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Alex plots next move after ban

Alex Ferguson must decide by Monday evening whether to challenge the five-game touchline ban and £30,000 fine slapped down by the English Football Association yesterday.

The strict penalty has been greeted with surprise across the game, although the FA's disciplinary panel has clearly decided they will not tolerate further transgressions from Ferguson.

With a two-match ban now invoked as part of a punishment that was suspended last season for comments about Alan Wiley's fitness, the United boss has to work out whether to contest this punishment or accept his fate, knowing it will condemn him to the stands for the whole of April, a period that includes the FA Cup semi-final with Manchester City.

"The (Independent Regulatory) Commission found the charge of improper conduct relating to media comments proven, following remarks made in relation to match official Martin Atkinson after Manchester United's fixture with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday, March 1, 2011," read an official FA statement. "Furthermore the Commission invoked a two-match suspended touchline ban, relating to a previous charge of improper conduct in relation to media comments made in October 2009."

Ferguson's comments came in the aftermath of a 2-1 defeat at Stamford Bridge in which he was convinced David Luiz should have been sent off.

"You want a fair referee, or a strong referee anyway -- and we didn't get that," he said to United's in-house TV station MUTV at the time.

"I must say, when I saw who the referee was I feared it. I feared the worst."

There is a school of thought that Ferguson has been harshly treated given he replaced the word "fair" with "strong" almost immediately.

It could also be argued that his pre-match view of Atkinson's comments were vindicated by the decisions the referee got wrong, including Chelsea's match-winning penalty, for a "soft" foul by Chris Smalling on Yuri Zhirkov.

However, it is also felt that the Wiley case represented a final warning to the United boss that any further transgressions would be dealt with severely, as has proved to be the case.

Clearly, it was not an outcome Ferguson saw coming when he penned his programme notes for Saturday's FA Cup win over Arsenal.

"I now face an FA charge for what, to my mind, was simply telling the truth," he said.

"I will be defending myself strongly when my FA appeal hearing comes up.

"To my mind, I have not said anything out of place, however much the media urge the FA to take action.

"I won't be on the back foot when I put my case to the FA, though. I don't think sticking up for my team makes me a villain."