James Lawton: Palios earns highest praise but the hard work has just begun

Having struck a blow for discipline in the Ferdinand affair, the FA's chief executive must tackle conflicts of interest and referee accountability
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The Independent Online

Triumphalism would have been obscene had it come from any quarter in the wake of the Rio Ferdinand case, an affair which dragged the national game down to a point of unprecedented ridicule.

But then if anyone was tempted to indulge in a bit of it, Mark Palios, the chief executive of the Football Association, was surely in sole possession of the bragging rights.

Instead he said at the weekend: "I didn't feel pleased or vindicated because up until now football has been a loser. But if there is a positive it is that at last we're on the right road. After this case, I don't think any club will allow a player to miss a drugs test again - and if a bus runs over me tomorrow and that is all we ever achieve then it was worth it for that."

Mark that down as the quote not of the football year but of the decade. No, it's not a soundbite to bring on the envy of Oscar Wilde - or perhaps even that of David Beckham's publicity advisers. It's not slick. But, for the moment at least, it is like the brief job performance record of its author. It shines like a diamond.

It is so arresting because it says something football lovers had despaired of hearing again - a voice that spoke not for self-interest but for the good name of a game which has been ravaged for so long by the failure of so many of its most influential people to see a wider picture.

A quote is merely a quote, however, and what matters is the long run of action. In his first year in the job Palios has struck a mighty blow for new values, a sense of discipline. But it is very much a case of so far, so good.

He also agrees that the mechanics of justice as they were applied to Ferdinand, and in the relatively minor cases of Alan Smith and Joe Cole, were quite hapless. Yes, there is no doubt, they need cleaning up and Palios would be unwise to permit any delay.

He is operating from a position of strength that was unimaginable when his predecessor, Adam Crozier, was hounded out of office earlier this year by the power brokers of the Premiership, and it gives him an untouchable popular mandate to streamline disciplinary procedures. That, however, is the least of his challenges now and, though heaven forbid, just in case there is a runaway bus on his horizon it would be good to hear of his plans to widen the moral agenda.

There are two areas which scream for action. One is in the financial management of football and the conduct of transfer deals, an aspect of the game which the fallen Crozier had placed at the head of business.

Palios, who also has commercial experience far beyond the boundaries of football, must surely see one huge symbolic target - the appalling potential for conflict of interest that exists when Premiership managers are allowed to hold shares in the business of a leading agent with whom their clubs regularly conduct multi-million pound transactions. Attending to this bizarre reality would not be the kind of reform which needs careful calculation. A hosepipe would do.

More demanding, and perhaps of more practical need, is a huge review of the controls that govern the financial behaviour of all professional clubs.

The other outrage, if we are indeed moving into an era of accountability, is the extraordinary freedom from responsibility extended to referees. They alone are not required to explain their decisions, and the most unacceptable expression of this is the fact that when a referee takes action, however misguided, video evidence is no longer accessible. What does this say? We can only conclude that if a referee sees something it is invariably with an infallible eye. Each week we see mounting evidence that this simply isn't so.

It means that however outrageously one-eyed the reactions of football managers and players, there is always a nagging root of injustice. The admirable thrust of Palios's work thus far has been a drive for discipline and responsibility, but these basic qualities will always be undermined if they are not all- encompassing.

Fuelling Sir Alex Ferguson's ongoing rage yesterday was the dismissal of his young player Darren Fletcher in Sunday's game at Middlesbrough. The Manchester United manager considered the first of two yellow cards "unbelievable". He said that the referee, Matt Messias, had allowed the crowd to become a factor in the game. It was a standard Fergie rant, filled with the kind of partiality that sent him billowing into the Ferdinand case, but Palios would be wrong to dismiss it simply in those terms. On this occasion, Ferguson's barbs were well aimed.

None of this dissipates the sense that Palios has made a magnificent start to his challenge of making football a game of laws and some decency.

At the risk of the fatal isolation that many insisted would be his fate, Palios stood and fought the Ferdinand battle. He did it on the unimpeachable grounds that it was the right thing to do. Now he says, without too much fanfare, that he wants to move on, and, heaven knows, he has much travelling still to do. If English football has a heart, and a brain, it will accept the invitation. And, given the style of it, with some gratitude.

Stand up and be counted? You do or you don't, Danny

It appears that when Manchester United's Gary Neville was telling his England team-mates they should consider a strike in support of their ill-served team-mate Rio Ferdinand, Middlesbrough's Danny Mills was undergoing a torment of indecision.

Now he has let it be known that he came close to issuing a statement disassociating himself with the arguments of many of the rest of the squad. He felt, deep down, that it was beyond the call of any player to reject his country's shirt.

However, the sum of his protest came on the eve of Sunday's game with Neville's United. He said: "With the benefit of hindsight, I don't really think anyone really wanted what happened to happen.

"But I've always been forthright in my opinion, I've always stood up for what I believe in. At the moment it's still a bit sensitive to go into in further depth."

Further depth? Surely, you either stand up to be counted or you don't. It's a spur of the moment thing. It's done, Danny.

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