When Alex Ferguson was interviewed after seeing his side battered 4-1 by Liverpool, he claimed the best side lost. The best side lost 4-1? The manager of the winning side, Rafael Benítez, had listened to taunts from opposing fans for weeks: “Rafa’s cracking up.” Now here was Ferguson, trying to make out that somehow Liverpool’s demolition job was all down to luck.
But that wasn’t his only excuse.
The interview just mentioned had been to his club’s own TV channel
It was the only interview he gave. Reports on Monday suggested he had refused to speak to Sky because he was annoyed with the kick-off time. United had played a day later than Liverpool in the Champions League, but on top of that Sky’s coverage of this match saw it kick off in the earliest possible slot of the weekend.
The suggestion was that, on top of their luck, Liverpool had an even bigger advantage because of the fatigue that United’s players would be feeling.
But on this occasion Sky had no choice. Sky would always prefer a later kick-off, preferably 4pm on Sunday, but the police just don’t like the idea of all that extra pre-match drinking time. It had to be a lunchtime kick-off. And it couldn’t be a Sunday lunchtime kick-off because that slot was taken by Setanta’s coverage of Manchester City, who’d been playing in Europe on Thursday.
It had to be a Saturday lunchtime kick-off if it was to be televised live.
Of course the kick-off time applied to both teams. Even if it had kicked off at 4pm on Sunday, Liverpool would still have had 24 more hours to recover and prepare than their opponents. Maybe United would have been less tired – but Liverpool would have been even hungrier.
So if Ferguson wanted to blame the humiliating scoreline on the fact his players were tired that’s all well and good – but it really wasn’t Sky’s fault. So why avoid their interviewer’s questions?
Away from the comfort of his club’s own reporters, would Ferguson have been spared a reminder of Rafa’s January comments? Would he still be able to suggest he’d need to use Freud to help him decipher them? Would he be able to use the word “disturbed”?
He could try. But he’d look rather silly.
Mention the injustice of that early kick off and he might just have had Rafa’s words read back to him. Rafa had said: “Two years ago we had a lot of early kick-offs away on Saturdays when United were playing on Sundays. Now he is complaining about everything, that everybody is against United. But the second half of the season will see them playing at home against all the teams at the top of the table, it is a fantastic advantage.”
Maybe he’d have a reply ready for that. But just as he opened his mouth to air his reply, the next part would be read back to him: “If he wants to talk about fixtures, and have a level playing field, there are two options. One is the same as in Spain; the draw for the first part of the league is known, in the second half everyone plays the opposite. Sky and Setanta have the right to choose their games and it will be the same for everyone. So, Mr Ferguson will not be complaining about fixtures and a campaign against United.”
Assuming Ferguson was still in the room at this stage, he’d probably be trying to stop the next bit being read out as well. Too late: “Or there is another option. That Mr Ferguson organises the fixtures in his office and sends it to us and everyone will know and cannot complain. That is simple.”
Ferguson seems to be finding fault with someone else, someone outside of his club, every time he’s interviewed. If he’s lost, he’ll find someone to blame. Before big games he’s renowned for his mind games – if not against his opposite number it’s against the referee. Publicly at least, it’s never his fault. “Being entirely honest with oneself is a good exercise,” that Freud guy said once.
Whatever Ferguson’s reasons were for hiding from the press – and to be fair to him most people would want to hide after losing like that to their (not necessarily our) bitterest rivals – he certainly wasn’t complaining about two of Liverpool’s past visits to Old Trafford being rescheduled by Sky.
Going back to the 1995-96 season Liverpool were due to visit Old Trafford on Saturday September 30th. Sky wanted to televise it, as expected, so it couldn’t be a 3pm kick-off.
So was it played at lunchtime that day instead?
Well no, as it turned out. United’s big star of the time Eric Cantona started that season banned for that crazy lunge into the crowd. He was given community service as well as a lengthy ban from football.
The ban ran literally up to and including the last day of September. This meant September 30th was the last day he was ineligible to play. Had the game been played when originally planned, he’d have had to sit it out.
But Sky moved the game to the Sunday. Sunday was October 1st. He was now eligible.
Of course the FA, or the Premier League, should really have ensured the ban couldn’t finish a match earlier on the decision of a TV company. A quick look at any calendar when actually deciding on the ban would have told them this scenario was possible.
There is little doubt that billing the game as the return of the trawler-chaser would bring in more viewers than building it up as United’s last game without him.
The game ended 2-2, and Robbie Fowler made much more of an impact than Cantona. But Cantona got the headlines, and the equaliser. He set up United’s first too.
Why nobody seriously questioned it at the time is very similar to the kind of puzzle Rafa has been trying to unravel recently.
Surely the FA learned their lesson for any future long-term bans after that? Most bans in football are for a set number of games, and so delaying a game 24 or 48 hours will make no difference to a ban with one game left on it. Long term bans are rare, but usually run until a set date rather than for a set number of matches.
Of course the FA didn’t learn. And a few years later, a TV company was once again able to reduce the number of matches a player would miss. Once again that TV company was Sky. Once again the club with a banned player was Manchester United. And once again their opponents were Liverpool.
Lengthy bans might be rare, but Manchester United had seen two of their players given them.
It was defender Rio Ferdinand this time, in 2004, banned for his failure to provide the necessary fluids at a random drug screening test. He claimed it was all innocent. He was banned for 8 months.
The ban started on January 20th 2004, meaning he would miss the rest of that season and just over a month of the next.
The fixtures for that following season were first announced in June. Liverpool were scheduled to visit Old Trafford on Saturday September 18th. It was to be Rafa’s first visit to Old Trafford as Liverpool boss of course.
Sky would want to show the game live of course, so it wouldn’t be kicking off at 3pm that Saturday. Would it be moved to Saturday lunchtime, or would it be moved to Sunday lunchtime? Fans waited for the updated fixture list to come out.
As it turned out, it was neither.
No satisfactory reason was ever given, but for the one and only time since the Premier League began, that fixture was shifted to the Monday. It had never happened before, it has never happened since.
Why Monday? Just for this one occasion? The police even agreed; which is a mystery of its own.
Both sides had played their previous fixtures, in the Champions League, on the Wednesday, so it wasn’t moved to Monday because of concerns for tired legs.
Perhaps the reason becomes obvious when looking at the date again. Ferdinand’s ban ran for eight months from January 20th.
So the last day he was banned from playing was September 19th.
And Monday was September 20th – the first day Ferdinand was eligible to play.
Once again Sky were able to add a touch more interest to a fixture that always draws them massive viewing figures. Once again it wasn’t the banned player’s last match on the sidelines; it was his return to the fray.
Liverpool lost the game 2-1. Maybe they’d have lost it anyway – they lost Steven Gerrard with a broken metatarsal.
But Ferguson wasn’t complaining about Sky that night.
And he couldn’t complain about Sky tonight. They weren’t the reason his side went down to Fulham. They weren’t the reason he’ll be seeing ex-Red Danny Murphy’s face in his nightmares tonight.
So he complained about the referee instead.
Remind us again – who was it cracking up?
How the top managers deal with the pressure of the remaining games, including the mind games as well as the league games, will have a massive influence on how the season ends.
It’s still a tall order for Liverpool, but the pressure is on Manchester United now. Pressure for Chelsea too; Hiddink’s honeymoon ending today with defeat at Spurs. Doubts in the player’s minds that were there under Scolari will be flooding back, and staying there, as the players wait a fortnight to play together again.
Liverpool face Villa tomorrow, themselves under huge pressure as fourth place seems to slip slowly away from their grasp.
For Liverpool it really is time to put the internal squabbles to bed. Forget the boardroom – except to pause and think about the sad loss of Bryce Morrison. Forget Robbie Keane. Forget Stoke City and Wigan Athletic. Forget all the gripes that made us weak.
It’s time to get that belief back. That Istanbul spirit. That attitude. That unity. That strength. That twelfth man.
Cracking up? We’ll have no cracks here now thank you. Save for the wisecracks we’re famous for.
But we’re even more famous for our passion, our support and our success.
And we’re going to remind everyone why.