James Lawton: The authority of the English game is on trial rather than the player

This is a test of the FA's willingness to draw a line and instil new discipline as the sport it governs drifts into a morass of self-indulgence

Bolton's shining stadium becomes the Old Bailey of football today when Rio Ferdinand's expensive "silk", Ronald Thwaites, arrives with an inevitably theatrical flourish to defend the Manchester United star. Thwaites is himself a star of his own business, so naturally he was signed up by the club which has dominated the domestic game for so long. But how will Mr Thwaites QC best earn his money?

It will be by presenting his hugely wealthy young client as, at worst, a somewhat careless victim of heavy-handed, slow-moving Football Association justice. That will be the trick, supported by such impassioned supporters as Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association who was yesterday crying for Ferdinand's deliverance from a "lynch mob".

The trick is already half achieved. Ferdinand's England coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, will come to "court" to supply a glowing character reference despite his recent concession that anyone guilty of failing to take a drugs test should be banned until the matter is settled. Eyal Berkovic, the Manchester City midfielder and friend of the accused, will testify to Ferdinand's "horror" as he realised in mid-shopping spree that he had failed to report for the test which had been ordered just a few hours before.

So much for the defence, but what of the reality? It is quite simply that this isn't the trial of Rio Ferdinand. It is the trial of English football. It is the test of its nerve and its willingness to say that it is time for a game which has drifted into a morass of self-indulgence, which couldn't see a moral issue if it was hit by one between the eyes with a night-stick, to draw a line at last.

The recently appointed FA chief, Mark Palios, has made some impressive noises. He has talked of new levels of discipline, of a need for the entire game to take a long and lingering look in the mirror. But so far it has mostly been talk. The Ferdinand case has been handled not like a basic challenge to football authority but a parcel bomb. In Bolton over the next 48 hours we will see whether or not there is true resolve to do more than a little window-dressing.

No doubt the defence will home in on past FA leniency, citing the case of Manchester City's Christian Negouai, who was fined after having his offence treated confidentially. One obvious response is that the Ferdinand incident presented a special difficulty in view of the imminence of England's European Championship qualifier with Turkey and the possibility that the playing of someone guilty of failing to take a test might lead to a retrospective challenge from the Turks. There are two other factors. It would have been plain wrong to have played him and the problem of confidentiality has to be seen in the light of the fact that Ferdinand's own agent was in discussions with the media before any FA announcement was made.

Beyond the details is the reality that won't go away. The new regime at the FA has declared war on football indiscipline and have on their books a little item listed as rule 3.5, which says, without a scintilla of ambiguity, "If a player fails or refuses to provide a sample he will be deemed to have committed an offence ... club officials should make every effort to inform the player of his obligation." The maximum ban for a first offender is two years.

It means that Ferdinand is not really on trial; he is up for sentencing. Guilt or innocence is not the issue. Ferdinand was guilty the moment he drove away from United's training ground, leaving three team-mates to submit to testing as ordered. No one, not Ronald Thwaites QC, nor even a combination of the late Clarence Darrow and George Carmen, could dispute these essential facts.

The fact that Fifa, the world governing body, not famous as a repository of natural justice and procedural perfection, has been banging the drum for stern punishment is an additional pressure on the FA, but it should not be a decisive one. If it is to exert any real influence for good on a game which has lost sight of so many of its responsibilities, the FA must generate its own values and authority. It must see this issue, while sentencing Ferdinand strictly according to the circumstances of his case, as part of a much wider problem.

The FA must understand that the minor sentences it inflicted on Arsenal for the outrageous behaviour of their players at Old Trafford a few months ago represented a first serious failure of will. Maybe it was reward for Arsenal's decision to overrule Arsène Wenger's outrageous instinct to defend that behaviour, after branding Ruud van Nistelrooy a cheat for backing away from a lunge by Patrick Vieira, but not even the abject apologies of the club could disperse disgust over the lightness of their punishment.

Naturally, Manchester United have mounted an immense defence of the erring Ferdinand. He is a valuable asset and the rule in football is that the more power you have the more you exert it. You never hold up your hands and say your position cannot be defended. You say that rules are fine as long as they don't put you at a disadvantage. You live for the day and scrap for any edge you can achieve. Meanwhile, the game in which you have waxed rich goes to the dogs.

The expectation is that Ferdinand will be banned for three months. United will argue for less - a properly disciplined sport would demand more. What isn't in question is who is in the dock these next two days. It is not a multi-millionaire young player who has behaved, at best, with great stupidity. It is all that is gutless and unprincipled in English football.

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