James Lawton: FA right to ignore apologists seeking soft option for Ferdinand

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The Independent Football

There was something almost indecent in the way some, and most publicly Gordon Taylor, yesterday leaped on the assumption that the Football Association had blinked in the vital matter of its disciplinary response to the Rio Ferdinand affair.

Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, said he welcomed the decision to charge Ferdinand with the lesser offence of failing to take a test rather than wilfully refusing to do so.

But Taylor was wrong. A thousand times wrong. He was wrong in his facts, in his interpretation of the situation, and most grievously wrong in the continuation of his campaign to persuade all concerned that what Ferdinand, a hugely rewarded professional, did was anything other than an appalling failure of responsibility. To his game, to his club and the values that both are supposed to represent.

The most significant aspect of the FA's statement yesterday was the inclusion of the word "refusal" when it quoted from its own rules regarding drug tests.

Punishment, it is clear, will be determined by the findings of an FA hearing. In taking such a stance, the FA has performed a quite majestic retrieval of the idea that there might just indeed be a new moral force at work in the running of the beleaguered national game.

When Taylor said that he was pleased - by his first, inaccurate impressions - but that the affair had still been badly handled, he created the terrible sense that we were indeed still rooted in the age of compromise, of shilly-shally, that might never end.

Who knows, it may be so. In the end the pressure exerted by the PFA and Ferdinand's powerful club, Manchester United, may deliver depressingly slight punishment for an offence which, even on the basis of already known facts, we know to be quite shocking. Despite the official position of the FA, it probably needs to be said that disquiet about the possibility of Ferdinand receiving no more than a rap on the knuckles runs more deeply than many may have been led to believe - and that the concern has been registered privately not just among officials and commentators, but among some of the game's leading and most respected professionals.

One of them made this clear to a group of journalists recently. He said that the Ferdinand affair was very strange and needed watching carefully. He said that from his own experience he knew that an absent-minded failure to take a drugs test was something that had to stretch credibility, such is the stringent procedure and attention of the testers. This was a view publicly endorsed by Howard Wilkinson, the former technical director of the Football Association and a man who has lived much of his life in the professional trenches. Wilkinson echoed the view that the testing exercise makes sheer forgetfulness the unlikeliest of explanations for a failure to undergo a test.

Of course the Ferdinand defence - so fervently taken up by his United team-mates that they were prepared to take strike action while on England duty - is that he indeed did forget. Unlike several club mates, instead of performing the sometimes onerous chore of passing urine, he strolled off to the local shopping mall.

At the time there was a suggestion that his mobile phone was switched off, an impression which is now in conflict with available evidence.

Of course all these claims - and facts - will be ventilated soon enough at Ferdinand's hearing. In the meantime, we can only breathe again at the understanding that the FA has not indeed taken a soft option, something which in the past was as predictable as the reaction of a Pavlovian dog.

The point here runs to the core of football's problems. No one wants to serve up Rio Ferdinand as a sacrificial victim, some catch-all scapegoat for the ills of modern football. But nor do they want to see a prime example of one of the greatest problems - sheer raging indiscipline - shuffled into the margins. But this might be perceived to have happened because Ferdinand is employed by one of the principle power brokers in English football who would only have compounded the damage.

The days of compromise may just be over, and for this to be claimed we perhaps do not have to see Ferdinand disappear under some great disciplinary steamroller. He may indeed be able to argue special circumstances and it could be that the FA will eventually be able in good conscience to impose much less than the two-year ban which is possible under the regulations. If that proves to be the case, so be it. What is important is that the FA is seen to be in charge of the running of the game, and that it is operating with proper force. For a few terrible minutes yesterday, the fear was that it had simply surrendered.

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