Alan Leighton, national secretary for referees’ union Prospect, says that Sir Alex Ferguson may face legal action after the FA handed the Manchester United manager a two-match touchline by last week. Ferguson, who in October claimed Alan Wiley was not fit enough to officiate a Premier League game, may now face a defamation suit.
“I intend to talk to Alan Wiley to see if he wants to sue on the issue. One of the things we are saying is, is there a case these comments are defamatory?” said Leighton, who had earlier called for the FA to prohibited Ferguson from all coaching and not solely a touchline ban.
“We need to take a few steps back and see what has happened here and I would like to see more about the judgment. We never wanted to get lawyers involved but if referees don’t feel they are being protected by the regulatory bodies and someone says something defamatory sooner or later someone is going to take action over it.
“We are going to talk to the relevant authorities to see what it means for the future. I’ll also talk to our members. I think there will be a concern this isn’t an appropriate way to send a message that these comments were wholly unacceptable.”
Ferguson, who will sit in the stands for matches against Everton and Portsmouth as well as pay a £20,000 fine, later apologised for the personal nature of the comments before admitting an FA charge of improper conduct.
Yet, if Wiley sues – backed by the referees union – he will end not only his own impartiality when it comes to refereeing United’s matches but that of all referees who act under the Prospect banner. After all, if Leighton consults the union’s members on legal action, and Ferguson ends up in court, referees will be as one against the Scot and United.
Schadenfreude dictates that many rival fans will delight in court action as much as any implication of an official clamp down on United. Indeed, the outrageously poor refereeing decisions that United has faced in recent games against Liverpool and Chelsea will have found scorn only at Old Trafford.
But a refereeing union that is – literally – united against a single club is a terrifying prospect not only for Ferguson’s team but for Premier League football too. A competition in which all officialdom becomes tainted with genuine – legal – bias is good for nobody.
Indeed, legal action by Wiley will make sure that it is a genuine conflict of interest for the Staffordshire-born referee to officiate any game that involves United or the club’s rivals. Much the same might be said for the rest of the pool, if the union back’s the action.
Consistency is important too. What of the next time an Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea, Wrexham, Bognor Regis, Sunday league or pub team manager criticises an official? Will Prospect be compelled not only to support litigation against that coach but also orchestrate – as they have with Ferguson – a media-led campaign of misinformation.
Perhaps this newly vocal union will also act if a manager again implies deep-seated bias, as David Moyes did when he maliciously suggested Mike Riley is a United supporter prior to last season’s FA Cup Semi Final.
It somehow seems doubtful.
Or perhaps Prospect, the FA and, yes, the media have seized upon Ferguson’s comments to push ahead with their own agendas. Referees, already highly protected by the governing body, want criticism – implied or real – of their performances stamped out of the game. It’s now the only profession on the planet that is immune from any form of critical assessment.
Meanwhile, the FA is able to act decisively only when given the green light by the nation’s press, in search of a witch to hunt. It is the normal state of affairs. Eric Cantona, Roy Keane, Rio Ferdinand and now Sir Alex have each received unprecedented punishment from the game’s oldest institution.
Leighton now believes referees must join in the party.