Sunday 16 March ~
Sir Alex Ferguson always has plenty to say after matches. To the extent that it's big news when he fails to comment all, as when he stormed away from the Manchester derby last month without speaking to the press. A hugely successful career has had an insulating effect on Ferguson – he can't be expected to care what anyone thinks about his post-match complaints, which is just as well as they are often crass and boorish. But while commentators dismiss these rants as little more than frustration boiling over, others see a broader purpose. Ferguson, the theory, goes, always has a strategy in mind, whether it is to fire up his players, pressurise referees, or rattle opposing managers. Occasionally it seems that he might be trying to do all those things at once, as with his comments about Cristiano Ronaldo being hounded out of English football.
There is no question that Ronaldo is getting some rough treatment. He was clobbered regularly, possibly even systematically, by opposing defenders in United's FA Cup tie with Portsmouth last week and got more of the same against Derby yesterday. To an extent it's simply an effect of Ronaldo's success as a United player. Having scored 31 goals already this season, he is clearly not intimidated by being singled out. He would be a great loss to United's bid for two titles if he were to pick up an injury and there is every chance that he could at the rate at which opposition studs are flying in every week. Not that Ronaldo would get an easier time if he was to move to Italy or Spain – star players are targeted there too.
Man Utd have been a hard-tackling team themselves in the recent past, notably in matches against Arsenal when José-Antonio Reyes and Robert Pires at various times came in for rough treatment. It seems unlikely that certain United players would have been disregarding instructions from Sir Alex when taking such a robust approach. But it happens that the strength of the current side, possibly the most attractive that Sir Alex has assembled, lies in their expansive attacking play. In Sir Alex's eyes, lenient referees who fail to punish systematic fouling are as big an obstacle to his team's success as any opponents. Referees chief Keith Hackett has defended his officials in a direct and seemingly very heated conversation with Sir Alex.
It's understandable the referees don't want to be made into scapegoats. But two-thirds of all yellow cards are currently handed out in the second half of matches at a time when there has clearly been a marked increased in two-footed diving tackles. Players foul with impunity because they often get verbal cautions, but no more, several times before going into the book. Whether Sir Alex is driven more by personal interest than general principle, he is right in this instance. Matches are open and entertaining when a referee has taken a firm early line against intimidatory violence. Of course, strict referees incur manager's post-match wrath as much as lenient ones so Sir Alex will still find plenty to complain about.
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