Everton will decide in the next 24 hours whether they will launch an appeal which will help them soften the blow of the four-match ban that was given to their striker Duncan Ferguson by the Football Association yesterday.
The decision will almost certainly depend on the results of a fitness test on Ferguson's back - an injury which would have prevented him from being involved in last weekend's defeat at Newcastle United even if he had not been serving a one-match suspension for the two yellow cards he was shown at Leicester City last month.
An FA disciplinary hearing in Birmingham yesterday added another four matches to Ferguson's punishment - plus a £10,000 fine - after he was charged with violent conduct and improper behaviour as he left the pitch at the Walkers Stadium.
Ferguson grabbed the Leicester midfielder Steffen Freund round the neck and then made a gesture to the crowd as he left the field of play. But Everton, still not clear of relegation, can now almost select which games Ferguson is banned from.
They can allow the suspension to start immediately, but must decide their next course of action within 24 hours. The club's manager, David Moyes, will discuss the next move today with the player and his medical team.
If Ferguson is considered fit enough for the crucial Easter games on Friday at home to Tottenham and next Tuesday at Leeds United, Everton will accept the original date of 19 April for the start of the ban. That would also allow the player to be in the squad which faces Chelsea at Stamford Bridge two days before the ban starts.
If Ferguson is not considered fit, Everton will ask for the ban to start immediately. If Everton are not clear of relegation by the Chelsea match, they could manipulate the dates by lodging an appeal on the last day of the fortnight they have to do so.
Then a date for a hearing would have to be set by the FA, which would further delay the start of the ban.
The Everton secretary, David Harrison, who was present at the hearing, said: "We have 14 days to consider whether or not to lodge an appeal against this decision and the club will discuss that option with Duncan as soon as possible."
If Everton wait until the last moment to appeal, Ferguson could virtually play out most of the season and start his ban at the beginning of the next campaign, or find himself banned for the last couple of matches this term and two at the start of next season.
Everything depends on Ferguson's fitness and the precarious position Everton now find themselves in. The club's chief executive, Mike Dunford, said: "It all depends on the medical advice. The manager and the player will discuss the situation in the next 24 hours before deciding when, or if, we appeal.
"All options will be considered, and the best interests of Everton will be at the top of the list. But I feel that an appeal is unlikely and Duncan will be involved in the next three games before being banned for the last four matches of the season. But that is a decision for the manager."
Everton feel that two more wins, taking them to 40 points, will make them virtually safe and their Good Friday home match with Spurs is critical. Wayne Rooney will complete his two-game suspension in that match, another reason to want Ferguson available.
Moyes sees the Easter games as crucial and said they could influence his decision over Ferguson. "We had a nice little five-game unbeaten run going which we surrendered at Newcastle, so we need to pick things up and get on to the next game now," Moyes said. "We do not have enough points to stay in the Premiership at the moment, so we are looking forward to the games over the Easter period, hoping to put that right. We have to try to be positive because we still need to get some results, but I am not going to dwell on the negatives from the Newcastle game."
* The Walsall defender Paul Ritchie has been cleared of a charge of violent behaviour towards an official by a Football Association disciplinary hearing. However, the Scotland centre-back was found guilty of using foul and abusive language and was banned for two games and fined £750.Reuse content