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Were the Manchester United conspiracy theorists right all along?

Fergie time

Over the last few days, retired referee Mark Halsey has come under strong criticism from the British media and Professional Games and Match Officials Limitied (PSMOL), who are in charge of the Premier League’s referees, for his close relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson, detailed in his new autobiography, ‘Added Time’, that’s being serialised on a weekly basis by The Sun.

The two even swapped phone numbers, and amid accusations of Mark Clattenburg racially abusing Chelsea’s John Obi Mikel last season in a Capital One Cup tie with Manchester United, Halsey texted the Scot asking him to show public support for his troubled colleague. The retired United manager duly issued a statement backing the under-fire Clattenburg.

The retired ref insists however that his relationship with Ferguson never infringed upon his decision-making during matches, stating in his book; “when I crossed that white line there were no favours,” before telling The Independent earlier this week; “I am not a person who has ever been corrupt or shown favouritism. The rows I have had with managers will show that. People need to read the book to get the full story.”

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There’s a high chance Halsey is starting off his writing career with as much controversial material as possible to get people to buy his book – the most part of it is dedicated to his wife’s and his own battle with cancer, that to be frank, won’t interest the vast majority of the footballing public too much.

But the revelations over his friendship with Sir Alex Ferguson have also served as evidence to football’s conspiracy theorists that have accused the former Red Devils boss of having special privilege amongst English referees for some time.

Of course, we’re all aware of the infamous ‘fergie time’, and United’s knack of rarely having a penalty appeal turned down at Old Trafford -although Ashley Young’s booking for diving at the weekend would suggest otherwise. So how should we take Halsey’s revelations? Does it prove the theorists right? Or is it simply a case of jealous fans trying to discredit the Red Devils’ dominance over the last two decades?

My personal view has always been that those who claim the Premier League champions receive special treatment are doing the ability of their former manager and their players a great disservice.

I’ve watched the Red Devils turn defeats into draws and draws into victories in the final minutes of games an uncountable amount of times since I began watching football as a child. Some claim their luck is divine, others that the referees refuse to blow the whistle until United have found the back of the net, by in my opinion, it’s the most fantastic illustration of the winning mentality Sir Alex Ferguson implemented during his 27-year stay at Old Trafford.

Every club gets chances to score in the final minutes of every match, be it a free-kick on the half way line allowing for a long-ball into the box, a corner or simply via a wave of hit-and-hope forward passes in open play. But the difference between Manchester United and other sides has always been their mentality.

And when a Red Devils player, such as injury time goalscoring extraordinare John O’Shea, realises with two minutes to go they’ll have just one more chance to win the game by scoring a goal before the final whistle , they embrace that opportunity and make sure they take it. Over players for other teams do not, and that is the difference between a title-winning footballer and simply a footballer with a lot of talent.

At the same time, in regards to penalty decisions, the facts quite simply do not back up the claim that the Red Devils are given every penalty their players fall over in the box for. Using statistics from the 2010-2011 season, a year in which they won the Premier League  title,  United were awarded five penalties for the whole season, with three converted making up 3.8% of their goal total that year.

It’s a long way shy of Arsenal’s 14 penalties, making up 12% of their goals, Liverpool’s eight penalties, and Manchester City and Chelsea’s nine penalties apiece. Yes, referees often award soft spot kicks at Old Trafford whilst sometimes turning down stonewall penalties for the opposition, but this happens at every Premier League club, and it’s just as much due to the influence of the home crowd as it is any particular relationship between Sir Alex Ferguson and the officials.

But there is evidence to the contrary, and rather than the idea of Sir Alex Ferguson cosying up to referees, it seems the United gaffer was a master of bullying officials into working for his favour.

According to online blogger Nadim Bedram, referees who don’t appease the United gaffer end up being punished by PSMOL. Using the 2010/2011 campaign again, Bedram has noticed a familiar pattern from their four defeats in their title-winning season.  Michael Oliver for example, who administered the Red Devils’ away loss to Wolves, was not given another United match until December 2011, and has since only refereed two United games.

Similarly, Martin Atkinson, who watched over a 2-1 defeat to Chelsea, was criticised by Ferguson after the match for awarding a spot kick to the Blues in the 80th minute and failing to send of David Luiz for a second foul. He wasn’t given another United fixture for the next year, and not a single Premier League tie for the next month. His punishment was to spend three games in League Two, a division Atkinson had never refereed in before.

There are other examples too, such as Chris Foy who didn’t referee a United game for a full twelve months after overseeing a 1-0 defeat to Arsenal, and Phil Dowd, whom after being accused by Ferguson of favouritism for not sending Jamie Carragher off in a prior match, awarded United a penalty in his next fixture with the Red Devils in a 1-1 draw with Blackburn that secured them the Premier League title. Others such as Mark Halsey, Howard Webb and Mike Clattenburg, who have all been accused of favouring United in the past, have never received a parallel manner of treatment.

It’s certainly worrying stuff. But perhaps that kind of influence is inevitable for a manager of Ferguson’s calibre – he often had the press and the FA wrapped around his finger as well.

Does it make Manchester United a bunch of cheats? No, it makes Sir Alex Ferguson a very talented manager. Every Premier League boss tries to get officials onside by whatever means possible, the Scot was simply the best at it. Just like the players, he always possesses a ferocious and indiscriminate winning mentality.

Are the conspiracy theorists right about Manchester United receiving special treatment?

Join the debate below!

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Article title: Were the Manchester United conspiracy theorists right all along?

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