Ferdinand desperate to avoid winding down United career without elusive FA Cup medal
Rio Ferdinand might not appreciate the symmetry, but 16 years on from his first appearance in the FA Cup, the Manchester United defender may well be facing his last on the same ground this evening.
Entering the final six months of his contract at Old Trafford, with Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones all threatening to draw a line under his United career, Ferdinand is running out of chances to win a trophy that has evaded him ever since he suffered the ignominy of defeat at home to Wrexham on his debut in the competition with West Ham in January 1997.
Contract talks, expected to begin at the end of this month, must overcome the thorny issue of Ferdinand's £110,000-a-week wages and the improbability of United offering anything close to that figure for a player who could double his current salary by accepting one of several lucrative offers from the Middle East and China.
Yet having insisted earlier this season that medals, rather than money, are now his sole motivation, there is a genuine sense that Ferdinand could be facing his final shot at the FA Cup.
"I couldn't face not winning something or not having had a trophy in my hand," Ferdinand has admitted in the past. "I still haven't won the FA Cup because I was suspended (for missing a drugs test) the last time United won it (in 2004). I need to win it."
Kevin Russell's 90th-minute winner for Wrexham in a third-round replay at Upton Park 16 years ago proved to be a sign of things to come in the competition for Ferdinand. Now 34, he has amassed five Premier League winners' medals, two in the League Cup and one apiece in the Champions League and Fifa Club World Cup, yet his FA Cup story has been one of disappointment.
Apart from missing the 2004 success because of his eight-month ban, there have been the semi-final losses to Everton and Manchester City and defeats in the final, against Arsenal in 2005 and Chelsea two years later. "They get thrown away, runners-up medals," Ferdinand said. "I don't even keep them, but they are the ones that you think about more than anything else."
Ferdinand's United future is likely to dictate whether this season offers him his final crack at the Cup, with the prospect of a move overseas deemed the most appealing option should Ferguson point him towards the exit.
"I don't think Rio wants to leave and I don't think he is panicking about that," Ferguson said.
"I think we are comfortable with that. I don't think his contract issue comes into it at all."
The fact that a new contract for Ferdinand is even up for discussion with United is a testament to the player's renaissance over the past two years, however. In the spring of 2011, Ferguson had identified Jones, then at Blackburn, as Ferdinand's successor at centre-half because of concerns that a string of back problems had as good as ended his career as a top-class defender.
Those concerns were shared by Fabio Capello, the then-England manager, and coincided with his gradual disappearance from the international scene before his omission from Roy Hodgson's Euro 2012 squad.
Yet having made just 12 Premier League appearances for United during the 2009-10 season, and 19 in the following campaign, Ferdinand played 29 league games last season and formed a crucial partnership with Evans, following Nemanja Vidic's cruciate ligament injury. Having at times been frustrated by Ferdinand's off-field pursuits and business interests, Ferguson's relationship with the player is now understood to be as strong as it has been since his £30m transfer from Leeds in 2002.
Ferdinand will weigh up the prospect of another 'glory year' at United against the opportunity to pursue a new challenge, while United and Ferguson will assess the development of Jones, Evans and Smalling, while also monitoring Vidic's ability to overcome a year of knee problems.
"Rio can play on," Ferguson said. "I don't think he has the same issue with his back as he did a couple of years ago, I think it is manageable now, and that's important. But he has been with us for 10 years and not won the Cup, which is amazing. We'll have to do something about it." (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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