Sir Alex Ferguson will have to watch the all-Manchester FA Cup semi-final from the Wembley stands after paying the penalty for his outspoken criticisms of referees with a record five-match touchline ban.
The Manchester United manager has also been fined £30,000 after the Football Association found him guilty of improper conduct and decided to take a hard-line stance over his decision to fight the charge rather than accept that he had gone too far in his condemnation of Martin Atkinson after United’s league defeat at Chelsea earlier this month.
For that offence Ferguson was banned from the touchline for three games, starting with the trip to West Ham United on 2 April, a home match against Fulham the following week and then the semi-final against Manchester City. The most decorated manager in the history of the sport will suffer the indignity of being the first to be barred from the dug-out area for a match at Wembley.
The FA has also invoked a suspended two-match touchline ban on Ferguson that had been hanging over him from a previous charge, from October 2009 when he accused Alan Wiley of being physically unfit to referee in the Premier League.
Although United’s fixture list is subject to change, that takes in a home match against Everton and means Ferguson will have to find alternative seating arrangements for the potential title decider against Arsenal on 1 May.
It represents the longest ban any Premier League manager has faced for comments about match officials. After Saturday’s game at home to Bolton Wanderers, it will be seven weeks before Ferguson is allowed back in the dug-out for a domestic game.
The case against Ferguson was that he had alleged bias during an angry dissection of Atkinson’s performance, saying he should not have been appointed because the occasion demanded “a fair referee”.
Ferguson, who had been incensed by Atkinson’s officiating of a 2-1 defeat for the league leaders, had decided to fight the charge against the recommendation of United’s legal advisers, who had warned him he was running the risk of incurring a longer ban than if he had pleaded guilty.
Ferguson has been given until Friday to appeal but doing so would be steeped in complications and, again, risk the FA deciding to increase the punishment if it rejected his case. On that basis he has been advised to accept the punishment, even though it exceeds everything he had been warned to expect.
This is the fifth time in as many years Ferguson has faced charges for either criticising referees in the media or abusing them at matches but this is the most severe punishment by some distance, causing widespread anger within Old Trafford.
Their understanding was that this charge was not considered as serious as the personal attack Ferguson made on Wiley, when he accused him of catching his breath during breaks in play and not keeping up with the ball. On that occasion Ferguson was punished with a four-match touchline ban – two suspended – and a £20,000 fine. So the fact he has been given a heavier punishment this time indicates a desire on the FA’s part to take a hard line with a man who is regarded as one of the worst offenders in the sport when it comes to criticising referees and not adhering to the guidelines set out in the organisation’s Respect campaign.
Ferguson has served two-match bans on four previous occasions in the last eight years and has now received fines totalling £75,000. The United manager had made his views clear at the weekend when he maintained he was entitled to say what he had about Atkinson.
“I will be defending myself strongly when my FA appeal hearing comes up,” he said. “In fact, I am looking forward to the challenge because, to my mind, I have not said anything out of place. I felt aggrieved and now face an FA charge for what, to my mind, was simply telling the truth.”
His mood is unlikely to be improved by comments from Raymond Verheijen, the renowned fitness conditioning expert, about the club’s fitness and medical department.
Verhaijen was the performance manager for the South Korea national team in the World Cup and has also worked with the Dutch and Russian teams as well as several clubs, including Manchester City, Chelsea, Zenit St Petersburg and Barcelona.
In a series of messages on his Twitter site he expresses his apparent belief that United’s fitness staff have “messed up” at a time when 11 players are injured and there are serious doubts about Owen Hargreaves’s ability to play at the top level again.