Wearing a white suit to his unveiling. Missing a drugs test to go shopping. Refusing to sign a new contract. Endless ‘5’ brand promotion. Dinner dates with Peter Kenyon. World Cup Wind-ups. Ill-considered tweets.Jumping on players’ backs. #oooffff.
Just some of the reasons why some Reds have never taken Ferdinand to their hearts in the way his defensive partner Vidic has become an icon. At time Ferdinand has appeared to be emblematic of all that is wrong with modern football. Yet even the fiercest critics of his off-field exploits cannot deny his footballing class. In fact, it could be argued that Ferdinand has been our most consistently impressive player over the last decade. Since the manager adopted a Benitez-esque love of rotation it has become a lottery to guess Ferguson’s selection – yet when fit, Rio’s inclusion is a given. One of his finest performances came in 2011, when despite having been written off as a crock, he was plunged back into the action at Stamford Bridge in a Champions League quarter-final. That night Ferdinand was comfortably the best player on the field.
What seemed like an exorbitant fee of £30m back in 2002 has unquestionably proven to be value – even allowing for his unscheduled eight month break. It is testament to his quality that every time Ferguson has looked to regenerate his squad the position of Ferdinand has never been in doubt. Up until 2011, every new central defender brought to the club has been to play alongside rather than replace Ferdinand. That all changed with the arrival of Chris Smalling (his heir apparent) and the highly rated Phil Jones. A consequence of the demands placed on his body has been a succession of injuries related to a back problem; as a result the captaincy was relinquished and it appeared Ferdinand’s swan song had arrived. Yet last season brought a timely renaissance – falling just two short of his total league appearances from the previous two campaigns combined. It can be hoped that, as with Ryan Giggs hamstrings, a program has finally been found to manage his condition to maximise his availability.
So what has made him so irreplaceable?
The great Franco Baresi had hailed his potential as a young player at West Ham and the Champions League experience with Leeds United meant we were gaining an established international footballer. Upon joining the club, Ferdinand was renowned for his ability on the ball. We were promised Beckenbauer sorties from defence to attack but this was a smokescreen for the altogether more important qualities he brought to the side. In reality, the new centre back was a desperately needed replacement for the scandalously transferred Jaap Stam. Both men had it in their locker to carry the ball forward but their key assets were composure and pace. Those who are familiar with my work will know of my admiration for Stam yet in terms of composure Ferdinand is the superior defender. It’s an oft-echoed cliché that great players have more time on the ball yet in Ferdinand’s case it rings true. In the heat of the battle we have always been able to rely upon him to keep his cool and make the right decisions. He might not garner the hero-worship of Vidic yet unlike his Serbian partner he has never rashly earned a red card to put his team at risk. It is a rarity in fact for Ferdinand to find his name taken by the referee; a remarkable feat considering he no longer has his searing pace to rely on to recover from mistakes. Perhaps it is the ‘shorts clean’ image of Ferdinand that fuels his detractors; yet truly great defenders like Maldini and McGrath eschew iron man antics in favour of guile and composure.
One of the great juxtapositions of Ferdinand is that as impetuous as he can be off the field – whether it be on radio or social media – on the pitch he is one of the most intelligent around. Football intelligence is measured by anticipation; look at how Paul Scholes has a quick look up before receiving the ball and has an instant picture of everything around him. Ferdinand has that intelligence – knowing where to be, moving across to intercept a through ball or using his body to ease an opponent away from danger. It is fitting that Ferdinand is so effusive in his praise of ‘Sat Nav’ Scholes given the similarity to how they carry out their business on the field (goal celebrations apart!). You would struggle to compile a jazzy YouTube clips video of Ferdinand given his uncanny knack of snuffing out danger before it has a chance to truly threaten our goal. The knowledge of where to position himself sends attackers away from goal without even realising it is happening. This nouse hasn’t happened by chance; United’s no.5 is a true student of the game, working hard to adapt his style to changes both to the sport and his physical capabilities.
Robson. Cantona. Keane. Barcelona in 84, Newcastle in 96, and Turin in 99. Three men who amongst all their technical gifts possessed an other-worldly will to win. When the world conspired against the Reds, and the chips were down, team-mates looked to them for guidance. A quality rarely attributed to a Peckham wide-boy who sported a bleached crop on his arrival at the club but whilst a fundamentally different character, Ferdinand has emerged as United’s leader in the latter years of his time at the club. Exhibit A: Anfield in 2007. A formidable Liverpool side have outplayed the visitors for the entire game, Paul Scholes has foolishly got himself sent off for an air slap at Alonso and Wayne Rooney has been taken off injured. Liverpool had one effort wrongly ruled out for offside but the breakthrough seemed inevitable. Not if you’re Rio Ferdinand – he delivered a defensive master-class to keep United in the game. Not incidentally by last-ditch tackles and heroic blocks; as you’ll see from the highlights below, stand-out moments are lacking. It was the way he marshalled not just the defence, but the entire team to carry out a rearguard action that kept our title challenge alive. I remember at the time feeling I had witnessed something special and it remains his finest performance in my eyes. He has an aura which breeds confidence in those around him which has guided us through key games at the highest level.
The highest praise I can bestow on Ferdinand is that it is easier to pick out his bad games than his good; such has been the quality he has consistently displayed over the last decade. He might be coming to the end of his time at Manchester United but he has already done more than enough to be recognised as a club legend. It might be too late for Ferdinand to be truly loved by the faithful, but we should cherish him whilst we can. Rolls-Royce defenders like Rio don’t come along very often.