Feud inglorious feud

Situation vacant: And desperate. Mutu affair and Highbury-Old Trafford conflict need a leader's touch at the FA
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The Independent Online

Seven months? Whatever disciplinary science it was that produced that suspension for Romania's favourite son, you can only conclude that a more appropriate punishment would have been seven-and- a-half weeks, given Adrian Mutu's alleged excessive lifestyle at one time.

Whatever their verdict, and there was not a chance the former Chelsea striker would be handed down anything more than Rio Ferdinand's eight months by his disciplinary hearing on Thursday, the Football Association were going to be damned anyway; condemned by Mutu's not-so-merry mentors on one side of the argument, and by those who cannot distinguish between a cheat's prescription and what is considered by many as nothing more than a social nicety on the other.

Chelsea's attitude to the £16m player has been reprehensible from the start of this nasty little affair. You do not have to be an obsessive drug reformer to recognise that this is a player with a problem, not one of those athletes we witnessed in Athens during the summer whose premeditated intake of substances defiled the Olympic movement. That chemistry was expressly designed to enhance their performances. There is not a scintilla of evidence that this was the case here.

The punishments received by footballers who used damaging steroids - Jaap Stam, Fernando Couto, Frank de Boer and Edgar Davids - with none of them receiving more than four-month bans from their federations, scarcely suggest that Mutu escaped lightly.

Football has been here before, of course, and tends to squirm when confronted with the issue, uncertain of quite how to deal with its Boys From The White Stuff, particularly when the Government have, by implication at least, "softened" the whole legal approach to recreational drugs.

Notably, there was that jolly japer Paul Merson, who coughed before too much of his habit got up his nostrils and the testers did the job for him. With Arsenal's backing, he went into rehabilitation, and was target-tested for many months thereafter.

Can the Stamford Bridge club honestly declare that had the culprit not been a player with whom the manager would seem quite content to dispense with, but instead John Terry, Frank Lampard or Damien Duff, that they would have reacted in such a manner?

You support the player or shun him, and, if the latter is the case, contemptible though it may be considered, you accept the consequences. That is the price for occupation of what you perceive as the moral high ground. Residing on such a summit, with an enhanced view of life that we mere mortals can only imagine and adopting a position of "zero tolerance", can be a highly expensive business.

Having rushed to their conclusion, Chelsea then had the temerity to express not only indignation when the FA did not commit their former player to hard labour, but declared their intent to prevent him continuing his career elsewhere until they had been "compensated". It ill-behoves this observer to find himself in agreement with the players' union chief executive, Gordon Taylor, but you can only concur when he says: "You can't have it both ways - you can't sack someone and then ask money for him."

Thus far, Sir Alex Ferguson has restrained himself from making comparisons withFerdinand, who as a non-depositor of a urine sample rather than a positive tester is in a different category. But it is possibly only a matter of time for an individual whose sense of indignation at what he apparently perceives as a pro-Highbury, anti-Old Trafford stance by the FA (within whose corridors the Arsenal vice-chairman, David Dein, is a frequent visitor) knows no bounds.

Hence, the day following the sombre exit of Mutu from the doorway of Soho Square, the arrival of the infamous Manchester United dossier. It contains the club's "evidence" about the food-supplemented tunnel tiff and other events during the Manchester United-Arsenal game at Old Trafford a fortnight ago, but its compilation has been generally accompanied by boos and hisses from the media audience.

The whole affair has provided yet more pantomime within a theatre in which there has been no principal boy, no figure of authority, for three months. That has left the ugly sisters, Arsène Wenger and Ferguson, to squabble to their hearts' content, to the detriment of the game. You cannot permit a vacuum in power, in politics or football, to exist and expect it not to be filled by mischief-making.

Can the FA contrive to install a forceful and visionary man (or woman) this time? The FA board meet two weeks on Thursday to interview a trio which includes Brian Barwick, ITV's controller of sport, and Richard Bowker, the former chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority, whose perennially tie-less state should commend him to the FA's "progressives". I understand, though, that suggestions that Barwick is the obvious candidate are considered premature. Until the FA make that appointment, however, a renewed attack on the body is about as cruel and as pointless as kicking a vagrant.

What is required is a chief executive who could have brought his or her personality to bear as the unseemly spat between Ferguson and Wenger intensified. I gather that the FA are not ruling out charging either, or both, men with bringing the game in disrepute.

Wenger can hardly be said to sing with the angels when it comes to the discipline of his own team, and some of his observations immediately afterwards were intemperate, to say the least. Ferguson, though, has at least had time to adopt a more philosophical view. Yet all the pronouncements he has made suggest his club's dossier, which will be studied this week, will be nothing more than a testament to the United manager's pique.

Most of us would have relished the fact that their team had defeated the champions when they had no right to do so on the quality of football. You would even accept the summary justice meted out to Ruud van Nistelrooy for a sickening challenge. Not a bit of it. The game has been analysed almost microscopically. The Scot, like a motorist convinced that an accident was not his fault, has been doing the equivalent of photographing and measuring skid marks.

But to expect anything other than that of Ferguson is to misunderstand the man. You do not celebrate 18 years' stewardship of the world's leading club, one you have fashioned largely by your own hand, without an intense myopia, borne of a simmering resentment against the world. In the Ferguson view of things, you concede nothing to the opposition. Certainly not a hand of reconciliation.

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