The Football Association and Manchester United, their biggest member club, were heading for a breakdown in relations yesterday after Rio Ferdinand's exclusion from the England squad for Saturday's qualifying tie in Istanbul.
Ferdinand was omitted on the express instruction of Mark Palios, the FA's new chief executive, after the United defender failed to provide a sample after being selected for a random drug test at the club's training ground on 23 September. The £30m defender did provide one two days later, which proved clean, but had already committed an offence with his original failure.
Under FA laws, and those of most sporting bodies, failure to provide a sample can be regarded as equivalent to providing a positive one. The guideline in the FA rulebook is a ban of up to two years.
Manchester United accept Ferdinand was wrong to fail to undergo the test when asked, a failure they subscribe to simple forgetfulness - he was moving house that day and had a lot on his mind - but are angered by the FA's subsequent handling of the affair.
Palios, mindful of the public image of the FA and the game, and aware that the FA is already perceived by sports authorities as being soft on drugs, decided it was "inappropriate" for Ferdinand to represent his country with the issue hanging over him. The England manager, Sven Goran Eriksson, was thus told "a policy decision" had been taken which meant he could not select his centre-half. It was a decision he accepted, but with regret.
"I am very sorry. He is an excellent footballer," he said, "but he is not here and I have to accept that. I had some input but at a certain point in my job you have to accept decisions taken by other people for non-football reasons."
Ferdinand said he was "absolutely devastated". He added: "I want to take this opportunity to categorically state that I have never used drugs or condoned the use of drugs in sport or in society. I have been routinely tested, like all players, throughout my career and the results have always been the same: negative, like the most recent test.
"The biggest disappointment is not being picked for England for a game which is so important not only to myself, but also the team and the England fans. I have worked hard from a young age to get where I am and to be left out of the squad at this crucial stage is devastating."
It was, admitted the FA, "a policy decision". The governing body added it was not "pre-judging the outcome of any possible future disciplinary hearing".
Though the FA said Richard Caborn, the sports minister, backed the decision, it prompted a furious response from United. They feel Ferdinand has been "hung out to dry" by an FA determined to "set an example and prove how tough they are".
While that may be something of an exaggeration, Palios has gone on record as wishing to toughen and quicken disciplinary procedures. However, it is not in the FA's interests to fall out with United, the leading supplier of players to the national team and the game's biggest name, nor to disbar Ferdinand from England's most important fixture since the 2002 World Cup.
The problem has been with the timing. Though the FA is seeking to speed up its system, there is no way Ferdinand could have been dealt with by Saturday. He is yet even to attend the personal interview with the compliance unit. This would decide whether he should be charged. If he was, he would then face a hearing followed, possibly, by an appeal. Given the high stakes, lawyers would be involved on all sides, thereby slowing the matter further.
The FA attempted to have the personal hearing conducted on Monday, even sending a team to Manchester to conduct it. This would probably have resulted in Ferdinand being charged, thereby making it easier to omit him from this match. Unsurprisingly United, busy marshalling their legal arguments, would not play ball. Thus the decision to omit him before any charges.
United's response yesterday was a statement which read, in part: "Rio has still not been charged with an offence, and precedent suggests he should continue to be available to represent England until at least a disciplinary finding has been made against him by the FA.
"Manchester United believes the FA's actions have seriously compromised the player's confidentiality. The publicity generated by the FA's actions has put unfair pressure on Rio in what should have remained a strictly confidential matter."
David Gill, the Manchester United chief executive, added: "The club is deeply troubled by the FA's handling of the situation and believes it is at variance with the FA's approach to all other drugs-related cases. We think the FA's decision not to select Rio for England is wrong for the player and wrong for the country. We will be vigorously pursuing our concerns."
The FA denies charges that it breached confidentiality but although it did not reveal his name by continually delaying the squad announcement, it alerted the media that something was afoot. With so many people being consulted a leak was inevitable.
Such was United's ire, according to Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, they threatened to withdraw their entire club contingent. This would have robbed Eriksson of Gary and Phil Neville, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes but, United said, there was "absolutely no truth" in the claim.
A similar boycott alleged by Pini Zahavi, Ferdinand's agent, also failed to materialise. The FA said that although they had held a meeting with up to eight senior squad members, including David Beckham, who made their feelings clear, any suggestions of a walk-out were wide of the mark.
Paul Barber, the FA's director of marketing and communications, said: "We have had a couple of meetings with senior players as well as the Manchester United players. These were very amicable discussions. The players obviously wanted to express their opinions and views on what has happened. We were very happy to listen.
"At no time - and David Beckham has asked me to make this clear - did any of the players at that meeting threaten to walk out of the squad. The meeting was deliberately set up to be a private meeting and will remain that way."
That said, Eriksson clearly has a lot to do to repair team spirit and focus the side on Saturday's match. He began by addressing the team yesterday, reminding them of the importance of the tie.
"It is not something I would normally have to do for a match like this but these are special circumstances," he said. What, he must wonder, is English football going to throw at him next?
Testing times: Key dates in the Ferdinand case
Tuesday, 23 September: UK Sport doping control officers arrive at Manchester United's Carrington training ground and inform the club that four players, including Rio Ferdinand, have been selected for drugs tests. The player leaves the training ground without giving a urine specimen. United say he then realises his mistake and makes efforts to give a specimen that afternoon but the UK Sport team have left.
Thursday, 25 September: Ferdinand takes an official FA drugs test, which proves to be negative.
Friday, 3 October: UK Sport report findings to FA.
Saturday, 4 October: The United chief executive, David Gill, is informed that as a result of Ferdinand's failure to attend the initial test he will not be picked for the England squad.
Sunday, 5 October: The FA executive director, David Davies, has informal meeting with Ferdinand. Later, FA officials, not including the FA chief executive, Mark Palios, meet United representatives. The England squad is delayed until Tuesday.
Monday, 6 October: United informed that a personal interview with the FA is scheduled for 13 October. FA then fails in attempts to bring forward the interview with Ferdinand to this day or 7 October. United claim their efforts to speak to Palios are thwarted - though the FA denies this. News of the controversy begins to leak out. United finally issue a statement of confirmation at 11.29pm.
Tuesday, 7 October: Gordon Taylor, the PFA chief executive, criticises the FA, claiming they compromised Ferdinand's right to confidentiality. Confirmation comes at 1pm that Ferdinand has been left out of the England squad.Reuse content