Top legal brains to clash in big match

Defence and Attack
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The Independent Online

If the Football Association were really interested in open sporting contests it would be televising Rio Ferdinand's disciplinary hearing starting at the Reebok Stadium in Bolton today.

Quite apart from the discomfiture of the player, the fixture promises an intriguing battle of wits between two of Britain's top sports lawyers.

Manchester United have called on the services of Ronald Thwaites QC, one of the Bar's most colourful advocates and recently dubbed the new George Carman. The FA has chosen Mark Gay, a solicitor who has built a pre-eminent practice in drugs-related sports law.

The fees are expected to top £10,000 but the sport will be in the contrasting styles deployed by the two lawyers. Gay, an Arsenal supporter, should have no trouble putting the case for the prosecution and is expected to have great fun with the Manchester United defender's explanation for why he did not respond to mobile phone messages. As a partner at the leading City law firm Denton Wilde Sapte, he earns around £300,000 from a range of sporting clients including the FA, the England and Wales Cricket Board, the Rugby Football League and the International Table Tennis Federation.

But significantly, for today, he led the prosecution against the former Chelsea goalkeeper Mark Bosnich, who was banned for nine months after being found guilty of using cocaine.

Thwaites, who commands the same kind of legal fees as Gay, is less experienced in sports law but has carved out a reputation as a barrister who can dazzle a jury. He cut his teeth at the Old Bailey defending those accused of murder. A small thing like a missed drugs appointment should be a walk in the park.

Thwaites was recently described by one legal commentator as a "performer, a street-fighter and a Rottweiler with witnesses". But it is his anticipated coronation as the successor to George Carman that has brought some of the more glamorous sporting briefs.

Like Carman he has a reputation as a Svengali in the courtroom and although he has little experience of the technical aspects of sports law, this should not slow him down.

What Carman's career showed was that, in a bitterly fought trial, it is often better to have an advocate accustomed to addressing juries and demolishing witnesses than to employ an expert in libel law. But an FA disciplinary hearing will offer no gallery to play to. Gay's style is more measured, less theatrical.

His analytical skills have been employed by the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association, who asked him to investigate their accounts.

More importantly, he has represented the British swimmer Mark Foster on a doping case before the disciplinary panel of the French Swimming Federation.

It is disappointing that FA disciplinary hearings are closed events because Gay v Thwaites would have sold out.