Ferdinand's uphill struggle to win appeal

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Rio Ferdinand will start what is likely to be his final fixture of the season this morning when he embarks on his appeal against an eight-month suspension for failing to take a drug test.

Rio Ferdinand will start what is likely to be his final fixture of the season this morning when he embarks on his appeal against an eight-month suspension for failing to take a drug test.

At the hearing, to be conducted at a Heathrow hotel and concluded by tomorrow night, the Manchester United defender will argue both his innocence and that his punishment was excessive. In return the Football Association will remind the three-man panel that under Fifa guidelines Ferdinand should have been banned for a year. According to the world governing body's advice, that would rule him out of the game until 2005.

Somewhat surprisingly, given the negative reports on his performance during the original hearing at the Reebok Stadium in December, United have retained the services of Ronald Thwaites, who will conduct their appeal with Maurice Watkins, a club director and their in-house lawyer. Thwaites is a celebrated defence barrister but his adversarial manner, while suited to jury trials, is understood to have gone down badly in Bolton.

The FA's case will again be prosecuted by Mark Gay, fresh from his successful defence of Greg Rusedski on drug charges in Canada. Gay, who has never lost a case of this type, will be reverting to his customary role as an agent of the governing body, rather than the athlete. A specialist in doping control and sports governance, the lawyer also successfully prosecuted Mark Bosnich after the then-Chelsea goalkeeper tested positive for cocaine. Bosnich received a nine-month ban.

Refereeing will be Ian Mill, a 45-year-old QC whose specialisms include sports law. A graduate of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, he is a member of the Bar Sports Law Group and the MCC. He chaired the independent disciplinary committee which cleared Mark Richardson, the athlete, of taking drugs in July 2000. In court six months later he won damages of £125,000 for the former South Africa international Joel Stransky after successfully arguing Bristol rugby club reneged on an agreement to offer him a coaching job.

Away from sport, Mill unsuccessfully represented the Spice Girls in a dispute over a marketing contract, incurring costs approaching £1m, but won around £2m for Jonathan Shalit, the ex-manager of Charlotte Church, in his case against the singer.

Sitting on the panel with Mill, who was recommended to the FA by an independent arbitration body, will be the FA chairman, Geoff Thompson, and Roger Burden, a FA vice-chairman and former chairman of the Cheltenham & Gloucester building society.

The facts of the case this trio will assess are not in dispute. On 23 September last year two drugs testers from UK Sport, working on behalf of the FA, arrived at Carrington, Manchester United's training ground. Ferdinand's name was among four members of the squad randomly chosen to be tested. The quartet were informed, while training, that they would need to provide a sample before leaving Carrington. Ferdinand alone failed to do this. That, in itself, is an offence, regarded in many sports as equivalent to testing positive and deserving of a two-year ban.

United will argue that football, historically, is not as harsh. They will add Ferdinand was merely forgetful, not wilfully seeking to avoid the test. They will also present the results of a follicle test 'proving' he was clean but this is expected to be dismissed as inconclusive and irrelevant. Inconclusive as the test does not pick up some steroids and if the claims made by the manufacturers of detoxifying shampoos are true, can be manipulated. Irrelevant as the offence is missing, not failing a drug test.

United will again refer to Christian Negouai, the Manchester City reserve who was fined £2,000 but not banned for missing a test earlier last year. The difference appears to be that the disciplinary commission seem to have believed Negouai's explanation that he innocently missed the test through circumstances, but are less convinced by Ferdinand. Besides, as a senior FA official said this week, "you should not build on bad precedent".

One FA employee who will be hoping Ferdinand escapes is Sven Goran Eriksson. The England manager said: "I still hope Ferdinand will be available for the European Championships. Missing Rio is bad for the team and for football. If his punishment is reduced I'll be happy though I'll leave it to other people to decide if it is fair or not."

On this issue Eriksson might be better off keeping his own counsel, though his view is understandable. If England are to win Euro 2004 he will need most of his key players fit and in form - and Ferdinand is one of those.

So far England have managed without him but Manchester United have not. Prior to his beginning his suspension they conceded 15 goals in 22 games and were top of the Premiership. Now they are 12 points adrift of Arsenal after conceding 14 goals in six games, the worst record in the division.

Ferdinand's advisers are confident but the odds are United will have to stem the flow without his riding to the rescue. It would be a surprise, and a huge blow to the FA, if the appeal panel enable Ferdinand to appear for either Manchester United or England before next season.