Manchester United’s Gary Neville will visit Anfield for the first time since last month’s home victory over Liverpool was marked by the England defender’s supposedly provocative celebration. In an a display of gamesmanship right up there with Phil Jackson’s most blatant lobbying, United manager Alex Ferguson is already breathing down the referee’s neck, writes the Independent’s Andy Hunter.
The United captain and celebrated Scouse-baiter Neville (above) will be treated to a more venomous Anfield welcome than usual following his manic celebration of Rio Ferdinand’s last-minute winner on 22 January. Then, Neville, goaded throughout by Liverpool supporters who have never forgotten or forgiven a similar reaction from the England international when two late United goals knocked them out of the FA Cup in 1999, responded in kind with a now infamous fist-pumping, badge-kissing salute.
It was mere natural exuberance, according to Ferguson, who would rather have players of passion than “cold fish who just walk back up the park and tie their bootlaces while everyone else is celebrating”; deliberate provocation, according to Greater Manchester Police, who dealt with violent clashes between rival fans after the game, and also the Football Association, who charged the defender with improper conduct but delayed the hearing until after this game.
Into this maelstrom steps Webb, a top-flight referee for only three years but who has earned the respect of Premiership managers and players alike with his common-sense, communicative approach. His duties will today include reminding both sets of players before kick-off not to incite opposition supporters and, in the eyes of a United manager who is among his admirers and not against his appointment, a possibly decisive influence on the outcome.
“Gary has always taken stick from the Liverpool fans but judging by what I have read this week he’ll be lucky to get out of there alive,” said Ferguson, who has Neville, Ryan Giggs, Edwin van der Sar and Rio Ferdinand all available after recent injury problems. “He is going to get even more stick this time but I just hope it doesn’t affect the referee’s performance. That can happen.
“It will be incessant against Gary, and for a young referee to get this game it is a big test anyway. He is Keith Hackett’s big hope to replace Graham Poll as the best referee in the country but Graham Poll has been the best referee in England for the last 10 years as far as I’m concerned. The handling of the Gary Neville situation is part of his test and he has to be 100 per cent fair.”
The weekend’s obvious David vs. Golliath challenge in the FA Cup comes in the form of Colchester United visiting Chelsea, Sunday at 11am (PPV).