Feud that could have been avoided

Blame it on Rio? But all sides must share the blame as the players' rebellion exposes a divided game, a lack of responsibility and a coach with an agenda
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Maybe in the week that Arnie produces Terminator Umpteenth: The Taking Of California, one can begin to believe that just about anything is possible. But the one about Rio moving house? Truly, it is unreal. This, we understand, is the mitigating circumstance for the Manchester United and England defender failing to take a drugs test. In fact, the image that Rio Ferdinand, his club and his agent, Pini Zahavi, have managed to create for him is a character pitched somewhere between that fictional Peckham character Del Boy Trotter and Bernard Cribbins in his Fifties record "Right, Said Fred". (Remember, the one about a gang of lummoxes shifting a piano downstairs?)

I don't know about you, but if I was on £3m-plus a year, I'd throw the removal chaps the keys, write out a cheque and leave them to it. What was that? Oh, he had the shopping trip to Harvey Nicks as well to distract him. "He may have had other things on his mind," say his club, an excuse as risible as a schoolboy's day off for granny's funeral.

The problem for Rio Ferdinand is that this simple act of "forgetting" to produce a urine sample has coincided with the recent arrival of a new FA chief executive, Mark Palios, a man who is determined to improve the integrity of the national game. The priorities among the remit he has given himself correctly includecombating drugs in the game.

This set of circumstances left England flying down without Rio to Istanbul on Thursday morning, and have combined to produce more Machiavellian intrigue than at this week's Tory conference. Yet, if nothing else, it has revealed rather more about the dramatis personae of the affair than they would have probably cared for us to observe. Notably, we have learnt as much about Sven Goran Eriksson's ambition as we have about his players' powers of self-delusion.

What we have witnessed, disconcertingly, is six days in which nobody implicated has fully accepted responsibility for their action; or, in most cases, lack of action. An immediate and unqualified gesture of contrition by Ferdinand, an acceptance that he had failed his club and country, would have surely helped quell most of the turbulence that ensued. After all, the testing and punishment regime in this country is scarcely hard-line. Dick Pound, head of the World Anti-Doping Agency, believes that English football adopts a "soft attitude" towards the problem. If Ferdinand had been a track-and-field athlete his behaviour would have constituted a "refusal", and would have almost certainly resulted in a two-year ban.

Ferdinand's non-participation has been regarded in some quarters as the sheer arrogance of a pampered millionaire. He will no doubt deny that. His club defend him, claiming that "it is typical of Rio's forgetfulness". If that is the case, why was there no minder to guide him to the specimen bottles? United have succeeded only in aggravating that failure with their own subsequent reaction. Their unpardonable self-interest and lack of perspective in describing Palios's action as "outrageous" will receive sparse support from the rest of the game.

Given that the club's manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, is a former trade union representative at the Govan shipyard, some may suggest that it is more than simply coincidence that the dressing-room "brothers" are reported to have been led by Gary Neville, supported by other Old Trafford players, including his sibling, Phil. That would be simply mischief-making, of course, just as it would be unfair to cast Gary Neville in the role of Fred Kite, Peter Sellers' brilliantly malevolent portrayal of a shop steward in I'm Alright, Jack, that scathing cinematic denunciation of outdated union practices.

Still, it is difficult to get away completely from that image as we have watched, with increasing incredulity, events unfold. It was the former England international Alan Smith who offered a highly pertinent clue to the prevalent attitude when he argued that it was "undeniable that the modern player needs England much less than England need them".

However, at least you feel that Neville and his cohorts responded instinctively, albeit misguidedly, with even the barest hints that a non-attendance in Turkey might ensue. One cannot begin to imagine what motivated the unwelcome contribution of the PFA chief executive, Gordon Taylor, to the brouhaha: "I told the FA they were entering a minefield in taking on a club like United and the England players." By that sentence alone, he stands condemned. You can read into it whatever you like - and no interpretation does him credit - when what was required from a wise voice was a timely and responsible intervention in an absurd stand-off his men could not ultimately win against twin enemies, the FA and public opinion.

Which leaves us with where Eriksson stands, or should it be reclines? Two major questions remain unanswered: why did he not take control of the situation? Why was his name on the infamous players' statement of Wednesday night? Typical phlegmatic - "I am but a simple football manager, everything else just passes me by" - Sven? Or a man who was quite prepared to use the whole unseemly row to his advantage?

Graham Taylor, Eriksson's predecessor thrice-removed, now a Radio 5 Live pundit, professes himself baffled by the Swede's stance. "If I was prepared for my name to go on that statement - which he was - I would see it as my responsibility to take their case forward so that the negative publicity that they've had would not have happened," he said after witnessing Eriksson's pre-match press conference, when all questions relating to what would have become known as the Inane Mutiny were blocked by the FA. "If there had been a comeback on anybody it would have been me. Maybe he's just trying to be clever, but at some stage he's got to be asked questions."

Taylor, who believes that Eriksson has a potential Euro 2004-winning squad at his disposal, added: "I just worry that if it [the player-country row] builds up more, it's a get-out for him." That Eriksson will end in the clutches of Chelsea and Roman Abramovich persists as a strong rumour, though, despite some convincing circumstantial evidence, it is difficult to believe it will occur before the European Championships.

Still, it has to be concluded that recent events have encouraged rather than diminished such a prospect. And all because of one multi-millionaire professional footballer who, despite having everything life offers, forgot to find a pot to piss in.

Reconstruction of a crisis

Forget me not: Rio Ferdinand's infamously bad memory ignited high passions on both sides in the England camp

Tuesday 23 September: the drug test

An official UK Sport drug-testing unit arrives at Manchester United's Carrington training ground and four players, including Rio Ferdinand, are informed by Sir Alex Ferguson that they have been randomly selected to comply after training. This is normal procedure. After training, the three others selected for testing go for a shower, but Ferdinand is in a hurry and leaves, as he is in the process of moving home. The testers remain for an hour, but attempts to contact Ferdinand are fruitless. He later responds to a text message and offers to return immediately, but it's too late according to the doping regulations.

Wed 24 September: the liability

Ferdinand undertakes an official drugs test 33 hours later, which proves negative. However, his original inaction carries a "strict liability" penalty, leading to a probable misconduct charge.

Late September: the case

Sport England write to the FA, informing them of Ferdinand's failure to provide a random sample when summoned. The FA begin to gather evidence for the case, while attempting to settle matters before the announcement of the national squad to play Turkey.

Friday 3 October: the official letter

The FA send a letter to Ferdinand, advising him that UK Sport have advised them of his failure to attend the original test.

Saturday 4 October: the legal talks

Manchester United are contacted by the FA and informed a case of misconduct is to be investigated. The club respond by contacting their lawyers. Michael Owen is injured as Liverpool lose to Arsenal.

Sunday 5 October: the delays

The England squad announcement, due at 7pm, is delayed until Monday. Owen's chances of playing against Turkey are rated at 50-50, and it is presumed the delay relates to his fitness. However, behind the scenes the FA are attempting to avert a crisis. David Davies, their head of football, has an informal meeting with Ferdinand in the morning, after which FA officials meet. It is on this evening, according to Gordon Taylor of the Professional Footballers' Association, that the FA inform United of their decision to leave Ferdinand out of the squad.

Monday 6 October: the tough stance

The FA's resolve to exclude Ferdinand from the squad for Turkey hardens. Efforts are made to hold the interview with Ferdinand that must precede any official charge before the squad is named. Ferdinand is unwilling to move this forward if the FA maintain their stance that he will be left out whatever the outcome of his interview. The squad announcement is again postponed pending more discussions with United, who are opposed to the FA stance.

Tuesday 7 October: player power

The story appears in the media for the first time. Sven Goran Eriksson is instructed to leave Ferdinand out of his squad. The squad is announced late in the morning. The FA hold an evening meeting with leading players, including the players' committee of David Beckham, Michael Owen, Sol Campbell and Gary Neville, who inform them of their deep reservations at Ferdinand's exclusion. The FA nevertheless release a statement saying talk of a strike is wide of the mark. The players hold a meeting of the full squad, with Paul Barber, the FA's director of communications, presenting his views. Once Barber has left, the players agree - although whether unanimously is uncertain - that they will use the strike threat as a lever if Ferdinand is not recalled.

Wednesday 8 October: the uneasy peace

Talks aimed at averting a strike continue, though the players attend training. A 1pm press conference is delayed until 4pm, when the FA inform the media that more talks between the organisation and players are to be held that evening. "There is no bad feeling between the FA and the players," says Barber, who admits a players' boycott is an option. At 9pm Mark Palios, the FA chief executive, announces the full England squad will travel to Turkey. A players' statement says they and their coach have been let down by the FA; there is a "fantastic team spirit" in the camp; and there was never any question of them not playing.

Thursday 9 October: Turkey at last

The England team leave, without either Owen or Ferdinand, for Istanbul, followed by widespread media criticism of their actions. "Who the hell do you think you are?" exclaims the Mirror.

Friday 10 October: the diplomacy

The Rio affair is off-limits but Beckham launches a charm offensive and pledges to put matters right. "The crisis has gone," he says. Eriksson, meanwhile, fails to silence the rumours of his departure.