It became a long-running joke among football fans that Howard Webb, the recently-retired English referee who took charge of the 2010 World Cup and Champions League finals, had a soft spot for Manchester United.
In fact, some supporters were even convinced that Webb was a full-blown United fan, based on decisions he would make in games involving the Red Devils
This was nonsense, of course: Webb was a self-confessed Rotherham United supporter.
The 45-year-old former police officer, who currently works as a pundit - of sorts - for BT Sport, has a book coming out later this week titled ‘Howard Webb: The Man in the Middle’.
And in that book is a fascinating story about how Sir Alex Ferguson attempted to force Webb to call off the match between Fulham and United at Craven Cottage back in December 2009.
Howard Webb's story about Sir Alex
“As my Premier League career progressed, I was becoming aware that I was gaining a reputation as a ref with Manchester United leanings. While it was complete and utter bollocks — I genuinely didn’t give a toss who won the games I reffed — I realised that some of my decisions may have sown those seeds,” Webb writes in an excerpt published by The Times.
“The fact of the matter is that, throughout my career, I hardly had any dealings with Sir Alex. He never turned up to the pre-match team sheet exchange, and rarely came into the referees’ dressing room afterwards. He and I were not remotely friendly; I can’t recall having a meaningful, convivial conversation with him and certainly wasn’t one of those refs who claimed to have had his number on speed dial. When our paths did cross he was at best, civil and at worst, hostile.
“I remember an encounter we had in December 2009, prior to a Fulham v Manchester United game. It was a Saturday lunchtime kick-off at Craven Cottage but, as there’d been a frost, I’d been asked to conduct an early-morning pitch inspection. I rocked up bright and breezy at nine o’clock, only to find Ferguson lurking in the tunnel, waiting for me.
“That particular month, Manchester United’s defence had been ravaged with injury, meaning that neither Nemanja Vidicć nor Rio Ferdinand, nor Jonny Evans nor John O’Shea were available for selection. It was looking likely that the Reds’ boss would have to field a weakened team against Fulham, and he was clearly angling for a postponement.
“‘I’ve already had a look at it,’ he snapped, scanning the pitch. ‘It’s horrendous. It’s a bloody death trap.’
“‘I’ll check it out and let you know what I think,’ I replied.
“After some pacing and prodding I surmised that the pitch was absolutely fine; soft underfoot with no hazardous icy patches. Right, here goes, I thought, as I walked towards the tunnel to break the news.
“‘See what I mean?’ Ferguson, below, barked as I approached him. ‘So the game’s off, then, yes?’
‘Nope,’ I said. ‘The pitch is fine.’
‘You f***in’ what?’ he yelled. ‘You’re trying to tell me the game’s still on? I cannae believe that!’
‘I am. The surface is clearly playable,’ I countered, bracing myself for another tirade. Instead, he just paused and tutted.
‘Yeah, I know it is,’ he smiled, the wily old sod, and headed back up the tunnel. Five hours later his makeshift team got battered 3-0.”
United were hammered 3-0 at Craven Cottage
Without any of their fit centre-backs, Ferguson was forced to deploy Richie De Laet - later replaced by Fabio da Silva - and Michael Carrick at the heart of the United defence.
The visitors were outclassed and goals from Danny Murphy, Bobby Zamora and Damien Duff secured a famous victory for the Cottagers.
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