This year, just as in the past two seasons – but for a vastly different reason – the Chelsea v Man U fixture has provided a litmus indication of the influence Alex Ferguson has held over the game of football in England since the inception of the FA Premier League in 1992. In the previous two meetings between the two clubs at Stamford Bridge, Ferguson was still very much in charge of Man U – and it showed. This season’s clash found the Pride of Devon under new management – and, boy, did that ever show too.
Two years ago, it may be recalled, the game followed a pattern very similar to Sunday’s clash – up to a point. Chelsea established a three-goal lead by early in the second half on both occasions, but from then on the games followed very different paths. Back in February 2012, the brooding presence of Ferguson in the Man U dugout, together with the co-operative Howard Webb on the field, saw two penalties awarded to the away side as they swiftly reduced the arrears to a single goal. By that point, Chelsea were reeling, their confidence shot through, and it was clearly only a matter of time before an equalising goal. When it came, in the 85th minute, the build-up told its own damning tale. The sight of a demoralised Chelsea defender, attempting to close down a left-wing cross as he backed away, hands studiously behind his back, clearly convinced that a third penalty would be awarded if the ball could be struck against any part of his arms, was symptomatic of a refereeing culture dominated by fear of what Fergie might do or say if his side were defeated. It was like watching a boxer trying to avoid a knockout blow with his guard held down, a pitiful sight. In the event, two dropped points meant the title would end up with Manchester City – but Howard Webb had done his bit, as he did so often for the benefit of Man U.
Last year’s game between these two at Stamford Bridge was even more indicative of where the power really resided. This time, Man U had raced to an early two-goal lead and it appeared that no undue interference with events would be needed. But two goals from Chelsea in four minutes either side of the interval restored parity – and suddenly the establishment’s favoured team were in danger of losing a game they had looked to have comfortably under control – and what would S’ralex say then, pray?
That thought was plainly too horrible to contemplate for the referee, Mark Clattenburg on this occasion. His sending-off of Ivanovic for a foul on Young was reasonably clear-cut – but then Clattenburg made two decisions which demonstrated the influence of the Ferguson Fear Factor. Firstly, an already-booked Torres was clear and racing through on goal when he went down under challenge from Jonny Evans. If the foul were to be given, then Evans would have to go for a professional foul, and it would be ten-a-side. Clearly, that would not do – so Clattenburg brilliantly decided that Torres had dived, issued him a second yellow and made the contest 9 v 11. To cap a tremendously influential performance, he then allowed the clearly offside winner for Hernandez after 75 minutes, and Man U saw the game out against their demoralised opponents to bank the three points.
Both of these games stand as damning evidence of what former referee Graham Poll admitted recently – that when officiating in a Man U game, it was always a relief to get the match over with, ideally with Man U winning – and certainly NOT having made any crucial calls against them, for fear of what Ferguson might say or do in retaliation. But for this year’s game, there was no Ferguson in the dugout – and the performance of the referee seemed suddenly free of those perceived pressures of the Fergie years.
It’s not as though Man U didn’t try to apply such pressure. There were concerted efforts by their bench, with Moyes to the fore in his Fergie-Lite guise, to get David Luiz sent off instead of merely booked – to no avail. Penalty shouts – an ever-present feature of any Man U game – likewise went unheeded, despite the presence of the usual diving suspects. Chelsea, having eased into a three-goal lead despite a well below-par performance, never looked seriously troubled. In contrast to the two previous years, they never seemed to have the slightest fear that the game might suddenly turn against them. The referee even went so far as to dismiss Vidic and book Rafael for ugly challenges – decisions he probably got the wrong way around.
The late-ish Man U goal might have heralded a late onslaught in previous years, with the winning side suddenly assailed by fear and insecurity – but that was when Fergie was on the bench. Now, with the impotent tyrant up in the stands, shaking his head glumly, there was no sign that the consolation goal would be anything but exactly that. Man U had been beaten, despite early dominance of possession, despite a lacklustre showing by Chelsea. It was their seventh defeat of the season, leaving them 14 points behind the leaders – or, more relevantly, a possible 7 points off Champions League qualification. Tellingly, people have even begun to speculate as to their main rivals for a Europa League place.
It’s a new and unwelcome landscape for the ailing champions, and a lot of people are beginning to wake up to what all of this says, not only about their immediate prospects, but also of their record over the past twenty years, and to what degree that has been skewed by the ever more apparently crucial Fergie Fear Factor. Thirteen titles in twenty years – how many would they have won without the dubious methods employed by the Govan Gob? A virtually identical squad to last season’s runaway winners is now being revealed as the ordinary group that it is. The myth of Man U is being ruthlessly exposed – and while nobody could argue that this is good for them, or for their globally spread cadre of fans, including the tiny minority that actually attend matches – it surely has to be good for the game that such an evidently dominant force for the swaying of authority and the warping of results has now departed the scene.
It would seem likely that history may not take quite such a rosy view of the Ferguson legacy as he would perhaps like – and the ironic fact is that this could perhaps come about not because of results under his leadership, but in the light of the pallid performance of virtually the same team, newly deprived of the advantages bestowed by the malign influence of S’ralex. If that turns out to be the case, then we may all be taking a somewhat more realistic view of those so-called Ferguson Glory Years.