James Lawton: So Gordon, just what is it you stand for these days?

Idealism of PFA chief executive's past battles defending integrity of game betrayed by unprincipled support of Ferdinand
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The Independent Football

Dear Gordon,

Something astounding happened the other night and I thought you ought to know because even though I think you have got more or less everything to do with the Rio Ferdinand affair wrong, and catastrophically so, I do remember all the times you have been right - all the times you carried a light for the old game on some very dark nights indeed.

But that wasn't the Gordon Taylor I heard when I switched on the car radio in the wake of the Ferdinand verdict.

What I found myself listening to - and this was the astonishing thing - was a party line that might have been rubber-stamped and issued from the Old Trafford press office.

I heard talk of a young man hounded into a career crisis not because he had done something profoundly wrong, not because he had made a mockery of any idea that the best-paid members of your union are capable of understanding that with their great riches come some basic responsibilities, but out of some arbitrary official desire to find a scapegoat and then lump upon him all the pressure for a new climate in the national game.

It was your talk and it was savaged by the BBC guy who broke the broadcasting conventions and launched himself into an indignant attack. You know, Gordon, I agreed with almost every word he said and that was a shock.

Riding your old belief in what the game should mean, you've made matchwood of so many interrogators. But not these last few days when you have mulishly refused to accept that when Rio Ferdinand walked away from a drug test he stepped beyond the pale of acceptable behaviour. When you have resurrected the possibility of a strike first raised - and at whose instigation? - by Ferdinand's team-mates before the European qualifying match in Turkey. When you have talked about severing relations with the Football Association. When you have said, in effect, that football's new dawn can rise without you and your high-profile members and their most powerful of employers, Manchester United.

So what do you stand for now, Gordon? We know about your anti-racism and football in the community campaigns. We know how you clawed your way to a decent pay-off from the last Premiership TV deal, so that great old veterans hobbling around on arthritic joints and castaway youngsters could get some help from the plutocrat game to which they gave their lives or at least their dreams. Some of us cheered you all the way home on that one, Gordon.

But where do we go now? We have to go with our instinct that all the idealism of Gordon Taylor doesn't mean so much if it cannot embrace the idea of every man's accountability - if it cannot stand up and declare that some principles cannot be bent so out of shape that they are indistinguishable from the rest of big-time football politics and self-interest.

Much is made of your big salary - what is it now, £650,000 a year? - but for some of us that has never been a problem - at least as long as you fought the fight for the good name of football. Why should the Alan Sugars and Ken Bateses and Sam Hammans and Martin Edwardses cream off their millions with scarcely a whisper of comment while a man who played the game passionately and plainly cared about it to the point of physical exhaustion be castigated for his freely negotiated rewards?

But what happened to that passion for truth, Gordon, that refusal to bow to the football habit of seeing everything in the light of its own short-term interest? What happened to the man who stormed so indignantly in the Ipswich Town tea room when English football was so poorly represented at the memorial service of Sir Alf Ramsey in 1999. "You have to worry about a game which cannot properly honour its heroes," Taylor said. But then what do you say about a game which recoils in horror when someone who has dragged it down as deeply as Ferdinand receives significant punishment? You surmise that it has lost its will ever again to make itself strong at the broken places.

There is no doubt about your finest hour, Gordon. It was that sleepless time when you won your battle with the Premiership three years ago, when you pronounced yourself satisfied that the game you loved had been held back from a statement of unbridled greed, that a decent agreement had been made with the money-men who had been briefing against you so relentlessly.

At that time you were drawn back so strongly to the memory of your father, Alec, the motor engineer and trade unionist who, late of an evening, would call you in from playing football in the field behind the tram shed in Ashton-under-Lyne, and then return to his union work on the kitchen table. You said, "We played out our dreams behind the tram shed and just recently I've been thinking a lot about those days, playing my game and watching my dad work for his colleagues - he's been in my mind these last few weeks, when I've been running on empty and relying heavily on adrenalin.

"My dad followed me everywhere, up hill and down dale on his bike when I was playing football, and he was in the shadows at Maine Road in Manchester in 1975 when I finally knew my greatest dream of getting to an FA Cup final would never come true. I was with Birmingham City and we lost a replayed semi-final with Fulham. After the game I came out into the street and the Fulham coach was all lit up. They had Bobby Moore playing for them and their players were overjoyed.

"I felt very low, this had been my great chance to get to Wembley. I said, 'Sorry, Dad', but he got hold of me and said, 'Lad, you'll never know how much pride you have given me with your football all these years'. He died soon after that." But not before, some of us believed and could be persuaded to believe again, shaping the instincts of a man prepared to fight for the integrity of a game which could begin to justify the kind of pride that was expressed on a long-ago pavement in Manchester.

What is so dismaying now, Gordon, is that you argued so hard and so long for the need for that integrity. You told me about the time, when you were fighting for the survival of the Swansea club, that you flew back from South Wales in a small plane whose safety had been threatened by ice on the wings, and before sliding into a deep sleep read an item on the business page that said your old team-mate and friend Francis Lee had sold out his toilet paper business for £8m - a business in which you had been offered a share. And you told me you had wondered, fleetingly, what you were doing chasing around the country locked in the old football dream.

But then, it seemed, you really did know. You were fighting for a decent future for the national game. For some of the romance and the character which made it a staple of the nation's life. For the difference between right and wrong to matter. Now, along with Manchester United and so many of the power brokers of football, you say Ferdinand is a martyr. You refuse to accept that he committed a serious offence, and allowed himself to be defended with a mish-mash of feeble excuses. You say, at least by implication, that it is all right for football to be run without meaningful sanctions against the most blatant breakdowns in discipline.

It is a message which sits well with Manchester United, of course, but we all know their cynical, winning game. Some of us also thought we knew yours, Gordon. But we're far from sure now. Maybe you could put us straight, tell us again what you truly represent. Surely, after all this time, it cannot be a football world where anything goes.

Yours sincerely,

James Lawton

Moore, Best, Zidane: the cream of Europe

Two weeks ago, James Lawton gave his All-Time European Football XI, and we asked for readers' selections. In our view the best team was sent in by Steven Ferris, of Soham in Cambridgeshire, who wins a bottle of champagne. Here is his team:

Peter Schmeichel: Can it be a coincidence that Manchester United have never been quite the same since he left?

Lilian Thuram: Scored two goals in a World Cup semi-final. No other right-back could have done that.

Bobby Moore: Who can argue with Pele's judgement?

Franz Beckenbauer: One of the greatest players of all time, and a true sportsman.

Paolo Maldini: Classy and unflappable. You never hear of costly mistakes.

Johan Cruyff: A shining light in the greatest Ajax side ever seen, and inspired a nation to play total football.

Zinedine Zidane: The most perfect player Europe has produced. Adds the balance and skill of a Brazilian to graft.

Paul Gascoigne: Ability to rival Zidane, if not more. Almost solely responsible for the rise in interest for football in this country after Italia '90.

George Best: My dad says he is the greatest and my grandfather used to stand and clap every time Best was on the TV. If he can satisfy those two, he must be worthy.

Marco van Basten: Centre-forward play at its most lethal. Him tearing England apart in 1988 was almost too painful to watch.

Gary Lineker: One missed penalty away from equalling the all-time England goalscoring record, and he hit 10 in World Cup finals.