Bring the trial of Rio out into the open

No explanation for severe verdict; Questions over commission's independence; Threat of high court move
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The Independent Online

It was difficult to remember Sir Alex Ferguson in quite such jovial mood, at least in front of a group of pressmen with open notebooks. But that was early on Friday morning, before going to give evidence as a character witness on behalf of Rio Ferdinand. By eight o'clock that evening he was no longer in the mood for jesting, only digesting the implications of being without a player he had made the world's most expensive defender for four months of this season and another four weeks at the start of the next campaign.

He genuinely felt that Ferdinand would be treated much more leniently, mainly because of previous cases, claiming: "English law going back for 200 years is mostly based on precedent." On the other hand there was also an awareness that the supposedly independent commission, composed of three Football Association councillors, was under both external and internal pressure to take a strong line on such a high-profile drugs-related case.

Fifa's president, Sepp Blatter, who - rather bizarrely - has a column in the Financial Times, had said Ferdinand should not have continued playing for his club before the hearing, and also threatened to increase the punishment if it was not deemed sufficient. Ferguson's response was: "It's unfortunate that a man in that position should want to interfere the way he has done. With Blatter's comments, I think the FA would feel duty bound [to impose a ban] whether it's right or wrong."

He also feared that United might become one of the first victims of the desire of Mark Palios, the FA's new chief executive, to take a stronger stand on discipline in general and drugs in particular: "When you read they're bringing Seb Coe in and changing things, they've made a verdict on themselves. They know it's not been good enough. There's bound to be changes now and we just have to wait and see what the changes are. And when he was left out of the England team, that condemned him right away."

Ferdinand is free to play at least six more games for United, against Spurs, Everton, Middlesbrough, Aston Villa (in the FA Cup), Bolton and Newcastle. There could be more, depending on how long the appeals process lasts. In a recent case that the club's lawyers would do well to bone up on, Athletic Bilbao's Carlos Gurgpegi played for more than 12 months after testing positive for nandrolone against Real Sociedad and being banned for two years, repeatedly appealing to the football and the civil authorities.

Once a ban finally begins, United will have the option of a timely return for Wes Brown, who has been injured all season, or switching John O'Shea from left-back to central defence. In the meantime, Ferguson hopes Ferdinand will maintain the levels of performance and composure he has shown throughout his ordeal. "He's done well, the lad. We take it for granted that his laid-back character helps, but no human being is unbreakable, you don't know what's actually going on underneath the surface. People react differently. The fact that we've got so much out of him during a period in which he's had to read all the headlines and what Blatter's going to do and the FA are going to do and so on, I don't think it's been easy for the lad. Fortunately, Rio has handled his situation particularly well."

The combative Ferguson may also consider revising his opinion that the worst injustice United have suffered at the hands of the FA was the Eric Cantona case, eight years ago. After the Frenchman's kung-fu kick at a Crystal Palace supporter, the FA wanted to suspend him with immediate effect, but knew their rules did not allow it. United agreed to ban him themselves for the four months until the end of the season, on the understanding that there would be no further punishment. But as Ferguson recalled on Friday, an FA disciplinary hearing then increased the sentence by five months. He has never forgiven them.

"People said it was a terrible example, but the match wasn't even live on television. What about when Arsenal came here [in September] on prime-time television throughout the world - what's a worse example than that?" As a result of the antics at Old Trafford that day, Arsenal players were suspended for a total of nine matches, United's Ryan Giggs and Cristiano Ronaldo were fined, and their manager's respect for FA disciplinary processes became even more meagre. It decreased further on Friday night.

United are fortunate, however, in one aspect of the current case, namely not having been charged as a club for their failure to ensure that Ferdinand took his test. FA regulations state quite clearly that if any players do not attend a test: "Both the club and its players may be subject to disciplinary proceedings."

As a result of that failure, however, one positive feature to come out of the affair will be an improvement in the standards of testing, with football adopting "man-marking" procedures similar to other sports, in which those chosen to give a sample are not allowed out of sight until they have done so. "It's got to be done properly," Ferguson insisted, citing the case of his son Darren, who when tested as a Wrexham player, was made to stand on the touchline with his tester until he had performed.

Not that the testers are especially likely to improve their tally of what the Professional Footballers' Association insists is one performance-enhancing drug case in 10 years. "I don't think there's the problem in football that you see in individual sports like cycling and athletics," Ferguson said. "I hear all sorts of stories but at our club I've never even had any experience of hearing things either." It is one area in which he is in agreement with Arsène Wenger, who said: "I don't believe we have a deep problem in England."

Two other issues thrown up are the how independent disciplinary commissions can be and why so little information about their findings is made public. Although the FA's spin doctors have gone out of their way to distance Palios and his determination to clean up football from the proceedings, they were fighting a losing battle. However many times such such commissions are called "independent", the world can see three FA councillors passing judgment. Having a QC chair the case, as will be done with the appeal, would be an improvement.

Unfortunately, that is all there is to be seen or heard. There has been no explanation behind an unexpectedly severe punishment, not even ruling whether Ferdinand was guilty of "refusing" or "failing" to take a test. Did he genuinely forget? Did he attempt to contact the club and offer to return? What did his mobile phone records reveal? Is he taking medication for a kidney problem? We are left to guess. In an age of greater transparency it is reasonable to demand better access and explanation than a three-line announcement of guilt. Why should the chairman not provide the equivalent of a judge's summing-up? Those are issues that the Independent Football Commission, which is turning its attention to good governance, could usefully pursue.