Brown's return can ease pain for Ferguson

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The Independent Football

Unlike Sheffield Wednesday, who swiftly dispensed with Paolo Di Canio when he received an 11-match ban for pushing the referee Paul Alcock in October 1998, United stood by Eric Cantona and will do the same for Rio Ferdinand.

They have already backed him throughout this process, playing him since the issue arose and pledging to continue doing so until the suspension begins (in the Cantona case United's only beef with the Football Association was the length of the ban; they had themselves quickly suspended him until the end of the season).

In both cases this was either an admirable demonstration of loyalty or naked self-interest, depending on your view of Manchester United plc. The way the club's delaying tactics have enabled them to retain Ferdinand until Wes Brown, another England central defender, nears fitness, suggests the latter.

Brown has not played this season through injury but had an hour in the reserves last week and it is hoped he will be ready to play first-team football within a fortnight. He will step into a United side gearing up for the customary spring offensive.

Domestically they are neck-and-neck with Arsenal and Chelsea. In Europe they need to survive home-and-away matches with the Portuguese league leaders, Porto, in February to make the last eight of the Champions' League for the eighth successive season.

The temptation, given the length of Ferdinand's ban, will be to buy another central defender during the transfer window. But this would not reflect well on, or go down well with, Ferdinand. With John O'Shea, Gary Neville and Roy Keane all capable of filling in, Sir Alex Ferguson may instead seek to manage with the current squad. Much may depend on Brown's progress.

In the meantime, Ferguson will hope Ferdinand continues to play as if he has not a care in the world, for it is clear United intend to field him until a ban starts. It is conceivable that Sepp Blatter, the president of Fifa, will seek to deduct any future points gained with Ferdinand in the team. However, United's lawyers should easily overturn any such attempt.

First they will be preparing the appeal against this verdict. The club's relations with the FA, already strained, are likely to deteriorate further. Within Old Trafford there is a feeling that Mark Palios, the FA chief executive, has used this case to make a name for himself, that Ferdinand and United have been made scapegoats. That reflects the club's inbuilt paranoia rather than reality but it is true that no one will "forget" a drugs test again.

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