A row that leaves the FA and its players riven by anger and rancour

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The Independent Football

Even at the end, England were making a meal of it. Officials at the Football Association were forced to delay a press conference last night announcing that the 24 members of the squad would be going to Turkey after all. The reason? A bankers' dinner in the wood-panelled Nicholas Breakspear suite, the only function room big enough at the country house hotel in Hertfordshire where the players had gathered in anger on Tuesday lunchtime. The nation, it seems, would have to wait as it had done for the past two extraordinary days of an episode which, judging by the continued mood of the players' yesterday, is far from over.

No wonder Sven Goran Eriksson, the coach, looked sheepish. Little wonder Mark Palios, the chief executive, looked stern. They had both read the statement agreed upon by David Beckham and his team-mates. Ten paragraphs which amounted to a devastating upward appraisal of their (titular) boss. "There will be no further comment on this matter until after the Turkey game," it threatened. Surely that was for the FA ­ not the players ­ to dictate?

The players' have been in a black mood throughout. The previous evening it had come to a head. Again it centered around a meal ­ this time it was the players themselves gathering with the FA officials and England coaching staff. The plates had been cleared but the dinner was not over. There was still one dish left on the menu: revenge. Best served cold, of course.

The squad, young millionaires all, shuffled from the private dining room into the games area that had been set up for them to wile away the tedium at the Sopwell House Hotel ­ once the home of Lord Mountbatten ­ their retreat for the two nights prior to their expected flight to Istanbul.

However, the events of that emotional meeting, and the next few hours, meant that their journey ­ to play their final, highly charged qualifying match for Euro 2004 ­ was becoming ever more distant. The FA had clearly underestimated the players' anger over the exclusion and perceived treatment of Rio Ferdinand, the popular defender who has become an influential member of the squad and was a friend and club team-mate for a quarter of its constituents.

It was the first time that the players had all been together on their own since arriving at the four-star hotel. It had a hothouse effect. Until then they had been training, gathered in smaller groups in the rooms or had been addressed at a formal team meeting by Eriksson. Although placatory it was clear where the bewildered Swede's sympathies lay. And it was with them, not his bosses.

There had also been another meeting on Tuesday, at midday, before the squad officially assembled between 1pm and 3pm. It involved eight players ­ Beckham, David James, Michael Owen, Sol Campbell and the four Manchester United players in the squad Gary and Phil Neville, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes.

They met Palios, the man who had taken the firm stance on Ferdinand's misdemeanor. The players ­ already upset ­ did not like what they were told. Palios, new to the post, repeated the FA's position that it would be inappropriate to select someone who is almost certain to be charged with an offence at a hearing next Monday. The players were furious and the presence of the Manchester United contingent added strength to the claim that the club had considered their wholesale withdrawal. One United source accused Palios, a former player, of "going in with both feet on Rio".

But it was not until that evening in the games room that, it is believed, Gary Neville, the Professional Footballers' Association representative at Manchester United, addressed the rest of the squad and explained their options. Beckham and James are also believed to have addressed the meeting. A ballot was called for. Some ­ the younger members ­ sat bemused but did not protest. The papers were passed around. The result was unanimous.

The vote was not specifically on whether to strike (although the recollection of some players suggests that it was). Instead all agreed they would support the action decided on by the players' council of Beckham, James, Owen and Campbell ­ ironically himself fined £20,000 by the FA yesterday over a charge of "violent conduct". The council usually simply negotiates such matters as players' bonuses and money.

The FA, meanwhile, was apparently oblivious to the mood. Paul Barber, its director of marketing and communications, released a statement that evening claiming that "at no time ­ and David Beckham has asked me to make this clear ­ did any of the players at that meeting threaten to walk out of the squad". He was wrong and ­ embarrassingly ­ was forced to admit as much yesterday afternoon.

"England players have made it clear that one of the options is not to travel to Turkey," he said at an extraordinary press conference at which the full extent of the anger ­ and the bewildering number of meetings involving players, officials and management ­ was evident. As he spoke, Barber was flanked by a life-size photograph of Ferdinand. Some preparation for a vital match.

Still, all the squad boarded the coach at just after 10am yesterday to travel the four miles or so to Arsenal's luxurious training facilities at London Colney, just off the M25. Press photographers were allowed in ­ as is customary ­ for the first 15 minutes of the session.

But it was clear all was not well. Views had hardened overnight. Eriksson ushered his players to the far corner of the vast complex. Long lenses were in order. Beckham was last out on to the field ­ although there was nothing unusual in that. But what was clear was that the FA officials were becoming increasingly harassed. When questioned on what could be expected ­ and who would attend ­ at a planned press conference at 1.30pm back at the team hotel, they obfuscated.

Usually, before international matches, two or three players are offered up for reporters to interview and gauge the mood. The conference was moved back to 4pm and all members of the press barred from the hotel until an hour before. Some were moved on by security staff. In the reception area, only the coaches Brian Kidd and Sammy Lee were seen.

After training, there was another meeting between the FA officials, including Palios, and the senior players, including Beckham. The FA threatened nothing but ­ for the first time ­ revealed to the players that they had checked the rulebooks and discovered that if the game in Turkey was not fulfilled then England would not just forfeit the points but would be thrown out of the Euro 2004 competition. They would not go to Portugal. There would also be repercussions for future participation in the World Cup.

Above all, for this particular group of players, there was the question of what it meant for their careers, their images, endorsements and earnings. The situation could not have been graver and, effectively, this was the FA's trump card. Nevertheless the players did not relent, not even when Ferdinand sent a message pleading with them not to strike.

In a parallel to the departure of Ireland's captain, Roy Keane, from last year's World Cup, things were getting out of hand. It was escalating badly. Cool heads were called for but the players would not attend the press conference, leaving Barber and Adrian Bevington, a press officer, to take the podium at 3.58pm in the Nicholas Breakspear suite. The players, Barber conveyed, had insisted that they wanted Ferdinand reinstated.

Then there was another team meeting last night. They would after all board the plane at 2.30pm today ­ as long as they could release their statement, as long as they could continue to have their say, continue to question the rules. It was agreed. Another press conference could take place and it started five hours after the last one. The deal was done even if the damage had been also.

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