Peter Corrigan: Rio's a fool but he should not be the FA's tool

If Rio Ferdinand had any sense, and the evidence about this is not strong, the last thing he would have been seen doing last week was proudly parading his new car; a £110,000 silver Bentley sports coupé. Drug offences, if he hadn't noticed, were hogging the headlines, with Dwain Chambers banned for two years and Greg Rusedski waiting to hear his fate.

Ferdinand, just two weeks short of his appeal against an eight-month suspension for missing a drugs test, should have been adopting a low-profile pose full of contrition and joining in the mourning for Manchester United's season, which seems to be going down the pan in his absence. Instead, he is pictured leading a life of Riley - although a Riley is not included in his fleet of expensive roadsters that now numbers six - and generally giving the impression of a rich idler.

Legal experts would have been shaking their heads and thinking: "That's the sympathy vote well and truly buggered." For many reasons, Ferdinand is not a man who inspires compassion, which makes it difficult for those of us who consider that the sentence passed on him was too harsh, and seems to be spreading extra harshness around him as it progresses.

Not many sympathisers appear to exist outside United and their followers, and there will be plenty who are content with their misfortunes, but there are serious grounds for doubting that justice is being done in this case. The long delay in the hearing of Ferdinand's appeal against the ban inflicted in Dec-ember has not helped. Whatever the public perception of his punishment at the time, acceptance of the situation grows with each passing day, and most would need to be reminded of the facts.

Even worse, from his and the club's point of view, is that Chambers' fate, before an independent disciplinary hearing set up by UK Athletics to consider the presence in his system of a drug so new they had not yet banned it, creates a context of drastic action that could well be contagious. Those sitting in judgement on Rusedski may have already caught it, but they are keeping him, and us, waiting. He faced the tennis beaks in Canada more than two weeks ago, and a verdict was expected last week. Say what you like about sports administrators, they do know how to drag out a drama.

The drug involved in the Chambers case was THG, the previously undetectable steroid which is now the source of a criminal investigation in the United States. Chambers' coach, Remi Kor-chemny, is one of those indicted for supplying. It is accepted that Chambers might not have known of its presence in a food supplement, but innocence is no longer an acceptable defence. We do not know if Ferdinand had anything illegal in his bloodstream. What he had in his brain when he left the testing scene is more to the point.

There is no doubt that he and his club were extremely careless in their actions and displayed arrogance and a wilful disdain for authority. These are not pleasant traits, but they do not deserve the wrecking of a season. Drugs have reared their ugly head occasionally in football but the game has never been riven by the doubts and suspicions that curse sports such as athletics, and that Ferdinand should be judged in the same context is not just. United's manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, made the valid point that English law is generally based on precedent, and the previous case of test-avoidance dealt with by the Football Association led to a £2,000 fine. Ferdinand's eight-month ban plus a £50,000 fine represented a mighty leap in the intolerance factor.

While it is true that there was more acceptable mitigation in the previous case, the vast difference in dealing with the two offences would have been understandable only had there been clear directives from the FA that they would crack down fiercely on those failing to take a test.

This did not happen. They didn't have a process in place enabling them to take swift action. Had they dealt immediately with his failure to co-operate with the testers, they could have slapped a two- or three-month ban on him. Undoubtedly it would have caused a sensation, but it would have satisfied the anti-drug crusade, issued a message that the FA meant business when they sent the testers around, and by now a chastened, we hope, Ferdinand would be back playing.

What actually happened is that the FA, admittedly operating with a new and inexperienced chief executive in Mark Palios, dithered and took the extraordinary step of suspending Ferdinand from England duty while allowing him to play for his club until the disciplinary hearing took place. By the time of the trial, the media had milked the situation for all it was worth, the whole world was looking on and the case was elevated to a test not for drugs but of the FA's deter-mination not to be seen to be weak.

Any chance the player had of an objective consideration of his case was ruined not only by the prejudice that had accumulated but also by the noisy presence on the sidelines of the Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, the most powerful man in world football, threatening that any punishment considered lenient would be topped up by his lot.

The pressure on the so-called independent jury, all three of them FA men, to return a draconian penalty was immense. The appeal body, chaired by a QC and detached from such influences, will have to reflect whether Ferdinand was judged purely on the merits of his transgression. Without doubt, it was worthy of a spell hanging around luxury car showrooms, but surely not for eight months of incalculable cost to himself, his club and his country. The FA have long required a strong public stance on drugs and they are using Rio Ferdinand to do the job they have been neglecting for years. It is as dishonest as it is unfair.

Neil's historical footnote

If it had been Jonny Wilkinson, he would have been on his way back to the Palace in an open-topped bus, but while England's ace kicker has been out of action, if not out of the limelight, the Welshman Neil Jenkins has been quietly compiling a kicking record even Wilko will be hard- pushed to equal.

We are not talking about Jenkins' world record for Test-match points. His total of 1,049 is more than 200 ahead of Wilkinson's, but the England man is likely to pass that eventually.

The record that will probably be beyond him is the 44 consecutive kicks Jenkins has landed for his team, Celtic Warriors. He last missed a kick in October. The kick he scored against Munster at Thomond Park on 31 October was the first of a run that covered eight Celtic League and Heineken Cup games and stood at 44 when he ran out against Llanelli Scarlets on Friday. Fans were hoping he would take his total to 50, but his first kick sailed wide from 40 yards. The modest Jenkins had a wide grin when he trotted back, because he had been complaining of too much spotlight on him in this, his last season.

Will anyone get near his feat? Wilkinson has put over 21 in a row and there is talk of a Canadian who reached 30, but Australian kicking legend Michael Lynagh says: "It is an unbelievable performance to kick 44 on the trot. I can't recall anything like it in my career."

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