Ha, ha – Manchester United get all the refereeing decisions.
That was the running joke for the vast majority of the Alex Ferguson era at Old Trafford. We should know, we cracked it often enough. Our quest for easy gags aside, it was clear that referees were intimidated by the glare of the Scot from the sideline.
In his biography of the legendary manager, Patrick Barclay tells of how this was knowingly a tactic he employed to put pressure on referees the next time they officiated a game. Even after his teams garnered a favourable result, Fergie would make sure to get in the ref’s ear about something – just so he knew he’d know all about it next time out.
It clearly worked. Over the years, it’s hard to argue that United didn’t end up on the better side of some crucial 50/50 decisions. And a fair few 40/60 ones as well.
After suffering his third defeat in a row earlier this week, David Moyes complained that his team were ‘having to play the referees’ too these days.
We’re having to play them as well as the opposition at the moment. It’s really terrible, it really is. We’re actually beginning to laugh at them, that’s the thing.
While there was a smattering of groans at the irony Moyes was deliberately ignoring, the stats tell us there might be something to it.
Referees aren’t necessarily being ‘anti-United’ but they may feel less worried about taking their cards out of their pockets in the knowledge the influential Fergie isn’t gone to hand out a bollocking in his post-match comments. Somewhere deep in their subconscious, they now feel they can operate with greater freedom without the worry of being borderline slandered and harassed by Ferguson. Moyes is the man paying the penalty for it.
Bookings and red cards are up on a per game basis and they’re getting less penalties than Fergie’s team did in his final season at the helm. Last season, they picked up just 1.33 bookings a game, this term it’s edging up towards two. Last season, United players got just two red cards in 54 games, this season it’s already three in 32 games.
Penalties given and received were another thing Fergie had the happy knack of generally coming out on the right side of. In his last season in charge, Ferguson’s team got seven penalties in the Premier League. Over halfway through this campaign, Moyes’ boys have got just two. Fergie’s team somehow conceded none over the course of those 38 games and while that’s the same tally as Moyes has managed through 20 games, it’s unlikely to stay the same.
There are mitigating circumstances. United are involved in tighter matches, having to do a lot more defending and therefore tackling more than they probably did under Fergie. Likewise, they’re seeing less of the opposition penalty area and therefore not getting fouled in there as much. But still, that doesn’t explain all of it. Also, just because the decisions are becoming more fair, it doesn’t mean they’re ‘wrong’.
Although it will never be said openly – the truth could be simple. Without Fergie lurking on the touchline, may refs just aren’t as worried about making calls against United. It’s hard to argue against. Even if you are Alex Ferguson.