Rio Ferdinand is set to be offered a new contract with Manchester United after the 34-year-old defender finally overcame three years of injury trouble to once again become a key part of the Reds’ title charge this season. The former West Ham United defender had been expected to leave Old Trafford after nearly a decade at the club that has been increasing bedevilled by a persistence back problem. Yet, with captain Nemanja Vidić absent since injuring his left cruciate knee ligament in December, Ferdinand has re-staked a claim to be United’s senior defender.
But Ferdinand’s increased importance to United this season was not the obvious conclusion to be drawn as the campaign began, with Phil Jones signed from Blackburn Rovers at £16.5 million, Chris Smalling having enjoyed a fruitful debut season, and Ferguson’s faith in Jonny Evans undiminished despite the Irishman’s many critics. Indeed, the senior man’s availability was widely known last summer, with United’s bean counters keen to offload high-earning fringe players.
Yet, Vidić’s serious injury – and Ferdinand’s greater fitness – ensured the £30 million signing from Leeds United has appeared in 29 games this season; just four less than, for example, Wayne Rooney. It is a good record for a player who turned out just 49 times over the past two campaigns combined.
Perhaps Ferguson’s November insistence that not only had Rio “lost a yard of pace” but must “rearrange his game a little bit” had the desired effect as a newly refocused Ferdinand built a sustained and successful partnership with Evans over the past three months. Certainly the United manager offered no surprise at Ferdinand’s improved form and fitness this season.
“It’s not surprised me in the sense that he’s still young for a centre-back,” said the 70-year-old coach.
“In normal terms you would expect a centre-back with his athleticism to play well into their thirties anyway. But he had the back problem which we all know about. So we’ve had to manage that and by managing it properly he has adapted really well to it.
“If you look to the other week – I didn’t want to play him against Bilbao, but with Jones calling off with flu, I played him and he played on the Sunday also. So he’s adapting really well to the challenge of making sure he is fit and fresh to play in the games we need him. I think it’s all down to how he feels physically and what he is doing at the moment is good. He has no issues at all. I think from time to time he gets the odd tweak in his back and we have to manage it and look after it.”
The question, of course, is how long Ferdinand can sustain a permanent place in Ferguson’s side as Jones, Smalling and Evans push for a permanent starting berth next season. Vidić’s expected summer return to fitness will compliment Evan’s outstanding recent form. Meanwhile, the impending capture of Crystal Palace right-back Nathaniel Clyne should mean that Smalling and Jones are used more frequently in the centre.
Unless Ferguson plans more rotation in central defence – an area of the pitch that managers, even the Scot, are normally loathe to tinker with – then something has to give.
Indeed, while Ferdinand will be an important plank of United’s title defence over the next two months, especially with the Reds playing no more than once a week, the veteran defender’s status at Old Trafford is likely to change. Reports that Ferdinand will be offered a substantial pay cut on the £120,000 per week deal he currently enjoys is unlikely to be wide of the mark. Ferdinand’s current deal runs to 2013, but United will bet that the additional security of a two-year contract is appealing.
However, there are drivers than may yet see Ferdinand leave in the coming summer, with riches available in Russia, China, the Middle East and, perhaps, the United States. Certainly, there is one school of thought that ‘brand Ferdinand’ was ready to explore a move to MLS last summer, with Ferguson ready to let the defender go.
Moreover, while Ferdinand is reluctant to make any irrevocable decisions about his international future, pressure will certainly be brought to bear on the player to end his involvement with England. It is a scenario the Peckham-born player has shown no enthusiasm for, but one Ferguson would certainly embrace.
But the Scot’s tune appears to have changed in recent months, precipitated perhaps by a limited summer budget. United’s capture of Clyne in the coming summer, for example, is believed to be budget related, with the Palace defender out-of-contract. Rumours that Ferguson was keen to seal the defender’s signature far earlier have standing. Meanwhile, what funds that are available pre-IPO are likely to be earmarked for a midfielder and a striker during the coming window.
Rather than viewing Rio as expendable, as the Scot once did, Ferguson is now talking up Ferdinand’s experience in the United dressing room.
“I keep thinking that I signed Rio three or four years ago – I forget he’s been here for almost 10 years,” adds Ferguson.
“He has taken on that role of the influential person in the dressing room. He’s great in the dressing room with the players. He’s brilliant. It is an advantage if you can keep the older players long enough for their influence to spread because in the modern game it’s difficult to keep players for more than five or six years. It’s not easy but the longer they stay here the better the influence spreads to them and they can take over from the older players as they disappear.”
With both Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs also likely to be retained next season, Ferdinand – if he remains at Old Trafford – will form an increasingly ageing spine in the United squad. Valuable experience, or Glazernomics at work. Critics will argue both sides of that equation.