It wasn’t always inevitable that Rio Ferdinand would become a Manchester United legend.
As Ferdinand put it himself, during his first training session at Carrington, Roy Keane bollocked him for playing a short pass sideways to the right-back: “What you doin’?” Keane asked. “This is Manchester United! Take some chances! Pass the ball forward!”
And it took time for Ferdinand to grow into a United shirt. Performances during his first season, despite picking up a Premier League winners medal, were mixed and the defender received an eight-month ban from the FA after missing a routine drugs test that also ruled him out of Euro 2004.
Things didn’t improve dramatically upon his return; United were a side in transition during the mid-00s and Ferdinand was struggling against perceptions that he possessed an over-inflated ego and a lack of application.
Following a 4-1 defeat at Middlesbrough in 2005, the match which prompted Keane’s infamous MUTV interview, the United captain said of Ferdinand: “Just because you are paid £120,000-a-week and play well for 20 minutes against Tottenham, you think you are a superstar.”
The United fans were also on Ferdinand’s back after he stalled on signing a contract extension amid rumours that he was being courted by Chelsea when he was photographed in a London restaurant with the club’s chief executive, Peter Kenyon.
A group of fans with baseball caps and hoods on turned up at his house to remonstrate. Many considered him disposable. Many considered him the emblem of an underperforming club.
It just served to make Ferdinand’s blossoming at the heart of the United defence even more spectacular.
Fast forward three years and Manchester United were champions of England and Europe.
While their 2007-08 side is mainly remembered for its awe-inspiring attack – Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez making up one of the most glittering trios in footballing history – United’s success was actually built upon a watertight defence.
Patrice Evra was a world-class irritant at left-back. Wes Brown, in the absence of Gary Neville, was a stalwart on the opposite flank. And there was Nemanja Vidic, a defender made of granite who always held the air of a soldier casually smoking a cigarette while watching someone dig their own grave.
But Ferdinand was the glue that held everything together, a huge part of the reason United conceded just 28 goals in 51 Premier League and Champions League matches that year.
Alan Hansen, who knows a cultured centre-half when he sees one, was moved to say: “This season all the plaudits have gone to Ronaldo, but… when the going has been tough, Ferdinand has performed better than anybody.”
He always had the potential. Schooled at West Ham, Ferdinand was blessed with composure and the ability to virtually glide up the pitch, which was a significant departure from your archetypal English centre-back.
Indeed, Harry Redknapp often played Ferdinand in the centre of midfield at Upton Park, recognising his technical ability, wide passing range and his overall game intelligence.
He grew in stature after an £18million move to Leeds in 2000, becoming an incredibly vocal team member and was named club captain at the tender age of 23.
By the time he put in a string of excellent performances at the 2002 World Cup, it was inevitable Ferdinand would leave debt-ridden Leeds. His £30million move across the Pennines was a world-record fee for a defender.
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“At Leeds, I went and sat in Mr Ridsdale’s office and just sat there and waited for about five, six hours and said I’m not going until you sort out the deal for me to go to Man United,” Ferdinand told BT Sport viewers in 2021.
“I didn’t go public, I didn’t need to go. We got to a compromise, we got to a situation where he felt he was getting the right part of the deal and I got my opportunity to go to Man United.
“But I was adamant I wanted to go because that was the right time and the right move for me.”
It might have made him a pantomime villain in West Yorkshire, but it’s safe to say Ferdinand’s instincts were bang on. As Leeds slid into the third tier, the England defender eliminated his lapses in concentration and became established as one of the world’s best centre-backs.
“It is hard to pick a better defender in the world than Rio,” Ferguson said in 2007. “When he came to us, he was a player of enormous potential – that was evident in everything you saw of him.
“He has always had fabulous technique, great pace and balance. He is two-footed and 6ft 3in, so has everything you would wish for in a centre-half.
“He had moments when he was careless and would give the opposition a chance because he was so relaxed. Thankfully, his maturity has brought that edge to his game where he handles everything now.”
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) April 24, 2017
A league victory at Anfield soon after those Ferguson comments was founded upon Ferdinand’s obdurate defending. United’s triumphant march to Moscow would have been curtailed without his textbook shutting down of Roma and Barcelona en route.
Opposing strikers would be beaten before they took the field. A good Ferdinand performance saw him live rent-free inside their heads, being able to dispossess his opponents without having to besmirch himself by making a tackle.
“The best I’ve played with” was the view of Neville, who was part of the 2008-09 defence whose staggering record of 11 consecutive clean sheets still stands proudly to this day.
And it was telling that Ferguson, who dumped Jaap Stam for the minor crime of calling the Neville brothers ‘busy cunts’, never saw it necessary to jettison Ferdinand in a similar cut-throat fashion.
He stayed at Old Trafford until 2014, leaving the club at the same time as Vidic, marking the end of an era for the club.
Ferdinand’s 12 years at United encompassed 455 appearances and eight goals, winning six Premier League titles, one European Cup, a FIFA Club World Cup and two League Cups.
And, while it seems inevitable now that Ferdinand would become a United legend, the reality of a young talent that had to mature into a world-class defender is a much more beguiling tale.
By Michael Lee