James Lawton: Palios and FA deserve praise for taking swift action over Ferdinand

New chief executive makes crucial stand to clean up English game by underlining seriousness of defender's failure to submit to drug test

So Rio Ferdinand is out of the big game. A tragic mishap for English football? Or can we perhaps put it another way, like one step back - and a thousand forward? Yes, I reckon we can.

Indeed, if there was any tragedy afoot these last few days it was only in the fact that, with all hell bursting around the image of the national game, a fabulously rewarded young pillar of England should announce that, unlike three team-mates, he "forgot" to respond to the demand for a sample from officially appointed drug testers.

A lot else has been forgotten in the last few years. Decency has been forgotten so many times on the field. The requirement not to cheat shamelessly has been swallowed up in the Great Amnesia. So has the professional obligation of managers to blame their players for offences against the game's good name - pick out the names of any of the big ones, Ferguson and Wenger, Houllier and Souness, most of the others down the ladder, and you've settled on a guilty party.

On and off the field, the damage has been relentless and now we are asked to believe by an outraged Manchester United and the Professional Footballers' Association that somehow Ferdinand has been harshly treated by the Football Association. Tell that to all the players who, down the years, followed the rules and played their hearts out for what? A meagre retirement and a bad case of arthritic joints.

Ferdinand is a prince of the game earning £50,000 a week plus. The demands on him include playing the game, maintaining fitness and following the terms of all professional footballers' contracts. One is willingly and readily to submit to drugs tests. Ferdinand says he forget to do this because he had other things on his mind. Things like moving into his latest luxurious accommodation. It just isn't good enough, not when you consider how fundamental regular, random drug-testing is to the good order - and reputation - of all sport. It is why in some sports the failure to submit to a test brings an automatic two-year ban.

Some, though commendably not the England coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, were arguing yesterday that the FA should have buried the Ferdinand affair until after the Turkish game. The policy option went like this: get the game done with, use all your assets, and then deal with the mess.

It is the kind of thinking that allowed Alan Shearer to blackmail the FA into waiving charges against him for a plainly brutal attack on the former Leicester City player, Neil Lennon, shortly before the captain led England into the 1998 World Cup. That sort of compromise was brusquely rejected by the FA's chief executive, Mark Palios, yesterday, and it is much to his credit. Rightly identifying the implications, if the not the final findings, of the Ferdinand case to be huge, Palios chose the policy of transparency and firmness that he promised when he took office. For the administration of proper discipline in the English game it was possible to see it as a quantum leap forward.

So, too, was his swift reaction to that dreadful scene at Old Trafford when half the Arsenal team gathered around United's Ruud van Nistelrooy and poked, pushed and screamed at him as though he was some mob-targeted victim. Here, maybe, is an ex-professional who has found great success in the wider world coming back to football with a clear of idea what he - and the public - think it should be. He was never likely to be swayed that United were contemplating the withdrawal of their other players in the England party.

In all of this Eriksson, who has perhaps not been a towering figure of sound judgement with his apparently unshakeable link into the public mind with the Chelsea owner, Roman Abramovich, has behaved with good sense.

Yes, he said, he would miss Ferdinand the footballer. He would have dearly liked to have had him available for Istanbul, but here he spoke as the coach of a football team - and when wouldn't a coach want his best players at hand? But Eriksson said he accepted and respected the decision by his FA bosses. He couldn't say whether the matter could have been handled differently. He was asked if English football was falling into disgrace? "I hope not," Eriksson said, and of course this was to be intelligently equivocal.

Who could say otherwise who cared anything for the game that so recently has been dragged through the sewers so relentlessly? Who, until Palios did so in so many words this week, was prepared to say that English football was in desperate trouble and the situation could not improve until enough people within the game stood up and said it was time to draw a line.

That it has been made so clear to Ferdinand so quickly that his situation is serious indeed is surely a first step in this direction. No doubt expert medical advice will be applied to the question of the significance, or not, of the 36-hour delay before Ferdinand finally submitted a sample. But that is another day's business. In the meantime it was necessary to register that Ferdinand was guilty of something more than a misdemeanour. That the price should be paid by the England national team only underlines the weight of Palios's decision.

Better to lose one football match than live another week with the lie that all is remotely well with the national game.

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