LONDON — It was a line that was always going to come back to haunt him.

“We can’t dispute referees’ decisions,” said Manchester United assistant manager Mike Phelan after referee Mark Clattenburg was just about the only person not to believe Wayne Rooney should have been sent off for elbowing Wigan’s James McCarthy.

Sure enough, three days later Sir Alex Ferguson gave the hair dryer treatment to referee Martin Atkinson after United lost 2-1 at Chelsea.

True, Atkinson had a poor game, his crucial decisions favoring Chelsea, but Ferguson’s outburst was entirely predictable: like so many losing managers he blamed the referee.

He said: “You want a fair referee, or a strong one anyway and we didn’t get it.”

The Football Association charged Ferguson with improper conduct for his comments. If found guilty he will probably be handed a two-game touchline ban, while he also has two games of a four-match ban from last season hanging over him.

A four-game suspension and a fine of maybe £30,000 is a non-punishment. United will pay any fine, while the touchline ban means Ferguson will sit a few rows behind the technical area. At least the fourth official will have a quieter life.

Why the F.A. even bothers with such a weak, spineless punishment is beyond me, it is no more than a token gesture. Until the F.A. follows UEFA’s lead and bans a manager from having any contact with his players before or during the match, managers will continue to behave as they do.

Ferguson overlooked the fact that United had only two shots on target during the game, one was Wayne Rooney’s goal, the England striker fluffed two other good chances and that Nemanja Vidic, already on a yellow card, was sent off for a second cautionable offense in stoppage time when he tugged Ramires’ shirt.

Vidic misses Sunday’s game against Liverpool, so United’s central defensive partnership will be the inexperienced Chris Smalling, and John O’Shea for Wes Brown, who has become a fringe player this season.

The title is still United’s to lose but Liverpool would like nothing better than to damage its Merseyside rival’s chances of overtaking its total of 18 title successes.

A home victory for Arsenal against Sunderland today and defeat for United at Anfield would leave the Gunners one point behind the Reds with a game in hand. As Manchester City and Chelsea can expect to beat Wigan and Blackpool, respectively, at home they, too, could close the gap on United by Monday, Game on.

If United win its 19th title it will be Ferguson’s greatest achievement. The Scot has built five or six different United teams since the Premier League began in 1992, and by common consent this is the weakest.

They have no superstar like Cristiano Ronaldo, no enforcer in the Roy Keane mold, there is an alarming lack of goals from midfield’s Paul Scholes, Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick, Anderson and Darron Gibson, who have scored just three league goals between them this season.

Wayne Rooney, with five goals in his last five league games, is at least slowly returning to his best but United’s away form is poor having already dropped 22 points on the road.

So it is a testament to Ferguson’s management and leadership plus the inner spirit that has seen United come back from seemingly impossible situations on half a dozen occasions that have enabled the Reds to stay ahead of the pack.

However, a growing number of observers are beginning to doubt whether they will be top at the end of the season. Anfield is always a difficult place for United as Liverpool always raises its game when the boys from Manchester are in town.

United has to play Chelsea at home, West Ham away, where it has lost on two of its last four visits, while the May 1 clash with Arsenal at Emirates Stadium is already being billed as the title decider.

Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish does not believe another defeat for United would spell the end of its title chances but he is aware that Arsenal, particularly, will be hoping for a home win Sunday.

He said: “If we get a result Sunday it’s more helpful for us than harmful for them. We want to help ourselves first and if we help someone else . . . fine.”

* * * * *

IF I WAS a professional athlete, I would not even take an aspirin without consulting the club doctor. Even innocent medical “cures” can contain a banned substance, so why risk it?

Just about every sportsman (or woman) found guilty of taking a banned substance claimed they had no idea they did anything wrong. Ignorance does not mean innocence.

I have no idea what Kolo Toure, the Manchester City defender, took that caused him to fail a drug test and be banned pending the outcome of the legal process. The A-sample he provided tested positive for a specified substance.

But there can be no excuse for taking any substance that is on the banned list. Check first, take later.

Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for theLondon Daily Telegraph.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.