There is a strange breed of football fan; you know the type, lurking in the nether reaches of cyberspace, conspiracy theorising to a fever pitch of mouth-frothing, self-aggrandising, irrational frenzy. Social media has magnified, even exacerbated the phenomenon, of course, but it has always existed in one form or another. The pub bore, cave-dwelling mouth breathers, for whom every poor refereeing decision – every break of ill fortune – is an international conspiracy of smoking-gun, grassy-knoll inhabiting, Jack Kennedyesque proportions.
This, football-loving members of the human race, have come to understand, and even joyfully mock at times. But when the cult of paranoia stretches from the terraces, through the dugout, and up into the boardroom it is fair to assess that this season’s title run-in has nerves more on edge than usual. Pressure has hit home for some. Hard.
And so to Manchester City’s ‘Football Development Executive’, former French international and Arsenal player, Patrick Vieira, who fresh from labelling Paul Scholes’ hugely successful return to Manchester United as “desperate”, to a predictable Sir Alex Ferguson ear-bashing, has been at it again this week, claiming a conspiracy of officialdom to benefit the Reds. It was, no doubt, music to complot-loving Blues’ ears throughout Stockport, Manchester, nay the World.
Vieira’s assertion on Wednesday that United benefit not only from favourable referee decisions, but that it is widely understood machination of the game, is of course as laughably inaccurate as the Frenchman’s previous musing on Scholes.
Accuracy is not the point though, not when the chance to build influence through a media all to keen to wave the flag of ‘mind games’ presents itself. The headlines alone tell that particular tale, while Vieira’s assertion is one long-held in folk-lore, with no basis in evidential proof.
“When United play at home, they may get some advantage that some other teams do not get,” Vieira told BBC Sport reporter Dan Roan.
“I think when you go to United, Madrid, Barcelona, or Milan, when the referees referee these kind of games, it’s always difficult to go against these kind of teams. This is the way it is. It’s something the teams who are used to winning get all the time, so we need to win games so we may have this kind of advantage in the future.”
Vieira followed up his interview with a spectacularly inept attempt to back-track. ‘Message delivered captain Vieira, now lets see if plausible deniability kicks in!’ It didn’t. Indeed, feigning mock indignity Vieira, through the safety of a club statement, blamed the Beeb’s journalist for the widespread headlines.
“I am very angry with Dan Roan. I feel he has misrepresented me,” Vieira told City’s official club website.
“I made it clear in the interview twice that I wanted to avoid criticising United and even stated that I didn’t watch the United game against Fulham and had not seen the incident to which the reporter referred.
“That part of the interview was ignored and my comments were taken completely out of context. I called the reporter twice to ask for a retraction and an apology which has not come. I feel Dan Roan and the BBC have shown a complete lack of respect for me, the ‘Football Against Hunger’ charity and Manchester City Football Club.”
Context may well be king, but Vieira is certainly wise enough to understand that if a question is asked, on a premise with which you disagree, don’t answer it; a sermon Sir Alex has preached for many a campaign. No surprise then that Sir Alex offered little sympathy for Vieira’s position, especially after the Scot had protested so loudly about a perceived penalty area handball not given his side’s way in Monday night’s game against Fulham at Old Trafford.
“I think we could have had a penalty on Monday night,” said Ferguson on Thursday.
“But you don’t often get these ones when a wide player has crossed the ball and the player almost caught the ball between his arm and his body. We could have got a penalty but I wouldn’t have expected one to be honest with you. I think that from the referee’s position I could see why the referee didn’t give one when Danny Murphy was brought down because the ball was moved to the angle as Michael Carrick challenged him.
“But then City could have had a penalty kick against them at Stoke, as everyone saw, with Gareth Barry (challenge on Glenn Whelan). So you get breaks here and there. Every club gets good breaks, they get bad breaks that even themselves out over a season and that will never change. We’ve had some terrible decisions at Old Trafford, when Newcastle got a penalty kick. Tottenham could claim the same when Balotelli wasn’t sent off and ended up scoring the winning goal (in City’s 3-2 win).
“I think you maybe have a point that the smaller clubs feel that way. Someone said that to me some years ago that United always get penalty kicks at Old Trafford but you go back through the 25 years I’ve been here, it’s only averaged three a year. You can’t say that’s a lot when we’re attacking teams every minute of the day.”
Indeed, Ferguson surely has a point in addressing City’s ‘small club’ persecuted mentality, epitomised in Vieira’s rant. The former Arsenal man’s position, not reported inaccurately, is one of paranoia that he would never have stooped too as a player; at least not until Vieira pitched up at Eastlands. It will certainly not be taken seriously in any part of Manchester beyond the reaches of the Etihad Campus.
Moreover, Vieira’s continued focus on United begs the question – just how much pressure are those at Eastland’s now feeling? Certainly, the contrast between Ferguson’s relaxed demeanour on Thursday, and Roberto Mancini’s permanent rabbit-in-the-headlights expression, is stark.
There is, it seems, a fine line between chip-on-the-shoulder cockiness of early season victories, and the gritty reality of a Premier League run-in. Not that the distinction will be understood by keyboard warriors in Blue. Paranoia still runs through it in some parts.
Meanwhile, Ferguson will carry on with a renewed sense of calm, cognisant that he no longer needs to actually take part in the aforementioned ‘mind games’ to win them. Now there’s a conspiracy for those over in M11 to chew on.