Sport Soccer

Monday 16 December 2019

Rio Ferdinand was the Rolls Royce of defenders

Rio Ferdinand won seven Premier League titles and the Champions League at Old Trafford.
Rio Ferdinand won seven Premier League titles and the Champions League at Old Trafford.


He left Manchester United on the day 23 other Englishmen turned their thoughts to Rio. The symmetry of the aptly-named Rio Ferdinand at a Brazil World Cup was undone by age.

There is now no centre-back in either side to match his skill and grace.

Sir Alex Ferguson has always said that he built his best United sides from the back on strong centre-half partnerships. His hope was that he could write the same two names in front of his goalkeeper every week.

Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister were an all-English roadblock. Jaap Stam and Ronny Johnsen were a continental duo more suited to Champions League endeavour. Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic reversed the stereotypes. Vidic was the ball-winning warrior and Ferdinand was the elegant quasi-sweeper, gliding alongside a striker and stealing the ball off his toes.

No centre-back currently on United's books can compare with Ferdinand's natural ability, which was obscured in his later years by a loss of pace. Centre-forwards are the ones shown up most cruelly by a slowing of the legs (think Fernando Torres). But it can hurt a top defender just as much. Michael Owen observed that Ferdinand would give strikers a head-start in a sprint for the ball to amuse himself.

The forward would think he was through on goal until a faint sense of air-displacement would alert him to the No 5's arrival.

Harry Redknapp's 'Rolls Royce' analogy stayed with Ferdinand all through his career. So did the Bobby Moore baggage and the Franz Beckenbauer hype. Like the rest of the 'golden generation' he was unfulfilled at international level. But his move from Leeds to United for £30m 12 years ago turned him from a showboater into a hardened stopper with fresh powers of concentration.

Ferguson told him almost as soon as he had passed through the gates of United's training ground: "You're a big, casual sod." Only Fergie, you suspect, could have addressed a record signing in such terms. Ferdinand replied: "I can't help it." And Ferguson fired back: "You'll need to help it, because it'll cost you goals, and I'll be on your back."

A year and a half later, the Rolls Royce had to be locked in a garage for eight months after Ferdinand failed to show for a drug test at United's Carrington training ground, in September 2003. It was tempting to think back then that he would remain a dilettante. But he returned to prove himself the most gifted English centre-half since Moore, at a transfer cost to the club of £2.4m per season.

He won seven Premier League titles and the Champions League against Chelsea in 2008: his zenith, in a United side that also contained Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez.

Across 455 appearances and 14 trophies at United, Ferdinand was often taken for granted, his physical toughness sometimes overlooked. For a time the eye was drawn more readily to Vidic's strength in the tackle, his courage in the air. Equally, Ferdinand never quite escaped the public suspicion that he was always scooting down to London to spin records in a nightclub.

Like David Beckham, he saw a life beyond his Manchester United shirt, but Ferguson was adept at spotting distractions in his star defender's life. Ferdinand was told to run his diary past the club before agreeing to film, music or fashion commitments.

In a now famous exchange, Ferguson got wind that Ferdinand had been to see the rapper P Diddy, and exclaimed: "Give me a break, Rio. Is he going to make you a better centre-half?"

Later Ferguson persuaded him that he would need to play deeper to offset his loss of speed. Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans were lined up to succeed Ferdinand and Vidic. Back trouble rendered him one of those old pros who require careful handling. In a turbulent final year under David Moyes he played in bursts after the new manager had selected him alongside Vidic in six consecutive games from Aug 17 to Sept 22.

There was a feeling around Old Trafford that this exposed him to undue strain. Ultimately he was not offered a new contract, and so leaves against his wishes.

To walk away from United on the day an England squad was announced for a Brazil World Cup added poignance to his departure. He may yet turn up at another English club, but you wonder whether helping Harry Redknapp out at Queens Park Rangers, say, would only deepen his sense of loss. At the same time, Ashley Cole's England career is over and John Terry is still waiting for a contract offer at Chelsea. There is a changing of the rear-guard.

So Rio never made it to Rio. But in time we will examine his contribution at United over 12 years (minus eight months) and think there was no finer talent in that position.


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