The Verdict when it came was more draconian than anybody in the weary, fetid press room at Bolton's Reebok Stadium could have imagined.
The decision of the Football Association's disciplinary commission to ban Rio Ferdinand for eight months, nearly three times as long as most had anticipated, will be seen as a victory for Mark Palios, the FA's hardline new chief executive, and for Fifa, who had pressed for the England defender to be severely punished for his failure to attend a routine drugs test on 23 September. At Old Trafford it sounded like a firebell in the night.
Manchester United described the sentence as "savage and unprecedented" and stated they would immediately launch an appeal. Maurice Watkins, a club director and qualified solicitor, with Ferdinand alongside him, said: "We are extremely disappointed by the result, in particular by the savage and unprecedented nature of the sentence which makes an appeal inevitable. Rio has the full support of Manchester United and the PFA [Professional Footballers' Association]."
The ban is the same as Eric Cantona suffered for launching himself at a fan at Selhurst Park in January 1995 and one month short of Mark Bosnich's ban for cocaine abuse. When Ferdinand did finally take the test, 44 hours after it was due, the results were negative.
Gordon Taylor, the chairman of the PFA, felt that even had Ferdinand failed the test, the punishment could not have been worse. He bitterly attacked the commission chairman, Barry Bright, who had also led the inquiry into Christian Negouai's failure to attend a drugs test while playing for Manchester City.
"To say this is an independent commission is ridiculous," he said. "They [the members of the commission] are all FA councillors who are running the FA. This is the same chairman who, dealing with the same case in May, gave out a £2,000 fine and no suspension. This is because this case had become a worldwide issue.
"Fifa made their views known and Rio is the one who is paying a high price. Even if he had tested positive, I don't think the penalty would have been any higher. Rio and Manchester United will be as shocked by the severity as we are. I felt beforehand that the FA were under pressure to make a scapegoat of Rio and that's what they have done. After a case like that we cannot have any faith in the authorities."
Any appeal would alter the timescale of Ferdinand's ban. As things stand this morning, he will be forbidden to play again until 11 September, which would rule him out of the European Championship and possibly the first round of England's World Cup qualifiers.
The ban is set to take effect on Monday 12 January, the day after United play Newcastle at Old Trafford. However, United's lawyers could spin the drama out until much deeper into the season, although any appeal could result in Ferdinand's sentence being increased.
Ferdinand, who will also miss the first month of next season, which begins on 14 August, looked deeply shocked as he left in a brown suit almost 12 hours after he had arrived. He was also fined £50,000 and told to pay the full costs of a hearing which lasted 18 hours over two days.
The three-man commission unanimously found that Ferdinand had been in breach of the FA regulation E26: "The failure or refusal by a player to submit to drugs testing as required by a competent official."
The verdict would not have pleased the England coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, who yesterday submitted a written statement in support of a player who was perhaps his most obvious success of last year's World Cup finals. Yesterday, his manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, pondered the way he has reacted to the stresses he has endured since he left the dressing-room at United's training headquarters at Carrington to go shopping in Manchester's Deansgate on 23 September without taking the routine drugs test.
Before addressing the hearing, Ferguson suggested the ordeal was beginning to undermine the 25-year-old. "In terms of handling football matches, Rio has been as laid-back as he appears to be but, like every other human being, he is not unbreakable." This would have stretched his nerves.
Even before the verdict was announced, Ferguson had rounded on Sepp Blatter, the Fifa president, whom he believes has exerted undue pressure on the FA to impose a lengthy ban. Blatter's suggestion that Ferdinand should have been suspended from the moment he failed to take the test and that United ought to be docked points for fielding an ineligible player was received icily at Old Trafford. "It's very unfortunate that a man in his position should have interfered in the way he has done," Ferguson said yesterday. "I don't think anybody in England is happy that he wants to interfere in English football."
Ferdinand began his longest day at 8.30am yesterday at a stadium he probably never wishes to see again. On Thursday, he had pushed his way through the entrance of the hotel which is built into the Reebok; yesterday he came in via the Bolton club shop. He was followed in, one by one, by the supporting cast assembled by his lawyers. The United club doctor, Mike Stone, whose responsibility it was to ensure the drugs test required of Ferdinand was carried out, was first. Then, there was the Manchester City midfielder Eyal Berkovic, who had been with Ferdinand when Stone finally contacted the player to tell him that he had failed to take the test.
Ferguson, the main character witness on Ferdinand's behalf, spent an hour and a half inside the Reebok Stadium. He must have suffered a puncture en route since beside him on the front seat was a tyre from his Mercedes. It was an omen for a day that would have left him utterly deflated. He had earlier accused Palios of "wanting to make a name for himself" over the Ferdinand affair and this he has certainly done.
Ferdinand will travel with the United squad to London today to prepare for tomorrow's Premiership fixture with Tottenham. "The only thing that worries me is that he hasn't had any proper training for three days," Ferguson remarked.
"We gave the players a day off on Wednesday. Rio wanted to come in but I told him to have the day off. He will train tomorrow and he will want to play, I'm sure of that. He has a good temperament. It hasn't been an easy time for him but I am banking on that temperament helping him on Sunday. Rio knows that when he comes here he is in a good environment and a protective situation." Manchester United may be able to protect him no longer.
What he will miss
The rest of the 2003-04 season after 12 January
The start and first month of the 2004-05 Premiership season (starts 14 August 2004)
The start of World Cup 2006 qualifying (first matches 4 September 2004)