Fergie fears Rio may now turn his back on England

After shaming of Ferdinand, Bolton play host to the taming of Arsenal
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Manchester United are unlikely to settle for merely appealing to the Football Association unless they win a substantial reduction in the "savage and unprecedented" suspension of eight months handed out to their centre-half Rio Ferdinand on Friday evening. The club also believe he may decide never to play for England again if forced to miss next summer's European Championship finals.

A formal appeal, chaired by an independent QC, will be held early in the new year, enabling him to keep playing beyond 12 January, when the ban is due to begin. If there is no significant change in the sentence, United have already intimated they will go to a higher authority. "He may have to go to court and he has a right to, to protect his reputation," the club's manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, said. "And I think the club would support him."

Taking the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne would be the logical next step. Ferguson is also furious at the "interference" in the case of Sepp Blatter, the president of world football's governing body, Fifa, which he believes put pressure on the FA to take a hard line. As things stand, the club will be deprived of the world's most expensive defender until 12 September, four weeks into next season. There are serious financial implications too: on wages estimated at £50,000 a week - the sum Ferdinand was fined - United will be paying him £1.75m for not working.

As the Ferdinand affair continued to polarise opinion in sport, Gordon Taylor, the Professional Footballers' Association chief executive, warned that relations with the FA were threatened. The union are considering withdrawing support from a number of joint initiatives, including the drug-testing programme. "I would have to say our relationship with the FA is in danger of breaking down completely," he said. "The governing body appear to be operating in a vacuum, and if that is the case we will have to seriously consider our co-operation over a range of issues.

"What happened to Rio confirmed my worst fears. The FA have responded to outside pressure and hung Rio out to dry. I don't think there has been a penalty as strict as this one for non-compliance in any sport. They are making up policy on the hoof - how can that be justice?"

Defence lawyers had built their case around failures in the testing process, Ferdinand's notorious forgetfulness and, above all, precedent. They were well aware of cases such as that of the Manchester City midfielder Christian Negouai, who also failed to take a test and was fined only £2,000, and Billy Turley, the Rushden & Diamonds goalkeeper, who escaped any punishment despite testing positive for nandrolone. Even in proven cases of taking cocaine, Leyton Orient's Roger Stanislaus and Chelsea's Mark Bosnich received bans not much longer than that of Ferdinand, who has not been accused of taking any drug, only of failing to take a test.

United will be encouraged by the fact that similar appeals in drugs cases have led to big reductions for players such as Portugal's Fernando Couto and Holland's Edgar Davids, Jaap Stam and Frank de Boer. Before the verdict at Bolton's Reebok Stadium on Friday, Old Trafford sources had indicated that no decision would be made on an appeal until today at the earliest. The United contingent were so shocked by the severity of the sentence, however, that within minutes of it being announced, solicitor Maurice Watkins confirmed they would not meekly accept it.

Any reduction would benefit Ferdinand's club, either this season or next, but only a dramatic one will be of any use to England's head coach, Sven Goran Eriksson. Even if the suspension was halved to four months after appeal, the domestic season would be over and, depending on the timescale, the Euro 2004 finals could have begun. Eriksson was prepared to accept that Ferdinand, who has been allowed to continue playing for his club and will do so at Tottenham this afternoon, had broken a regulation and should be punished, but the Swede was already annoyed at having been deprived of one of his leading defenders for the last two inter-nationals, against Turkey and Denmark.

The decision to drop Ferdinand from those games led to his name being made public and to talk of a strike by his England team-mates. Their relationship with the FA, like Eriksson's, will be further harmed now. Ferguson has even cast doubt on Ferdinand's international future. "When he was left out of the England team, that condemned him right away," he said. "Whether he ever wants to play for them again is another matter."

Eriksson, who had spoken up on Ferdinand's behalf at the hearing, was publicly putting on a brave face as he insisted that the judgement must be "respected".