Ken Jones: Neville's stand over Ferdinand underlines Manchester United's paranoia

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The Independent Football

I suppose that Thursday, 9 October, 2003 will go down in the annals of English football. It was the day when senior members of the England squad, most conspicously Gary Neville, instigated an empty threat to pull out of last weekend's European Championship qualifier against Turkey in Istanbul on the grounds that Rio Ferdinand's suspension from the game, following his failure to take a drugs test, was a gross miscarriage of justice.

A point of view shared by many in this trade at the time, and to my mind still unavoidable, was that Neville and his cohorts were completely out of order along with Sven Goran Eriksson, whose absence from meetings with the Football Association indicated that his thinking did not accommodate the threat to authority implied by the action taken before a competent 0-0 draw secured a place in next summer's finals.

In an attempt to justify the combustible events preceding a successful attempt to avoid the play-offs, Neville raised in a column for The Times a number of issues, including the squad's unanimous belief that the FA had image in mind in reaching its decision to rule out Ferdinand pending investigation.

"Let the FA be whiter than white," he wrote, "but it cannot be right that senior councillors with allegiances to Blackburn, Liverpool, Arsenal, Aston Villa and other clubs are in a position to influence the fate of a Manchester United player."

I am always reluctant to explain anything as an expression of club character, because it is so easy and so often wrong. But one thing you have to say about Manchester United: they thrive on paranoia.

Certainly, when Neville goes on to state that his moans are not merely those of a Manchester United player and he is not accusing anyone of prejudice, we are tempted to think otherwise.

The dilemma for many of the football writers and columnists present in Istanbul was how to reconcile the biliousness of their reaction to an upsurge of player power with the subsequent securing of a vital point in difficult circumstances.

Having watched the match on television, and ignoring the shamelessly subjective views of Sky's commentators and pundits, I awaited the Sunday newspapers, suspecting, accurately as it turned out, that a competent performance against a Turkish team bereft of tactical nous and penetrating ideas would be generally reported as a triumph of composure and collective understanding.

In some cases, it seemed that all was forgiven, although relations between players and press will surely remain subject to emotional disturbance.

A number of players, past and present, including Alan Shearer, expressed the view that a violent reaction to the quite shameful conduct of the Turkish centre-back Alpay - who has been condemned by supporters of his club Aston Villa - would have been excusable.

This is loose thinking on their part. And while no possible case can be made for Alpay, the newspaper that hung him in effigy would find it difficult to avoid a charge of xenophobia.

A brawl (television footage suggests that the term, for once, was not an exaggeration of events) in the dressing-room area at half-time - prompted, it is alleged, when a Turkish player spat at Ashley Cole - left Uefa with no option but to launch an investigation.

This may, or may not, lead to suspensions depending on the clarity of evidence and a report from the referee, Pierluigi Collina, who handled events with discretion unfamilar to watchers of the Premiership.

The hard rule in these affairs, and very hard indeed for football correspondents who regard themselves as veterans if they were at work when England reached the World Cup semi-finals under Bobby Robson in 1990, seems to me not merely to go over comparatively recent experience, but to delve deeper into history.

There they will discover that a scene ludicrously and luridly described by one newspaper as the "Battle of Istanbul" was not that unusual.

For example, a bitter match between Brazil and Hungary during the 1954 World Cup finals in Switzerland carried over into the dressing-rooms, where players fought furiously with fists and bottles.

Arsenal, including their diminutive manager of the time Bertie Mee, waded in when attacked by the players of Roma outside a restaurant in the Eternal City.

Down the years, plenty of punches have been thrown in the tunnels. As for intimidation, an overly sensitive issue, it has never been better dealt with than by Danny Blanchflower, late of this life and Tottenham Hotspur. Smashed off the field, the Ulsterman regained his feet to hear a torrent of abuse. Immediately, he questioned the assailant. "I didn't get to see a programme," he said. "What's your name again?"

It's called style.

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