Rio and his United friends show blind faith in the Fergie creed

The Ferdinand affair
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The Independent Football

Some will contend that nothing drives a man more than the lashes administered by his own sense of perceived injustice. Others may prefer to believe it is simply that Rio Ferdinand has responded positively to a particularly piercing reveille that has resounded across football's unforgiving parade ground.

Either way, that urbane man-about-the-pitch, the passer, the reader, the precise timer of tackles - indeed, most of what his manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, had in mind when he invested £30m in a player not just for the Premiership but to reinforce Manchester United's European campaigns - has reappeared in the past eight days. Can it be that the sheer shock to the system of the missed drugs-test episode has served to refocus the England player's concentration?

Certainly, well before the Football Association began delving through his mobile-phone records and interpreting his text messages, footballing questions were being asked about the world's most expensive defender, whose performances did not appear to have progressed since he featured so honourably in the last World Cup.

Ferdinand may not have reclaimed his optimum powers at Ibrox on Wednesday night as United garnered three Champions' League points in an environment which made the Fenerbahce Stadium in Istanbul resemble a Scout camp. There were times when he and his central partner, Mikaël Silvestre, were not entirely at one when faced with Peter Lovenkrands, Paolo Vanoli and Michael Mols, who, fortunately for the visitors, took profligacy to a new level. But he displayed composure enough to convince anyone who suspected that his temperament would begin to exhibit evidence of fragility under the severe examination of recent days.

And this, as far as he was aware, was only hours before the FA were expected to pronounce on the no-pass-water-gate affair. For all he knew, this may have been his last appearance for, say, three months, although the FA have set "no deadlines" on a decision.

Ferdinand politely, and perhaps under-standably, declined afterwards to discuss his contribution, but he did so in the knowledge that a dressing-roomful of advocates was briefing on his behalf. Testimonies come no more earnest than that provided by Ryan Giggs, who, perhaps more than anyone on the Old Trafford roster, having given more than a dozen years' service, appreciates the power of the team ethic prescribed by Sir Alex Ferguson.

"I think Rio's taken a lot of stick, unfairly, because we had the best defensive record last year. I've thought he's played very well since coming to the club," insisted the midfielder. "But with what's happened, he's raised his game even more. He's proved he has the strength of character you'd expect from a United player. I just hope he gets a fair hearing and is allowed to concentrate on his football."

The Welsh international added: "At a time like this, you look forward to getting to training and enjoying the stick the lads can dish out. I think it's helped as well that they've been big games that Rio's been involved in. It's been a hard time for him, but all credit to him - he's handled himself brilliantly."

His team-mates still refer to Ferdinand as though he was a victim of circumstance, not the transgressor - which, let us not forget, is how this all began - but that was an inevitability in a profession where the closing of ranks is almost Masonic in intensity. Giggs added: "There's always been a togetherness at United, and the team spirit's as good as ever. The manager has always had the philosophy that you stick together, and what goes on behind closed doors at Carrington [United's training ground] stays there."

In his programme notes for yesterday's match against Fulham, Ferguson insisted that no United player took banned substances for either recreational or enhanced-performance motives. "I can't say too much about that [the Ferdinand affair]," he wrote, "because the FA are still dealing with it, but I would like our supporters to be sure of one thing: if there were any danger of one of our players dabbling in any drug, be it to enhance his performance or for his social life, he would be quickly gone from United. Be assured the manager, his coaches and medical staff would know. Believe me, we have nothing like that at Old Trafford."

It is over a month now since Ferdinand failed to fill a specimen bottle and set off a sequence of events which has had the world and his doping watchdog predicting, attempting to influence and preparing to scrutinise the outcome. You imagine that the United mandarins might now privately wish that they had managed the situation withmore compliance with the FA, particularly now that the designer steroid THG has focused attention on the doping question.

On Friday, Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager, was asked how he would have handled the same problem. "Because of the competition, whatever I say will be taken the wrong way," he said, greeting the question with understandable circumspection. However, when advised that the matter had been prolonged because the FA had been awaiting information from United, he replied: "Is that what they say? Then they [the FA] have to take action. They can suspend United for the rest of the season. I won't complain."

It was uttered in jest, but the Frenchman added in more serious vein: "I don't think there's a problem in English football with enhancement drugs, because the clubs don't do it" - the implication being that they are complicit abroad - "but you only really know if there are regular tests. At the moment, if players are on drugs there is a good chance they will escape."

Which is why the FA must institute a drugs-policing regime and enforce it as strictly as it is in other sports. Those in which "forgetfulness" is decidedly not a satisfactory answer.