James Lawton: It is Ferdinand's right to play Oliver Twist but Carvalho looks the hungrier defender

'The clubs would still be sticking it to today's players if they had the chance'

The taps of football outrage are gushing again. They have been turned on by the suggestion that Rio Ferdinand, barely half a year out of the suspension that followed his drug test scandal, is attempting to drive skywards his price at Manchester United, or perhaps Chelsea, maybe even up to the dizzying level of £150,000 a week.

First, always, there is the basic question which still swirls around a development that has become pretty much routine.

Is any footballer, even one with a brain consistently operating in the right gear, worth this kind of money? The short answer is, of course, yes, if the market can bear it and the club have reason to believe they will get, relatively speaking, some kind of value.

Because the world is such an imperfect place - when for example did you ever hear the wages of such pygmy television talents as Ant and Dec being compared to those of an angel of a night nurse or some desperately overworked young houseman? - a just league table of earnings is never going to happen. So let's keep the argument along practical lines.

This returns us to the basic question: is Rio worth 150 grand? Not on his overall record at Old Trafford, and this is quite apart from the disaster of his failure to take a mandated drugs test.

Yes, he is a marvellously gifted player, as we saw on Sunday when he patrolled so elegantly the wreckage of what was supposed to be Newcastle's attack. But when the pressure is at its height, when the opposition are snapping at his heels, is he the franchise player, a hard centre of defence from whom a lapse of concentration is a rare and stupefying departure from the norm? Hardly. Old pros are frequently dismayed by his failure to attack the ball in the air.

Certainly, sharper defence at a critical moment in the League Cup semi-final second leg at Old Trafford might well have prevented one trophy finishing up at Stamford Bridge. Sir Alex Ferguson was outraged when a free-kick by Damien Duff was left unchallenged by a defence which Ferdinand was supposed to lead.

The reason Chelsea have outstripped United and Arsenal this season in the Premiership and in Europe is that at the moment they have four players entitled to push their demands as far as they can in the free society that football eventually became after a judge was asked 40-odd years ago to pass a verdict on the game's old Slave Row practices.

They are John Terry, Frank Lampard, Petr Cech and Arjen Robben. Not far below that category, when you analyse the club's success in Europe, are Claude Makelele, the best defensive midfielder in England now that Roy Keane is obliged to battle against his dotage, and the central defender Ricardo Carvalho. Another question: who inspires more confidence, strictly as a defender, Ferdinand or Carvalho? The Portuguese was widely rated the best defender in the European Championship that Ferdinand missed because of his suspension. He was magnificent in Chelsea's pivotal victory against Barcelona.

Elsewhere, the players that cannot be let go are much thinner on the ground, if not invisible. Look beyond Thierry Henry, the supreme expression of Arsenal, and who do you see. Patrick Vieira? Not now.

Steven Gerrard's possible departure last summer from Anfield provoked a great outpouring of anger and passion on Merseyside last summer, including, it was said, death threats against his family, but it is hard not to believe that such frenzy has cooled in the light of his performances both on and off the field this last season.

Gerrard has been chronically inconsistent on the field and off it has developed a theme which became wearisome very quickly: he would stay at Liverpool only if the club offered firm evidence that they had a serious chance of winning trophies.

Meanwhile, statistics were building towards the conclusion that the team actually achieved better results when he was absent. The combination of these facts rather wipes out Gerrard's position that whether he goes or stays is strictly in the hands of his club. Reaching the semi-finals of the Champions' League while ravaged with injury is, after all, maybe a decent downpayment on the future.

Maybe the lesson of the latest Ferdinand affair, when he shared a London restaurant with the Chelsea chief executive, Peter Kenyon, and created a rather shrill echo of the latter's public collision with Arsenal's Ashley Cole, is that at all levels of football the game's dramatically changed reward system has still to be absorbed fully.

The fans seethe with resentment. The clubs play for sympathy, but those who have the resources, or the use of a bank's, submit to the pressure from agents. The players swim along in a tide that so often seems to sweep away any sense of personal responsibility, any relationship between the amount of money they receive and the level of performance they produce.

Interestingly, old pros rarely rail against the huge gap between the often grotesque rewards of today's players and the shabby treatment they received. "Part of the reason for this," said one yesterday, "is that the old guys realise that the clubs would still be sticking it to today's players if they had the chance. In our day we were always being told that there was no sentiment, that the game moved on and when you were no longer any use to a club you were history. So many guys heading for walking sticks and wheelchairs have been told that. It was generally accepted, though occasionally there was complaint when it was made to seem like some virtue. Now it is noted that it is not only players who make the big money out of the game. They see the director fees and shareholder profits and then they consider, as they always have, who it is who fills the stadium."

It is something to remember, if we can, when a Rio Ferdinand, in his fashionably tattered jeans and mind-boggling income, pushes out the bowl like Oliver Twist. It is his right to ask. The responsibility of Manchester United and Chelsea is simply to consider his true value.