Peter Corrigan: Noises off: Fergie's role in a revolting week

As a mutinous confrontation it lacked the grim and dramatic climax of the Bounty's, but the half-arsed rebellion of England players in a St Albans hotel last week seems bound to cause repercussions and, if we are lucky, may even lead to urgently needed reforms in the control of the game.

The departure of coach Sven Goran Eriksson may be the first result, but I was thinking of far more serious consequences than that, and most of them connected to the question - whose game is it, anyway?

Anyone who thought the Football Association were in charge would have been shocked at the way their authority was challenged. We've grown accustomed to the bullying barons of the Premiership clubs getting their own way, but when England's top players feel free to show public contempt for the governing body football has reached a perilously low point.

When indiscipline is rife on the pitch and so many players are involved in sordid happenings off it, the timing as well as the temerity of the England team's attempt to find a principle to stand for was astonishing - although David Beckham's statesmanlike calming of the storm on Friday cast great credit on him. There were so many subplots going on in the toing and froing at the Sopwell House hotel on Wednesday it is difficult to maintain the analogy with the Mutiny On The Bounty. Captain Bligh and Fletcher Christian had to play their parts alone. The protagonists in football's farcical face-off had more advisers than Tony Blair. We may never know the identities of everyone who bellowed instructions and encouragement over the mobile phones of both factions, but my colleague Jason Burt reveals in the news section that Sir Alex Ferguson played a persuasive part in the belligerent response to the suspension of Rio Ferdinand for failing to report for a drugs test.

This does not come as a surprise. It is not part of Ferguson's management method to be far away when one of his players is in trouble. Added to which, Gary Neville, the players' union representative at Old Trafford, was in the thick of the protesters, who included two or three other United players.

Obviously, Ferguson would give Neville his guidance if requested, and it was unlikely to be conciliatory. Certainly, there was no ambiguity about United's attitude to the Football Association, because they had been having heated words about the situation long before the news came out. There were stories that the Manchester club were considering withdrawing their players from the England squad, and that their lawyers were considering a legal challenge to the FA's decision not to consider Ferdinand for selection against Turkey last night.

If the withdrawal of players was anything but a threat it never approached reality, but the legal stuff was genuine, and it wasn't until Friday that the club announced they were not pursuing that line. How could they? Ferdinand is in clear breach of a simple rule which affects every sportsman in the world. Random drug tests are to be strictly complied with. His guilt isn't a matter of opinion, as it would be with a charge of violent play or ungentlemanly conduct. He is bang to rights, as they say on the television police shows. Run over by a lorry, kidnapped by Colombian bandits... I suppose there are extenuating circumstances that would deserve consideration, but a sudden attack of memory-lapse is an excuse so lame it couldn't get to its feet.

Rio's friends have offered in mitigation the fact that he is always forgetting to turn up to media interviews, sponsors' meetings and the like. That sort of indolent arrogance is usually removed at primary school. How can it be allowed to exist at our major football club? There will be those who see a more sinister reason for Ferdinand's dopiness: that he deliberately avoided the test for fear of what it might disclose. Such suspicions are unavoidable, and are why the authorities regard a missed test as a failed test.

There were other voices at work that day. The inevitable agents would have been concentrating on the bottom line. Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, had good reason to get involved, but his influential voice seems to have been more concerned with manning the barricades than urging caution. He suggested, and it has been echoed elsewhere, that the unity the players showed in revolt was in some way admirable.

Football is not far from anarchy if that is the attitude the players are encouraged to adopt. No wonder referees get such a bad time. It is also fair to ask what happens to this deep feeling of unity when they are busy kicking each other and diving about in search of penalties or getting an opponent sent off.

It's not new for players to regard themselves as an isolated force, sealed from the outside world and completely dependent on each other, their coaches, their agents and advisers. Sir Alf Ramsey fostered exactly that spirit when England were winning the World Cup, but that collection of prime footballers would never have considered that they were above the rules. Had they done so, Ramsey would have done his impersonation of a ton of bricks. He could not stand the FA and often stood up to them, but he understood the value of authority when it came to players.

There were also voices on the other side of the confrontation. Mark Palios, the FA's new chief executive, was the man whose decision over Ferdinand led to the crisis, and he could not afford to back down on his first public appearance as a man of destiny.

But he did not quite stand alone. The Government, in the shape of the Sports Minister, Richard Caborn, was solidly behind him, and needed to be. Our bid for the 2012 Olympic Games requires that we do not put a foot wrong in those areas considered precious by the International Olympic Committee.

Drugs are high on the list, and for a high- profile sport such as football to show any reluctance to impose the testing rules rigidly would not have impressed the IOC.

There are questions that need to be asked about the delay in taking action against Ferdinand. Had he been suspended, pending a hearing, from all matches soon after the offence we may have been spared last week's débâcle.

And what part did the Professional Game Board play? This six-man FA committee who govern the clubs are dominated by Premiership representatives, and most of them would be rivals of United. Where's the independence of thought there? We waited a long time for the smack of firm government to resound around English football, and we probably should have expected the tears and tantrums that resulted. But the restoration of firm and unbiased control over the game must not stop there. If that proves difficult, if the clubs' infiltration of the FA has gone too far, the Government will have to install a new regulatory body to supervise our national game and take over the disciplinary control.

That will leave the FA to concentrate on promoting and developing football at all levels. They would not welcome the interference, but unless they can guarantee to get a grip of a sorry-looking game it is exactly what they deserve.

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