Time for the national game to show it has a conscience

Ferdinand Hearing: Instinctive reactions of Ferguson, Taylor and Eriksson to England defender's case illustrate a sport in the grip of vested interests
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The Independent Football

First his mobile was off. Then it was on. He was moving house. No, he was shopping. He was having a coffee with a fellow professional footballer - and horrified to remember that he was supposed to be having a drug test.

In the months leading up to the "trial" of Rio Ferdinand there was just one bleak, constant reality. It was that Ferdinand was guilty of a crime which if countenanced would tell us that football had descended to a new level of anarchy - and that leading football men were, in their unwillingness to face up to this central fact, displaying the moral integrity of old lags.

As we waited for the sentence to be delivered at the Reebok Stadium in Bolton last night, the hope had to be that it was the first day of the rest of English football's life - as a game with a conscience, one with a dawning acceptance that all the celebrity and the largesse didn't come without a certain price.

And what was the levy? It was responsibility - and accountability. It was also, surely, that leading figures in football like Sir Alex Ferguson, Ferdinand's manager at Manchester United, Sven Goran Eriksson, the player's England coach, and Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, faced a requirement to think for a moment not just of their own particular interests but of the game in general.

This has to be said because in the whole sorry affair there was only one aspect of it more outrageous than Ferdinand's utterly irresponsible behaviour. It was the instinctive reactions of all three of these hugely influential - and hugely rewarded - leaders of the national game.

Yesterday, Ferguson carried his fury and his angst to the three-man commission, which, according to an intense FA briefing, was entirely independent of any pressure from within the game or at the ruling authority's Soho Square offices. Day one had seen United's star lawyer, Ronald Thwaites, launch an attack on testing procedures and the performance of the testers. Nowhere in this was there a glint of a concession that his client had broken a fundamental law of football, and of any sport which is decently regulated.

Ferguson's central point was that his player was being used as a test case, a warning shot against all of the playing population. The image has been of a guileless victim of an ambush. But then wouldn't this be true of any of the leading players who are routinely tested? Nicky Butt, another United player, submitted along with two other team-mates to a test the same day that Ferdinand failed to undergo his. Butt wasn't ambushed - and how did he pull off his salvation? By doing what he was ordered to according to the the rules of the game which gives him such an astonishingly rich living.

You had to ask what Ferguson was really saying. Could it be that football, as represented by a new FA regime, was wrong to strive for new standards of discipline and strict enforcement of drug testing? That had to be the impression as Ferguson talked of Ferdinand not as a miscreant but a victim. But a victim of what, beyond what was, at best, his own stupidity?

Ferguson's club had been angered by the intervention of Sepp Blatter, president of the game's world governing body, Fifa, who had insisted that the FA enforce strong punishment. It was hard to categorise Blatter's crime in any other eyes but United's. The club, as they have so often in the past, saw a conspiracy to do down England's most famous team. A little bit more detachment might have shown something else, possibly a concern about the already battered image of football.

Taylor and Eriksson formed part of the same pattern of self-interest. Taylor, who did a brilliant job in defining the role of his union when the Premiership was so reluctant to pass on significant support from its latest mega television deal a few years ago, talked, quite irrelevantly, of the principle of innocence until proof of guilt. That simply wasn't the issue. Ferdinand's guilt was on the record. Taylor might have argued for mitigation, for an understanding of an individual's mistake - even how challenging it had been to remember across the span of a few hours that a drug test had to be taken. But what Taylor said was that Ferdinand had become a whipping boy. It was a travesty of the plain truth that his predicament was entirely of the player's own making.

Eriksson has been Eriksson; all things to all men. When the England dressing room toyed with rebellion before the game with Turkey, threatening Eriksson's FA employers that they might withdraw their labour because of the decision to drop Ferdinand until his case was settled, he refused to condemn them. This week he has given evidence of Ferdinand's good character to the commission, so soon after conceding that any player who failed to take a drug test had to be banned from playing. It was the same old business. Eriksson wanted Ferdinand to be available for the European Championship finals in Portugal next summer. Ferguson wanted him at every opportunity.

Lost in the rush of self-interest, of course, was that idea of accountability, of owning up to damaging mistakes, acknowledging that a game without any sense of the difference between right and wrong is well on the way to hell in a handbasket. Of all the lessons imparted by the Ferdinand case, one thing was certain; the least important, though not to be discounted, pointed to the need for greater clarity in the procedures of testing. Most vital was the need for football to develop some understanding of how badly its image has been damaged.

When Ferguson and Taylor and Eriksson went to the Reebok Stadium protecting, more than anything, their own positions, they were confirming the nature of football's current malaise. It is one that during these last few years has manifested itself as a deadly lack of care. In the Ferdinand case we have seen the dire results as we waited, in vain, for someone involved to take his head out of the trough and say that something wider than self-interest was at stake: something like the decency that comes with respect for the rule of law.