Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand is facing up to the autumn of his career, with three young central defenders ready to challenge the 32-year-old for a place in Sir Alex Ferguson’s team. But, says Ferdinand, Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and new signing Phil Jones will have to prove they are hungrier than the Peckham-born defender to do so.
Indeed, with fitness issues a concern for Ferdinand over the past three seasons there are no guarantees that the England defender will finish the coming campaign as Ferguson’s first choice to partner Nemanja Vidic. The former Leeds United player will surely begin the campaign alongside club captain Vidic, but with Smalling outstanding in his debut campaign, £16 million Jones desperate to play and Evans with plenty to prove, competition for defensive places is strong than ever at Old Trafford.
Yet Ferdinand has a warning for United’s younger defenders, challenging Smalling, Jones and Evans to show the kind of desire that has taken the Londoner to the top of the world game.
“I remember what I was like when I was young,” Ferdinand told reporters on United’s US tour.
“I remember looking up at Slaven Bilic, Marc Rieper, Alvin Martin and Steve Potts at West Ham. I was only a kid but I used to sit on the bench and think I should be playing. I am sure these guys think the same thing. If they have got anything about them they should.
“They are all talented footballers and, I believe, Manchester United players. At some point I am sure they will take over the reins. But I am competitive and I don’t want to be giving up my position to anybody. My task is to prove I am hungrier than them.
“They can’t be in awe of me. If they are, they will get shipped out. That is the way it is. Your desire has to be to play. I understand and respect that. That is why they are here.”
The club’s concern with Ferdinand – the reason the 32-year-old is not club captain – is, of course, the defender’s ongoing fitness problems. After all, Ferdinand has not started 30 Premier League games for United in three years, with ongoing back problems having threatened to curtail the player’s career. Indeed, a feeling that United was prepared to sell enticed Tottenham Hotspur to bid for the defender last summer.
Yet Ferdinand claims that the back problem, which ruined most of the player’s 2009/10 campaign, is no longer an issue, although a calf injury robbed United of the defender for a large part of last season.
“My fitness is OK. I am nowhere near where I want to be yet but we have three weeks left,” added Ferdinand.
“Last season, I had no problems with my back, which was a good thing, but I did pull my calf which kept me out for a chunk of the year. Hopefully this time around I won’t have anything like that and I can continue to play a consistent amount of games.”
Despite ongoing concerns Ferdinand will remain key to United’s chances of success on the domestic and European fronts in the coming season. With inexperienced back-up in central positions and the da Silva brothers barely out of their teens, Ferdinand’s maturity means the former West Ham United player is likely to be rotated only for those games where Ferguson typically does so; against mid- to-lower table opposition.
But Ferguson will also be concerned that Smalling, who played 33 games for United last season, Evans and Jones all play enough football. The United manager’s revelation this week that Jones sought assurances on the subject before joining in June is telling. The £16 million former Blackburn Rovers player started 26 Premier League games for the Lancashire club last season, seven more than Ferdinand for United.
The United manager will use pre-season as a barometer for both Jones’ talent and the youngster’s ability to handle the pressure of being a United player. After all, Smalling’s excellent debut season was predicated not solely on strong performances but 21-year-old’s ability to remain cool under pressure. Jones’ apparent maturity well beyond his years will surely serve the 19-year-old well.
“Over the years this club has been very successful. In the last couple of years we have won trophies as well. It is great to see but it does bring pressure,” adds Ferdinand.
“It is not overwhelming though. It is part of being a Manchester United player. You have to deal with all that stuff. It separates you from being a Manchester United player and not.”
Entering his 10th season as a United player Ferdinand has more than met that challenge. Smalling, meanwhile, has offered a promising start to his United career just as Evans’ future becomes a matter for debate. Jones’ biggest tests are yet to come.
Should Ferdinand once again show signs of age the trio will be more than willing to step into the elder-statesman’s boots.