By Phil McNulty
Chief football writer
Rio Ferdinand's failure to take a drugs test provided the bad news backdrop to the good news story of 2003 - England's qualification for next summer's European Championships.
Ferdinand's forgetfulness sparked off a chain of events that ultimately led to an eight-month ban, and a row that will continue well into 2004.
It saw his his exclusion from England's squad to face Turkey in the deciding qualifier in Istanbul, and the unprecedented threat of strike action from supportive team-mates.
The controversy led to late-night discussions and press conferences before the Football Association - heavily criticised by the squad - and England's players settled on an uneasy truce as the threat of expulsion from the tournament grew.
The full wrath of the footballing nation fell on England's players, but they salvaged their credibility by battling to a 0-0 draw in Istanbul in October that stamped their passport to Portugal.
But even the glory of Turkey was marred by the half-time tunnel battle provoked by Alpay's taunting of David Beckham, actions which effectively led to him being driven out of Aston Villa and the Premiership.
The repercussions of the Ferdinand affair rumbled on, with the defender planning an appeal against the ban.
And England's players took on the FA again when Leeds United's Alan Smith was in and out of the squad for the friendly against Denmark after a plastic bottle-throwing incident at Elland Road.
It all made it a mixed year for coach Sven-Goran Eriksson, who guided England to Euro 2004, a feat which sadly proved beyond Mark Hughes with Wales and Scotland coach Berti Vogts.
Wales and Scotland both exited after play-offs against Russia and Holland, but not before the latter had enjoyed a glorious afternoon when beating the Dutch at Hampden Park.
Eriksson's life was made more complicated when he was spotted meeting the man who was to become the Premiership's most talked-about figure, a man whose chequebook changed the face of world football - one Roman Abramovich.
Chelsea were counting the pennies and pondering a summer of inactivity until, on Tuesday 1 July, billionaire Abramovich pulled off the biggest takeover in British football history by buying Chelsea from Ken Bates in a £140m deal.
Eriksson was seen entering Abramovich's London home, leading to speculation that he will eventually quit England for Chelsea.
But Abramovich had other business to attend to first, shaking the Premiership to its foundations by embarking on a £100m-plus spending spree to attract the cream of talent from home and abroad to Stamford Bridge.
It was a bold bid to unseat Premiership champions Manchester United, who reclaimed the title in 2002/03 after a dogged pursuit of Arsenal.
United's response to that success was to finally confirm months of speculation by selling David Beckham to Real Madrid for £25m, while Arsenal consoled themselves with a 1-0 win against Southampton in the FA Cup final.
Old Trafford's latest title win was confirmed when Leeds United beat Arsenal at Highbury - but it was a rare shaft of light at the end of one of the most catastrophic financial and football collapses in history.
Leeds sacked Terry Venables after only eight months at the end of a wholesale exodus of players, and he was followed by his successor Peter Reid as debts racked up to £80m and talk of administration filled the air.
Glenn Hoddle was the big early season managerial casualty in the Premiership when he was sacked by Spurs - while Glenn Roeder lost his job at West Ham just months after brain surgery.
Another former England boss, Graham Taylor, left Aston Villa for a second time, where he was succeeded by David O'Leary.
Liverpool claimed the other big domestic trophy with a 2-0 Worthington Cup final win against Manchester United, while Old Trafford played host to a bore of a Champions League final before AC Milan beat Juventus on penalties.
It was the year Wolves finally returned to the Premiership when they beat Sheffield United in the Division One play-offs on a day of golden celebration in Cardiff.
And it was an emotional return to the top flight for the old time managerial duo Harry Redknapp and Jim Smith at Portsmouth.
North of the border in Scotland, Celtic saw off both English opponents in Blackburn and Liverpool in the Uefa Cup before reaching the final against Porto in Seville.
An estimated 70,000 Celtic fans travelled to Spain, only to see Martin O'Neill's side lose 3-2 in extra-time.
Celtic may have lost, but their fans claimed glory with a display of impeccable behaviour that made the final a memorable occasion.
Glasgow rivals Rangers dominated the domestic scene back home, with manager Alex McLeish masterminding a magnificent domestic treble to delight the Ibrox faithful.
But in England, it was the Ferdinand affair that cast a giant shadow.