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Still hard to accept, Sepp

Henry escapes censure for scandal in Paris but Irish players still sufferIT hasn't been a good two months since Thierry's sleight of hand. He will feel no further pain after FIFA's nasty little statement absolved him of almost everything but Irish players are still suffering and will continue to do so.

Apart from Damien Duff, Shay Given and Richard Dunne, it's as if most of the lads who were closest to Henry when he did his thing have faded into the background, battered by circumstances and angry with the game.

In the case of John O'Shea, the fallout from the Stade de France has an extra dimension and he's had plenty of time to ponder the vagaries of fate. That said, his enforced absence from Manchester United's season has made everyone reassess the nature of his contribution at Old Trafford.

If you had asked O'Shea about his sharpest memory from Paris in the first few weeks after the event, Henry's name would have loomed large but put the question now and he would probably tell you that it was the moment his thigh muscle twanged.

The injury that forced him to leave the pitch is apparently deep-rooted in his thigh and is fiendishly difficult to fix. The initial two-month recovery period suggested by Ferguson seriously underestimated the nature of the muscle tear.

It could be another two months before he's right and in that time, Manchester United's season could disintegrate.

Many reasons have been advanced for Manchester United's poor form this season. Tevez and Ronaldo left big gaps behind and the fact that Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Jonny Evans have been injured on a revolving door basis has also been significant.

United's form has dipped as significantly as Liverpool's but with a bigger squad and better overall quality, they have been able to dig out most of the results from last season and remain in the title race.


But there is a general consensus that United's form is still on the slide. O'Shea's calm and now experienced presence would surely have ameliorated some of damage, particularly in defence.

It would be a big claim to make to suggest that O'Shea's absence has been a pivotal issue for Ferguson in the last few months but there is a good case to be made.

For a start, O'Shea's versatility meant that any given Friday, Ferguson could run his thumb down the list of wounded and know that in four positions, he was covered.

While many of us wondered about O'Shea's lack of ambition and showed scant respect for his judgement and intelligence, he simply followed his own career path and over time, has become almost indispensable.

Looking from the sidelines, O'Shea would have every right to curse his luck. At the very time when practically every one of Ferguson's centre-backs are injured, returning from injury or out of form, he's stuck with a rehab regimen.

No luck. O'Shea has been biding his time and building slowly, perhaps too slowly for some, but his form at the end of last season was so good that everyone talked about him as a must pick for Fergie, an outcome that most of us would not have predicted. This would have been the perfect moment for him to step into Rio Ferdinand's shoes and play in the position nature anointed for him.

He's a patient man though and all the signs are there that Ferguson will struggle to find a defence he can rely on -- short of spending money before the end of the month. Like the rest of the Irish team, he's due some good fortune and maybe Manchester United will still have gaps at the back come mid-March.

In the meantime, O'Shea and the rest of the Irish team will have to come to terms with the latest custard pie thrown by the Blazers in FIFA.

"The disciplinary committee reached the conclusion that there was no legal foundation for the committee to consider the case because handling the ball cannot be regarded as a serious infringement as stipulated in article 77a of the FIFA disciplinary code," the FIFA Disciplinary Committee statement said.

"There is no other legal text that would allow the committee to impose sanctions for any incidents missed by match officials."

Extraordinary. A man blatantly breaks the rules, brings the game into disrepute by celebrating the goal created by his act of dishonesty and the best FIFA can do is issue a comical statement claiming they can do nothing because them's the rules. Mad.

Madder still, good old Sepp Blatter described the handball as "blatant unfair play". Was he wrong? Surely a player could and should be suspended for a game or two for "blatant unfair play" and bringing the game into disrepute.

Think about it. Players are yellow and red-carded every week for stupid goal celebrations or a hefty tackle yet FIFA couldn't find a way to act within the spirit of the game and at the very least, impose a symbolic punishment.

To add insult to injury, they quote rules at us as an explanation for imposing no punishment on a player who has broken the rules.

Actually, there's no surprise at all in this when you think about it. FIFA don't do well when their rules are questioned in a civil court and the French Football Federation obviously had a team of lawyers standing by. Read the FIFA statement again. It speaks about "legal foundation" and "legal text".


The most succinct, though no less unpalatable, summation came from FFF President Bernard Escalettes.

"Thierry Henry not being punished is not astonishing, it is logical," Escalettes said. "There is nothing in the FIFA rules permitting a punishment, and FIFA are bound by their rules. I hope that this is the end of the story, I hope so with all my heart."

In other words, if FIFA had sanctioned Henry, they would have found themselves in the Court of Arbitration for Sport trying to explain why they had broken their own rules to punish a player who had broken their rules. Perfectly logical.

All in all, it's probably best that Henry will be in South Africa. His actions will follow him there and there is little doubt that resourceful Irish fans will find a way to make their presence felt.

Sean St Ledger suggested that France would probably go on and win the World Cup after this but he's wrong.

Nothing has changed. France still have a ridiculous manager and a bad attitude. If they dumped Domenech and hired Laurent Blanc, they might have a chance but the odds are that the French will flop and Henry will get some delayed comeuppance.