After 247 days and 32 matches, Rio returns to rescue United

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It is almost a year since a car drove by the North Cheshire Equestrian Centre, took a left into Isherwood Road with the dark girders of an electricity sub-station on the horizon, past the lorry park and on to a small, single-track lane that leads to Manchester United's training ground. The occupants would ask four players for a random, routine urine sample and the richest football club in the world is still feeling the convulsions.

It is almost a year since a car drove by the North Cheshire Equestrian Centre, took a left into Isherwood Road with the dark girders of an electricity sub-station on the horizon, past the lorry park and on to a small, single-track lane that leads to Manchester United's training ground. The occupants would ask four players for a random, routine urine sample and the richest football club in the world is still feeling the convulsions.

Rio Ferdinand's eight-month suspension for failing to take that test ends tomorrow. When he last kicked a ball in anger, at Molineux on 17 January, Manchester United were leading the Premiership and through to the second round of the Champions' League. Since then, there has been a 24-point swing to Arsenal, United have dropped more points than they have picked up and in European games they have looked, defensively, a thorough-going shambles. Sir Alex Ferguson does not often refer to United's season requiring "rescuing" and certainly not in September.

When Eric Cantona received his nine-month sentence for attacking a particularly unlovely Crystal Palace fan in January 1995, Ferguson remarked: "Only a fool would say it didn't cost us the League." Then, Blackburn had beaten Manchester United by a single point, but this May Arsenal stood 15 clear and not since 1991, when they finished sixth - behind even Manchester City - had one of Ferguson's teams been this uncompetitive.

It is a measure of the certainty, the arrogance almost, that surrounds his training ground at Carrington that Ferguson still argues Ferdinand's ban cost them the Championship, and the statistics are on his side. Yesterday, Ferdinand said he felt he "owed United a debt of honour" and his manager agreed.

"He knows it affected the club. I go back to my early statement about the winning and the losing of the League last season. When he was in the team, we had the best defensive record in the country, we were four points clear of Arsenal. If he had stayed in that team, would it have changed? I'm bloody certain it wouldn't have."

Ferdinand himself, however, thought he could not be held solely responsible for the great collapse. "It was a mistake I made and one that proved very costly, but at a club like United we are expected to cope with anyone missing from the team. Other people were injured and suspended, so to put it down to me is the easy way out."

Wes Brown, who replaced Ferdinand at Molineux, recalled what it was like trying to fill a gaping hole in the heart of United's defence: "Had it not been for Rio, I don't think the gaffer would ever have put me back in then. It didn't go too well and I knew I wasn't 100 per cent. I came on against Wolves and I slipped for their goal. For a good while, I didn't perform as I'd like. If you go on to a pitch and you've been out for so long and the first couple of touches aren't good, it all comes crowding in. I didn't get my touch back for four or five matches." In those "four or five" games after Ferdinand's suspension, United conceded 14 times.

Yesterday, Ferguson was debating whether Ferdinand should go straight back into the line-up to face Liverpool at Old Trafford, just as Cantona did nine years before. The game was folklore: his first touch put through Nicky Butt for United's opening goal and then a converted penalty had him hanging from a stanchion, Roy Keane about to embrace him, a photograph that signified a rebirth after months secluded in the Worsley Marriott and elsewhere picking over the carcass of what he saw as a great injustice. What could Ferdinand hope to put alongside that?

"I have a major decision to make," said Ferguson. "The danger of Monday night is that all the hype about Rio coming back will make us forget that games between Manchester United and Liverpool are one of the most serious in the League, historically and geographically, and I can't compromise our attempts to win by involving all this hype."

He will play. In Ruud van Nistelrooy, Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney, Ferguson has £66m worth of footballers, none of them match fit. However, if their introduction is delayed, United, who, Chelsea apart, have faced no club of substance in the Premiership, might find the Championship gone before it has properly begun. When Cantona returned, United were four points behind the leaders, Newcastle. Monday morning could find them 12 adrift of Arsenal.

With months of intensive training, co-ordinated by Valter di Salvo - brought to Carrington from Real Madrid by Carlos Queiroz - Ferdinand is fit but not match fit. It took Tony Adams almost a month after his release from Chelmsford Prison on drink-driving charges in February 1991 to be ready to make his League comeback for Arsenal. Curiously, this was also against Liverpool, although he had been able to play a reserve match, and sip champagne in the Highbury dressing-room, the day after he came out. Ferdinand has been denied any organised football.

This season Ferguson has been like a man flailing around, attempting to find a defensive combination that might hold. In eight matches, eight different formations have been employed, with even Roy Keane pressed into service in the back four while John O'Shea, a specialist centre-half, played in midfield. Against Lyon, Mikaël Silvestre's confidence appeared shredded.

"I wasn't looking forward to the start of the season," Ferguson reflected. "I knew there'd be problems but once we have the regular back four playing together, that's the most important thing. Get them playing regularly and consistently, and then you'll see a change in results."

Ferguson laid part of the blame squarely on Manchester United's wearying, lifeless summer tour of the United States, which will not be repeated any time in the near future. "In hindsight, it was a mistake, no question. When I took the tour on, I wasn't aware that it would clash with the Copa America.

"We were calling players back after three days of training - Scholes, Silvestre, the two Nevilles. We had to fulfil our obligations in America and we are suffering badly because of that. The only way we are going to rescue our season is with freshness to mount a challenge in the second half of the season."

It is a year since the car passed through Carrington's barriers, past the "keep out" signs and on to the Manchester motorways without Ferdinand's urine sample. Like Ferguson, Gordon Taylor, the Professional Footballers' Association chief executive, has not changed his opinion that Ferdinand unwittingly and foolishly delivered himself into the arms of those who wanted to make an example of a high-profile footballer.

"Do you remember all the protests from the World Anti-Doping Agency about Rio? Well I'm still waiting for those two Greek athletes who failed to take a drugs test at the Olympics to be given a hearing," Taylor said. "It was double standards. But if anything has come from the past eight months, it is that no footballer can fail to know the consequences of not taking a test. There can be no excuses and if it happens again, I'd be, well, frankly, I'd be gobsmacked."

In the year since the testers left, photographs of Ferdinand in Loaf and The Living Room, Manchester's elegant, starlit nightspots, have gone. They have been replaced by those of him with disabled Cheshire schoolchildren, at a young offenders' institution and hosting a coaching clinic in New York.

He has been romantically linked to the teenage Welsh singer Charlotte Church, who eventually preferred the attentions of Kyle Johnson, a 19-year-old footballer with Caerau Ely in the Cardiff leagues. Ferdinand has also used his free time to adopt a hairstyle that would not have made him out of place as a backing singer with The Temptations or as an extra in Shaft. "I told him he had to treat this as a serious injury," said Ferguson. "He has trained every day but he is denied the joy of playing on a Saturday, which everyone loves. That's the sacrifice he's had to make and it takes a lot, that. If a player's injured, he knows he can't play, so he can follow a straight line. For Rio there have been no straight lines."

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