like many of his peers, Ferguson's verbal assaults over the years have mainly been reserved for referees, though his attacks on officials have rarely been borne out of pure anger. He is fiercely competitive by nature, but the Scot understands the value of diversionary tactics better than anyone else. Turning the attention towards the referee has long been Ferguson's approach, deflecting the attention off his players, especially after they have lost.

Ferguson's latest misdemeanour was suggesting Martin Atkinson should not have been appointed for United's game at Chelsea earlier this month because the match demanded "a fair referee". It was an outrageous allegation for the United boss to make but the comment itself, the subsequent media blackout he imposed and the FA charge he faced, all successfully served to turn attention away from two poor performances and disappointing defeats against Chelsea and then Liverpool in the space of a week.

But Ferguson is a man who is a role model to coaches and football fans the country and world over and it is time for him to cease the character assassinations. Football could not be played without the match officials and the off-field indiscretions of a tiny minority across the globe, who partake in the dark arts of match-fixing, should not facilitate the questioning of every referee's integrity. They are honourable people just trying to make a living. Yes, they make mistakes, and it would be hypocritical to suggest that I have always refrained from launching a torrent of abuse at a referee ruling against my own team, but Ferguson has a greater responsibility because of his position in the public eye.

The only way to enforce greater respect is to enforce more severe punishments. And while the length of Ferguson's latest ban may appear a sign of the FA finally putting its foot down, the negligible effect the penalty will have in reality is laughable. Firstly, there is the £30,000 fine. The amount - as with any financial sanctions in the modern era - represents no more than just an empty gesture. Such a figure represents mere pocket change for a man of Ferguson's wealth, even though one would hope that his humble background as the son of a Glasgow shipbuilder may help him recognise the value of money better than others. If fines are going to be dished out, a six-figure sum should be the very minimum.

Then there is the ban itself. Missing crucial fixtures in the run-in is supposed to represent the most severe aspect of the punishment. Away days at West Ham and Arsenal, along with home clashes with Bolton and Fulham and an FA Cup semi-final derby against Manchester City will be the games from which Ferguson is absent. But while the touchline aura exuded by the 69-year-old means his presence will be missed to some extent, the tangible effects are likely to be minimal. Whether it is through modern technology or a simple messenger, one can expect Ferguson will find a way to get instructions to assistant Mike Phelan without too much difficulty.

It's difficult to imagine the United boss sporting one of the headsets made famous by close friend Sam Allardyce or smuggling himself into the Old Trafford dressing-room in a laundry basket a la Jose Mourinho at Chelsea. The latter, though, won't even be necessary. A touchline ban ensures that Ferguson can still prepare the team for a game as normal, can still send them out at kick-off with a motivational message and can still speak to them at half-time to deconstruct the first-half performance and issue any necessary rallying cries.

Mourinho's rummage through mud-stained kits and dirty towels was a result of a Champions League matchday ban handed out by UEFA and the FA would do well to take a leaf out of the book of its European contemporary. Completely depriving managers of access to their players before and during matches would represent a significantly harsher punishment and one that may make bosses think before they speak. Maybe one day, Messrs Ferguson and Wenger will be forced to shuffle around the car park for 90 minutes listening intently at the stadium gates for signs of their team's fortunes from within.

Until changes are made to make managers fear the ramifications of their criticism of referees, Ferguson and his contemporaries will continue with their brazen verbal assaults, making a mockery of the concept of 'Respect'.

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