The Strains triggered by the Rio Ferdinand affair were already clearly on show with Sir Alex Ferguson rounding on the Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, before appearing on behalf of his beleaguered player at Bolton yesterday.
Manchester United have been unimpressed by the head of football's world governing body, who they believe has exerted undue pressure on the Football Association to impose a lengthy ban for Ferdinand's failure to undergo a routine drugs test on 23 September.
Blatter's suggestion that Ferdinand should have been suspended from the moment he failed to take the test and that Manchester 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," the United manager said yesterday. "I don't think anybody in England is happy that he wants to interfere in English football the way he has done."
Ferdinand began his longest day at 8.30am yesterday morning 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 defence team. The Manchester United doctor, Mike Stone - whose responsibility it was to ensure the drugs test required of Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt and Danny Pugh, as well as Ferdinand, was carried out - was first up.
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 give the sample as required. The Sun, which has been running an effective guerrilla campaign on behalf of Ferdinand, a columnist for the newspaper, engaged one of their journalists to drive between Deansgate (where Ferdinand was when Stone reached his mobile) and Manchester United's training headquarters at Carrington. It took 18 minutes: "proof", according to the paper, that Ferdinand, who was called by Stone at 2.02pm, could have made it back to the training-ground, as he offered to do, before the last of the drug testers left at 2.27.
Butt also appeared, although since his disappearance from Manchester United's first-choice midfield he might have remained to negotiate some kind of deal with the club hosting the hearing. Both he and his manager parked on double-yellow lines. Ferguson, the main character witness on Ferdinand's behalf, spent almost two hours 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. Stone also had problems with his car; he had trouble finding it when leaving the stadium after giving his evidence.
Before addressing the hearing, Ferguson suggested that some of the stress of 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."
His former team-mates at Leeds, Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate, who endured a rather more public trial after an Asian student was beaten up outside a nightclub in the city, would have understood the unique pressures Ferdinand was under. His captain, Roy Keane, put it into words when saying yesterday: "It is hard for anyone when you are scrutinised like that. All you can say is that Rio has been an absolute credit to himself and to the club but, please God, let it be settled this weekend."
Thus far Ferdinand has been more Bowyer, whose performances seemed inspired by the publicity, than Woodgate, who endured a kind of physical collapse. Ferguson had no hesitation in including the defender in the squad which travels to London today for tomorrow's Premiership fixture with Tottenham despite his lack of training. Any ban would come into effect early next month.
"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 game 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.
"He is a big, easy-going lad and you just hope he has handled everything all right. The players have shown him their support in the dressing-room. Rio knows that when he comes here he is in a good environment and a protective situation."
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