Peter Young
14 October 2003
England Football Online
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Comment: The Rio Ferdinand Affair:  Time to Move On?

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Yes, but the Football Association and Mark Palios Must Take Some Lessons With Them


Football Association chief executive Mark Palios said today it is time to move on from the Rio Ferdinand debacle that has consumed English football for the past week. 

His latest statement has been taken as a conciliatory retreat from an earlier declaration indicating that the F.A. was out for blood and would seek revenge against Professional Footballers Association leader Gordon Taylor, who has been highly critical of the F.A.’s conduct throughout the affair.  Taylor was just doing his job, many believe his criticisms were justified, and any F.A. attempt at vengeance would be highly inadvisable. 

Palios and the rest of the F.A. still have not explained why, in declaring Ferdinand ineligible to play against Turkey, they acted unilaterally in a manner which drastically departed from established procedures and principles of fair play just days before the match and thereby threw the England team into turmoil. 

It is time to move on.  But only if Palios and his colleagues at the F.A. take with them some lessons from the horrendous hash they made of things last week.  Palios’s latest statement says "we need to ensure that we learn from this experience too."  He is right for virtually the first time in the whole shambolic affair.

Palios will find his job―including the tremendously important task of safeguarding the game from drugs―much easier if he takes to heart these three points.  The first two are based on fundamental fairness or due process, as it is called, while the third rests on common sense.

1.  The players―or, more accurately, their representative organisation, the P.F.A.―must be consulted before changes are made in the disciplinary process.

2.  The disciplinary process must meet basic standards of fairness.  In all but the most extraordinary circumstances, a player must be afforded a hearing at which he may defend himself before sanctions of any sort are imposed on the player.  If extraordinary circumstances justify a temporary suspension even before a hearing is held―and failure to take a drug test arguably might be such an extraordinary circumstance―then players should be given clear advance warning that that will be the consequence in those circumstances.  

3.  The week before an international match―whether or not it is a critically important one, as the game in Turkey was―is not the time to impose changes in the disciplinary process which carry an immediate impact on the England team.

The F.A., led by Palios, failed on all three points last week.  That the F.A. still has not taken in any of these points is indicated by the portion of his ―time to move on― statement which says:

"Some people have questioned whether we have at any point stepped outside our due process for disciplinary decisions. I can confirm that we have not. Our decision to exclude Rio was a policy decision in our role representing 'England team' affairs and was not part of the formal disciplinary process."

This kind of dissembling word play is disgraceful at this point.  It says, in effect, that a suspension or other sanction is not part of the disciplinary process―and therefore need not meet due process―when Mark Palios (or any other F.A. bureaucrat) unilaterally says it isn’t part of the disciplinary process but rather a policy decision. 

It is akin to an earlier semantic attempt to justify the F.A.’s rush to judgment.   The F.A. had not suspended Ferdinand, we were told.  It had merely instructed the team’s coach not to select him for the squad.   

The F.A. obviously believes England fans are a naïve and gullible lot.  We think fans are acute enough to recognise that a suspension is a suspension and that discipline is discipline whatever names the F.A. gives them in its continuing frantic efforts to justify the unjustifiable.

This latest rationale for the F.A.’s circumvention of due process is a breathtaking and highly threatening assertion of autocratic power.  The F.A. makes policy decisions in virtually every area of football, including Premiership affairs.  Taken literally, Palios’s statement gives the F.A. the power to impose discipline ‘as a policy decision’ outside the normal disciplinary processes whenever it pleases.  We hope the statement was nothing more than an effort to save face and is not to be taken literally as the F.A.’s assessment of its power.

By all means, Palios should move on.  The entire football community, Taylor included, will move on, too, if Palios takes the lessons with him.