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This is one battle Sir Alex just cannot win

Monday, 22 October 2012 - 3:43pm IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph
This whole T-shirt affair is baffling because I just cannot see how Rio can be disciplined by his manager.

It's very unusual for Sir Alex Ferguson to pick a fight he can't win, but it is inconceivable that he could carry out his threat to discipline Rio Ferdinand for refusing to wear an anti-racism T-shirt.

The first thing to consider is what happened in the build-up to Saturday to make Ferguson so adamant his player would follow his wishes. If, for example, Sir Alex asked Rio if he would be wearing the T-shirt and the reply was 'yes' there is an obvious challenge to his authority and internal issue to be dealt with.

If, on the other hand, Rio was never asked for his view on the subject before his manager told the media he would definitely wear it, it is impossible to see any justification for taking action against the player. It's fair to say it is highly unlikely Rio was asked if he'd wear the T-shirt prior to the game.

There are no regulations stipulating that any player should support this particular campaign. There is no compulsion from the Football Association for anyone to wear the T-shirt, and it is evidently an issue Rio feels strongly about.

Ferdinand, like many other players, believes recent issues - especially the John Terry case - have been allowed to drag on for too long and wanted to show a dissatisfaction with that. Such views have to be respected whether you agree with that stance or not, so it is strange Ferguson has decided to go public by describing the behaviour as 'embarrassing'.

Rarely does Ferguson become involved in such a dispute with one of his own players, but even on those occasions when it's happened he usually has the weight of public opinion with him. That's why he wins such battles. If you go back to his fall-out with Roy Keane, or even last year's problems with Wayne Rooney, they resolved themselves quickly because most people recognised Ferguson was right.

This is different. It's the first time I can recall his authority being challenged by a member of his dressing room when it is Ferguson who should reconsider his stance on the matter. He'll find little support within football for criticising Ferdinand on this.

It's actually unprecedented for Manchester United to find themselves in this situation. Their strength for 25 years has been their togetherness, never allowing controversies to fester or any divisions in the dressing room to manifest themselves in public.

As a club, Manchester United became the hallmark for conducting such matters in the right way. If there is an issue, it is dealt with internally and immediately and the story usually disappears swiftly. I see no easy resolution this time.

Ferguson usually defends his players to the hilt, so perhaps he sees Ferdinand's refusal to wear the T-shirt as a loyalty issue. He needs to recognise the subject is far broader than that.

I'm bemused as to why Ferguson allowed himself to become embroiled in this in the first place. Why did he feel it necessary to criticise Jason Roberts's comments on the Kick It Out campaign? What did that have to do with Ferguson or United? By then saying Ferdinand 'will be dealt with' he has again left himself open to criticism, forcing himself into a corner from which it is not easy to escape.

There is another undercurrent to all this, of course, in that Ferdinand is now approaching the end of his career. This is not a situation I'd imagine would have developed when he was still in his prime. That's not meant as a criticism, but an observation that Ferdinand clearly is a more mature, senior professional with strong views on particular subjects who feels more comfortable taking a stand he must recognise could have repercussions for his relationship with the manager.

That's easier to do towards the end of a career than when you are 25.

Similarly, Ferguson could opt to make a point to his squad that he is still in full control by taking on someone he knows does not have as much time remaining at the top.

Nevertheless, it is an unseemly dispute between the pair and one wonders when the fall-out of the Terry case is going to end.

The snowball effect across English football of that incident seems to be ceaseless.

We know already Terry will be missing from the United versus Chelsea match next week. After what happened on Saturday, we may now ask the same of Ferdinand.

If Ferguson does decide to take action, defying public opinion in doing so, we will be tracing the roots of this back further, not to the refusal of Ferdinand to wear the T-shirt, but to the on-pitch spat between Terry and Rio's brother a year ago.

 


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