England avert strike but destroy player trust

England crisis: Team accuse FA of 'letting down the whole squad and the manager' after finally agreeing to play crucial match in Turkey
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The Independent Football

When an English football team travels abroad the officials usually sit up front and the players behind. When England's flight takes off from Luton this afternoon, bound for Istanbul and tomorrow's decisive European Championship qualifier, it will take more than pulling back a curtain to bridge the divide.

The first England players' strike, prompted by their anger at Rio Ferdinand's omission from the squad after he failed to take a drugs test, may have been averted last night. However, the players made it clear, in a strongly worded statement, that the trust between them and their temporary employers, the Football Association, has been broken. While Mark Palios remains as the chief executive, it may never be repaired.

The immediate consequence may be defeat in Turkey, condemning the team to a play-off possibly against dangerous opponents like the Netherlands or Spain. The probable withdrawal of Michael Owen today will not help but England teams have often performed at their best in adversity.

Tellingly, Sven Goran Eriksson tacitly backed the squad throughout the affair. Last night, after two days of negotiations ended with the players blinking first, Eriksson said their "loyalty to Rio confirmed my opinion they have formed a strong and unified group. I'm sure we'll see that on Saturday. It has been a difficult build-up but we can now focus 200 per cent on the football."

That loyalty was expressed in the players' statement which read, in part: "It is our opinion that the organisation we represent has not only let down one of our team-mates but the whole of the England squad and its manager. We feel they have failed us very badly." It added that the team was 'weaker' without Ferdinand.

Palios, having kept a low profile, finally emerged to deliver a notably blander statement. He insisted the FA had "acted entirely properly" with regard to Ferdinand's confidentiality, a major bone of contention. He also said he had "heard what the players had to say" and would incorporate these views in his review of disciplinary procedures.

In this, the first test of his leadership, Palios has won but at a high, potentially damaging, cost. In the short term he had to allow the players to make their highly critical statement. It was, noted one official, the price of getting them on the plane. In the long term he has made enemies of the nation's biggest club and its best players. Adam Crozier, his equally pro-active predecessor, fell to a less powerful combination.

That an England team could threaten a boycott of their most significant match in 16 months, after one of their number was dropping for an offence he admits, seems barely credible. But while the image of David Beckham and his team-mates gathered round a picket-line brazier is arresting, the players' rebellion was no laughing matter.

The squad's decision to line up behind Ferdinand risked England being expelled from the next World Cup as well as the European Championship. FA officials admit they had been shocked to discover the possible consequences. If the squad refused to travel, the only way to avoid these penalties would have been to send an under-21 squad to certain defeat ­ if they were prepared to cross a metaphorical picket line.

This knowledge intensified efforts on both sides to find a resolution. The players wanted Ferdinand re-instated. This, said Paul Barber, the FA's marketing and communncations executive, was non-negotiable. Otherwise the FA's stance was conciliatory. Faced with a similar threat, though over money, Clive Woodward, the England rugby union coach, told the squad to pack their bags, he would find another team. The players backed down.

Barber used more temperate language. He refused to condemn the players. The hope was that by listening to the players' concerns, accepting mistakes in procedure may have been made, and offering to reform the process, they would dampen their ire. Eventually, with the statement thrown in as a sweetener, it worked.

An intervention by Ferdinand may have helped. Pini Zahavi, his agent, said: "Rio has spoken to a number of the players and begged them to go to Turkey. He told them England is more important than him. He doesn't want them to go on strike on his behalf."

Barber, the FA's public face during this dispute, insisted negotiations were "amicable", the players were "professional", team spirit was "very good" and training was "hard and focussed". Much of this was hard to believe. To most observers, professional and amateur, the players' actions illustrated just how divorced from reality the modern footballer has become.

This fault was even shared by their union's chief executive, Gordon Taylor, normally a voice of reason. He said: "It is not a stand-down by the players, just the reverse. The FA were in a corner and it was only the players being practical that solved all this. The FA were not going to budge over Rio so it was the players saying "it's only us who can show common sense, we will never let our country down".

He and the players seemed unaware that the FA's decision to omit Ferdinand had been broadly supported. As the owners of the national team, through which they generate most of their funds, the FA had as much to lose as anyone in weakening the team for such a crucial match. The decision was taken with the broader interests of the game at heart.

That said, there is some truth in the suggestion that the decision was motivated by the desire of Palios to make his mark and re-inforce the FA's authority. If he wanted to make an early impact with his disbarring of Ferdinand he had succeeded beyond his wildest dreams ­ or nightmares.

It was put to Barber that, with England players threatening a strike, a Leeds footballer in jail, several others under investigation for an alleged rape in London, the national game was in crisis. Barber disagreed. "The game is still a great spectacle," he said. "We are still getting millions of people watching the game on TV and in stadiums. For the most part it is still a fantastic game, not just here in this country but across the world. We hope we can move on from this." His words are largely true but this dispute may inflict long-term damage. As baseball discovered, sport can become divorced from its public.