FA shields the culprits over plane incident

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The Football Association yesterday brought the full weight of its slumbering bureaucracy to bear on the case of flight CX251 and the broken televisions. After a week's delay, and a day's investigation, they cracked down softly on no one in particular.

The England team, it was announced, had taken "collective responsibility" for the alleged pounds 5,000 worth of damage done to Cathay Pacific furniture. Fines have been imposed. Thus the likes of Peter Beardsley, Nick Barmby, the Neville brothers, and many others, have been tarnished by association for vandalism which, almost certainly, was committed by someone else.

It is an unsatisfactory solution - but a very English one. Rather like Form B being given a class detention because no one will "sneak" on the kid who defaced a desk and the culprit will not own up.

It was also an inevitable verdict. The suspension of a player, on the brink of the country's biggest tournament for 30 years, was never going to happen. However fines are, in reality, meaningless: the bulk of these players earn more than pounds 5,000 a week. It may be that the guilty, if discovered, will be subtly punished at a later date. It does happen - one player's arrival into the senior squad is believed to have been delayed because of vandalism to a hotel room during an under-21 tour.

This may have been what Steve Double, of the FA's press office, meant when he said: "There are no plans for further action from the FA until after Euro 96, at the very least." Or maybe not, this inconclusive statement typified the FA's dithering - by taking a week to act they have exacerbated an incident which would not have happened if they had kept a tighter rein on the players in the first place.

All this assumes that the FA or Venables ever discover who did it. Sir Bert Millichip, the FA chairman, said: "I understand that no one has admitted any responsibility for it." He added: "I was out all day but it's not a question of whether I approve of it - I have to accept it."

Given the possible penalties - Graham Kelly, the chief executive, had promised firm action - it was always unlikely that anyone would own up. With a week to go to the start of the championship it was hard to imagine Venables and Don Howe playing the soft cop, hard cop routine and interrogating each player individually.

Instead everyone is, however slightly, tainted, particularly three players who have been linked by some newspapers with the damage.

Steve McManaman last night acted to clear his name. His representatives faxed a message to this newspaper, and presumably others. It was marked with a hand-written "urgent" on it. In it he referred to the allegations as being "completely untrue", adding "the Football Association have acknowledged that I played no part in the incident."

His concern highlights the potential seriousness of the affair. Reputations, once gained, are hard to shake off - people still looked warily at a group of shaven-headed England fans on the following day's flight even after they had behaved impeccably all journey.

Venables made the valid point that complaints about England players have been rare but that only emphasises the damage done by this one.

It was not the way England would have liked to begin their preparations at Bisham Abbey yesterday. For two players the day was made worse by injury - Gary Neville and Steve Howey sat out training, Neville has a thigh strain, Howey blood poisoning.

Howey's problem is unlikely to be as bad as it sounds - Gascoigne suffered similarly in the Far East. In both cases a foot blister has become infected and provoked a reaction in the groin. Both are expected to be fit by Saturday, when England meet Switzerland in the tournament's opening game.

Meanwhile, the Independent has discovered that the surprising revelation that tickets were still available for that match is not so surprising after all. One reader took more than four hours of continual redialling to get through to the FA's ticket hotline.

When he finally got through he had to wait 20 minutes while his application was processed. At that rate it is surprising the FA have sold any tickets at all.