LONDON — The five-game touchline ban and £30,000 fine handed to Sir Alex Ferguson by the Football Association for criticism of referee Martin Atkinson ranks alongside five minutes on the naughty step.

It may be the longest suspension of its kind dished out in Premier League history, but is a non-punishment.

The fine will be paid by United and the so-called ban means Ferguson will sit just a few rows behind the technical area. Big deal.

He will still be able to prepare the side before matches, speak to his players at halftime, making any necessary adjustments and telephone assistant manager Mike Phelan with substitutions.

So where is the punishment?

Ferguson’s last two-match suspensions for comments about referees saw United beat Blackburn 5-3, Sunderland 1-0, Portsmouth 4-1 and Tottenham 2-0. Draw your own conclusions.

Until the F.A. introduces UEFA’s version of a touchline ban — where the manager has no contact with his team after arriving at the ground and so cannot prepare his team, see them at halftime or be in touch with his coaching staff by cell phone — the growing custom of ref baiting will continue.

The F.A.’s weak punishment — three games for the Atkinson offense plus a two-match suspended sentence for questioning Alan Wiley’s fitness — does not fit the crime, whereas UEFA effectively prevents the manager from doing his matchday job.

Big difference and the reason why serial ref critics do not sound off after Champions League ties — they know UEFA will come down heavily on them.

A common belief is that it is all right to criticize referees because we have freedom of speech, though Ferguson and United have a hair trigger when it comes to banning journalists and newspapers for headlines or perceived criticism.

Freedom of speech doesn’t seem to be a two-way street at Old Trafford.

Managers have brainwashed the great unwashed into believing it’s the man (or woman) in black who robbed their team of victory. Lose and it’s the ref’s fault.

A couple of weeks ago, I went through a Sunday red top and in 17 of the match reports a manager “blasted” the referee. The conclusion was that referees cost 17 teams three points.

Not the way the team had played, it was the ref’s fault. Utter garbage.

One of the most worrying developments of the Premier League overlooked by the freedom of speech supporters is that match officials have to be transported to and from grounds in “safe cars.”

The scheme was introduced in the wake of a number of attacks and threats on officials. Rob Harris, leaving West Ham, had to drive through a red light outside the Boleyn pub as a mob started to thump his car, David Elleray was given a panic alarm by the police after threats from Chelsea fans, while Graham Poll was attacked at the Riverside.

How sad that it was no longer deemed safe for our officials to make their own way to grounds. Such fanatical feelings have come from the constant criticism of referees, most of all doubting their impartiality and integrity, by managers, which the F.A. has allowed to continue.

Ferguson had said of Atkinson: “You want a fair referee, or a strong referee, anyway, and we didn’t get that. I must say, when I saw who the referee was I feared the worst.”

Referees make human errors but they are always honest mistakes.

Ferguson’s comments implied Atkinson was going to favor one side more than another.

Remarks like “had that been at the other end it would have been a penalty” imply bias. When managers swear at match officials and doubt their honesty, how can we expect players and supporters to respect them?

Yes, we are a country that has fought for the right of free speech but in the land of the free the National Football League has a rule that is basically “you can say what you like about anything and anyone, but you cannot speak about match officials.”

In the United States, game officials enjoy an anonymity our referees must envy. The F.A. is too weak to even consider implementing the NFL’s rule.

The answer initially lies with managers to self-police themselves, but with blame culture epidemic these days we can forget that. Club chairmen could remind managers of their responsibilities, but managers are so powerful these days the chances of that happening are alongside a lottery rollover win.

The F.A. could change its disciplinary system to follow UEFA’s lead, but any change at English football’s headquarters seems to take 100 years.

So losing managers will continue to pass the buck and blame referees for defeat because nobody can — or rather is willing to — stop them.

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THE CRITICISM of the two F.A. Cup semifinals being staged at Wembley next month was as misplaced as it was predictable. It is ridiculous that the fans of four teams from the north — Manchester United and City, plus Stoke and Bolton — should have to travel to London, we were told by media pundits looking for an easy target.

Wembley can accommodate 90,000, which means around 40,000 supporters from each of the semifinalists be able to see the games. Villa Park, the pre-Wembley semifinal venue, has a capacity of 42,000 which would reduce the number of fans to less than half the Wembley total.

Newcastle’s St. James’ Park has a capacity of only 52,000.

So if we want the maximum number of supporters to cheer their team as it bids for a place in the final, then Wembley is the best venue, a fact overlooked as the angry brigade was busy accusing the Football Association of greed.

What is madness is the timing of the semifinals — April 16-17. April 17 is also the date of the London Marathon, while Arsenal plays Liverpool in the Premier League a few miles from Wembley.

Only in England would such a clash occur.

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FULHAM chairman Mohammed Al-Fayed will unveil a life-size statue of Michael Jackson at Craven Cottage on April 3 in memory of his friendship with the singer who died in June 2009.

Fayed said: “Michael Jackson was truly a legend, a term used too often in this modern world saturated in the hyperbole surrounding celebrity.”

Few would disagree with Fayed’s view, but what on earth has Wacko Jacko got to do with football?

William Shakespeare was a true legend, so was Bob Hope, who was born in southeast London but should not football stadiums be for football legends?

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

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