Unhappy Ferguson to fight FA charge to avoid ban

Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has denied a charge of improper conduct.

Although Ferguson had until Tuesday evening 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 on Tuesday, the 69-year-old has already confirmed to the FA he will challenge.

A personal hearing will be scheduled at a date no later than Friday, March 25.

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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 West Yorkshireman’s decisions in the corresponding fixture 12 months ago, when Chelsea won through John Terry’s controversial goal.

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 dug-out 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 next weekend.

Darren Fletcher is confident his new four-year contract with United will coincide with a continued period of glory for the Old Trafford outfit.

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 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 captain.

“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 definitely there.”

Fletcher has not always had an easy ride at United.

He was regarded as a player of great talent when he arrived at the club from Dalkeith as a 15-year-old but was prevented from making his debut due to Football Association rules regarding schoolboys playing in first-team games.

At one point he seemed destined to join his former international boss Alex McLeish at Birmingham.

However, like so many others in the last few years, Fletcher improved markedly over a very short period of time.

After not playing any part in the 2008 Champions League final win over Chelsea, 12 months later his absence through suspension was cited as one of the major reasons for United’s failure to perform in their comprehensive defeat by Barcelona.

Fletcher is now regarded as one of the most effective box-to-box midfielders in the country, even if his attributes have been derided by Arsene Wenger, who labelled the player “anti-football”.

Fletcher will doubtless be one of United’s key men at Anfield, where Wes Brown is expected to be recalled in central defence to cover the absence of captain Nemanja Vidic through suspension.

Seven days ago, Ferguson expressed confidence that Rio Ferdinand would be fit to face the Merseyside club 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 Giggs was named in the visitors’ starting line-up, with 20-goal Dimitar Berbatov also hoping for a place.