by Ifreke Inyang
After a five-game touchline ban for the manager and another for their star player – all in one month – Manchester United might be losing their air of invincibility. It started as a message of disobedience at away games, a belligerent response to the instruction of home officials to sit down. Then, last October, after Nani scored a controversial goal against Tottenham Hotspur, it was picked up by supporters at Old Trafford, too. Nani very obviously handled the ball and Tottenham goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes presumed a free-kick had been given and rolled it out to the position from where it would be taken. Referee Mark Clattenburg, however, had waved play on and Nani, the first to realise this, slotted the ball into the unguarded net. Chaos ensued but, rightly, the goal stood. ‘We’re Man United,’ sang the crowd, ‘we do what we want.’
And, quite often, they do – in the best possible sense. Against West Ham United last weekend, they did exactly what they wanted for the 45 minutes of the second half and it was magnificent. Teddy Sheringham once said the finest sight in football was watching Manchester United chase a lead and the statement is as true today as it was when he uttered it, thirteen years ago. The 3-0 down, 5-3 up game against Tottenham at White Hart Lane in 2001 was the epitome of their art, but the match at Upton Park on Saturday came not far behind, because of the finely poised nature of the title race. That was United doing what they want in a good way. Yet we all recognise the underlying message in the song. It is United the immovable object, the unstoppable force, bearing down on the competition with all their power, wealth and influence. It is the swaggering arrogance of a club at the pinnacle of the elite, a club fully aware of their importance and political sway.
Yes. Manchester United are a terrifying beast for the FA to take on, as former chief executive Mark Palios discovered when he ordered Rio Ferdinand to be left out of an England team, prior to a charge of missing a drugs test. That nearly ended in a players’ strike, orchestrated in part by Gary Neville but with, the FA always believed, Sir Alex Ferguson loading the bullets. But of course, if you want to break the gang up, you go for the big boss. And as usual, the standard complaint when discipline is imposed on an employee of Manchester United is that this would not happen to another club; that United are picked on, singled out, persecuted. It is nonsense, of course. United suffer the same vagaries, the same inconsistencies, as all clubs. There are some lucky escapes, some instances of rough justice.
But suppose United were now being closely policed? Suppose somebody at the FA decided they had to take down some of United’s heavyweights as a way of bringing the sport into line. Would that be entirely fair? Perhaps not, but it would be a start. If the FA wish referees to be treated with more respect, there is no stronger message than the sight of Ferguson spending five games in the stands. When the greatest manager in the English game is no longer untouchable, then the rest would be wise to fall into line.
That is the contradiction. Everything about Manchester United may lead them to believe they can do what they want; but, as football gets serious about addressing extremes of behaviour, they may find it is time to learn a new song.