James Lawton: Reassurance as national game proves it has conscience

First his mobile was off. Then it was on. He was moving house. No, he was shopping. He was having a coffee with a fellow professional footballer - and was horrified to remember he was supposed to be having a drugs test.

In the months leading up to the "trial" of Rio Ferdinand there was just one bleak, constant reality. It was that Ferdinand was guilty of a crime which, if countenanced, would tell us that football had descended to a new level of anarchy - and that leading football men were, in their unwillingness to face up to this central fact, displaying the moral integrity of old lags.

But last night there was a large measure of reassurance. Football, after all, had not become a wasteland of lost values. It had a disciplinary system that suddenly found teeth. Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, said risibly that Ferdinand's eight-month suspension was draconian which confirmed his recent existence on another planet.

As we waited for the sentence at Bolton's Reebok Stadium, the hope had to be that it was the first day of the rest of English football's life - as a game with a conscience, one with a dawning acceptance that all the celebrity and the largesse didn't come without a certain price.

And what was the levy? It was responsibility - and accountability. It was also, surely, that leading football figures like Sir Alex Ferguson, Ferdinand's manager at Manchester United, Sven Goran Eriksson, the player's England coach, and Taylor faced a requirement to think for a moment not just of their own particular interests but of the game in general. This has to be said because in the whole sorry affair there was only one aspect of it more outrageous than Ferdinand's irresponsible behaviour. It was the instinctive reactions of all three of these hugely influential - and hugely rewarded - leaders of the national game.

Yesterday, Ferguson carried his fury and his angst to the three-man commission, which, according to an intense FA briefing, was entirely independent of any pressure from within the game or at the ruling authority's Soho Square offices. Day one had seen United's star lawyer, Ronald Thwaites, launch an attack on testing procedures and the testers' performance. Nowhere in this was there a glint of a concession that his client had broken a fundamental law of football, and of any sport which is decently regulated.

Ferguson's central point was that his player was being used as a test case, a warning shot against all of the players. The image has been of a guileless victim of an ambush. But then wouldn't this be true of any of the leading players who are routinely tested? Nicky Butt, another United player, submitted along with two other team-mates to a test the same day that Ferdinand failed to undergo his. Butt wasn't ambushed - and how did he pull off his salvation? By doing what he was ordered to according to the rules of the game which gives him such an astonishingly rich living.

You had to ask what Ferguson was really saying. Could it be that football, as represented by a new FA regime, was wrong to strive for new standards of discipline and strict enforcement of drug testing? That had to be the impression as Ferguson talked of Ferdinand not as a miscreant but a victim. But a victim of what was, at best, his own stupidity.

Ferguson's club had been angered by the intervention of Sepp Blatter, the president of the game's world governing body, Fifa, who had insisted that the FA enforce strong punishment. It was hard to categorise Blatter's crime in any other eyes but United's. The club, as they have so often, saw a conspiracy to do down England's most famous team. A bit more detachment might have shown something else, possibly a concern about the battered image of football.

Taylor and Eriksson formed part of the same pattern of self-interest. Taylor, who did a fine job in defining the role of his union when the Premiership was so reluctant to pass on significant support from its latest mega television deal a few years ago, talked, irrelevantly, of the principle of innocence until proof of guilt. That simply wasn't the issue. Ferdinand's guilt was on the record. Taylor might have argued for mitigation, for an understanding of an individual's mistake - even how challenging it had been to remember across the span of a few hours that a drugs test had to be taken. But what Taylor said was that Ferdinand had become a whipping boy. It was a travesty of the truth that his predicament was of the player's own making.

Eriksson has been Eriksson; all things to all men. When the England dressing-room toyed with rebellion before the Turkey game, threatening Eriksson's FA employers that they might withdraw their labour because of the decision to drop Ferdinand until his case was settled, he refused to condemn them. This week he has given evidence of Ferdinand's good character to the commission, so soon after conceding that any player who failed to take a drugs test had to be banned. It was the same old business. Eriksson wanted Ferdinand to be available for the Euro 2004 finals next summer. Ferguson wanted him at every opportunity.

Lost in the rush of self-interest was that idea of accountability, of owning up to damaging mistakes, acknowledging that a game without any sense of right and wrong is well on the way to hell in a handbasket.

But as it has happened, maybe hell can wait. Eriksson will not have Ferdinand in Portugal. Ferguson will be without his £30m defensive linchpin in his drive to defend the Premiership title and win another European Cup. A disaster for them, but not for football.

The game desperately needed last night's crack of the whip. It needed this powerful reminder that discipline does matter, that money and power and influence cannot turn something as profoundly wrong as Ferdinand's behaviour at United's training ground into some passing triviality. Ferguson, Taylor and Eriksson didn't get their way. Too bad. Their loss is a huge gain for the game they profess to love.

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