MANCHESTER UNITED manager Alex Ferguson has denied a charge of improper conduct, the FA last night confirmed.
Although Ferguson has until Tuesday to respond to the charge, brought against him following his comments about referee Martin Atkinson in the immediate aftermath of Manchester United’s Premier League defeat at Chelsea last Tuesday, the 69-year-old has already confirmed his challenge.
A personal hearing will be scheduled at a date no later than Friday, March 25.
Ferguson appeared to bring Atkinson’s integrity into question when he claimed “in matches like this you want a fair referee” in his post-match interview with the club’s in-house television station, MUTV.
The United boss went on to explain he had “feared the worst” when he discovered Atkinson was going to referee the game, having been critical of the Yorkshire man’s decisions in the corresponding fixture 12 months ago, when Chelsea won through a controversial John Terry winner.
It had been suggested Ferguson would minimise any potential penalty should he accept the charge.
However, the United boss also knows such an admission would trigger a two-match touchline ban that is currently suspended after he called Alan Wiley’s fitness into question last season.
It means Ferguson could expect to spend a minimum of three games in the stand, something he is not prepared to accept without a fight.
Although Ferguson’s defence has not been outlined, it is thought he will rely heavily on the fact that he immediately appeared to backtrack on the “fair” observation, stating instead that he had hoped for a “strong” referee.
It is also likely to be claimed that in fearing the worst, Ferguson was eluding to Atkinson’s ability to take charge of such a high-profile game rather than any implication of bias.
Given Atkinson failed to spot two challenges from David Luiz on Javier Hernandez and Wayne Rooney prior to Chelsea’s winner, both of which appeared to warrant a second booking for the Brazilian, who had already been shown a yellow card, the United manager may have some success.
However, should he fail the possibility is that he would serve a four-match suspension.
Ferguson will be free to sit in the dugout at Anfield tomorrow when United tackle Liverpool and given the length of time before the hearing may take place, he could also be in his usual seat at Old Trafford for the FA Cup sixth-round tie with Arsenal on March 12.
Ferguson believes momentum will be the key to this year’s Barclays Premier League title race.
The United boss thinks whichever side is able to build up the biggest head of steam in the final weeks of the season will take the honours.
“It is what everyone expects, a very difficult league to win,” Ferguson said.
“You’ve got Arsenal, Manchester City, ourselves, Chelsea and if we all start winning games... I said many weeks ago that whoever is most consistent will win the league.
“Go back to 1998 when we were 12 points clear of Arsenal and threw that away. There’s no question if you don’t have momentum you are going to struggle to win the league.”
Meanwhile Darren Fletcher is confident his new four-year contract with United will coincide with a continued period of glory at Old Trafford.
The 27-year-old’s new deal will keep him at the Red Devils until 2015.
By then, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes will have joined Gary Neville in retirement and it is quite possible Alex Ferguson will have stepped down too.
Yet Fletcher feels United can ride out the changes and maintain their place at English football’s top table.
“I am confident in the ability we have got and the experience we have gained,” said the Scotland skipper.
“Players like Giggs, Scholes and Neville will never be replaced because they are greats of the game.
“But you hope a new wave can create their own history and have their own achievements. I believe in the ability of these players. The drive and determination to do it is there.”
Fletcher will doubtless be one of United’s key men at Anfield tomorrow, where Wes Brown is expected to be recalled in central defence to cover the absence of skipper Nemanja Vidic through suspension.
Seven days ago, Ferguson expressed confidence Rio Ferdinand would be fit to face the Merseyside giants but in the immediate aftermath of the Chelsea encounter, the United boss revealed Brown would partner Chris Smalling.
Given the significance of the occasion, and United’s desperate need to bounce back from their defeat at Stamford Bridge, it would be no surprise if Ryan Giggs was named in the visitors’ starting line-up, with 20-goal Dimitar Berbatov also hoping for a place.
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