“Excellence,” wrote Greek philosopher Aristotle, “is an art won by training.” Indeed, this is a doctrine held true by many in the game for whom hard work and a little talent has brought ample reward. Rio Ferdinand trained hard too; a professional to the last. Yet, he also boasted such a natural elegance on the pitch that it was often hard to hard to tell where the work finished and the talent began.
It has been a career not without controversy, conflict or, on occasion, the unfair hand of the Football Association. He has been the subject of partizan vitriol, media scepticism and, latterly, terrace racism. And the third estate, so keen to lap up Steven Gerrard’s long walk to Los Angeles, has let Ferdinand slip into retirement with little fanfare. The Peckham-born defender may not want it any other way, retiring just weeks after his wife Rebecca died of cancer.
Ferdinand had many detractors over 12 years at Old Trafford too. The image of a flash Londoner was not always simpatico with local supporters, while poorly timed transfer negotiations following an eight month ban in 2004 drew the moniker ‘Wobbly-Gobbed Tosser’ from the pages of fanzine Red Issue.
Yet, he is also a player that should be remembered, at his zenith, as the best central defender on the planet. Made better for the partnership with Nemanja Vidic, United’s other outstanding centre-half. Critics be dammed. “Its hard to be a diamond in a rhinestone world,” as Dolly Parton once mused.
“After 18 years as a professional footballer I now feel it’s the right time for me to retire from the game that I love,” said Ferdinand in a statement on Saturday. “As a 12-year-old boy, kicking around a football on the Friary Estate in Peckham, I never dreamt that I would play for my boyhood club West Ham, captain Leeds, or win the Champions League with Manchester United.
“Winning trophies over my 12 years at Manchester United allowed me to achieve everything I desired in football. None of that would have been possible, without the genius of one man, Sir Alex Ferguson. His greatest accomplishment in my eyes will always be how he developed us as men, not just as footballers. He will, in my opinion, always be the greatest manager in British football history.”
Ferdinand joined Ferguson’s squad from Leeds United in 2002, with the Whites on the precipice of financial meltdown. The fee included a basic sum of £20 million, with add-ons and agent fees taking the cost to more than £30 million. The defender made his debut alongside Laurent Blanc in United’s 5-0 demolition of Zalaegerszeg in the Champions League Second Qualifying Round and earned a Premier League winners medal the following May. The first of many trophies at United.
Always classy with the ball at his feet, Ferdinand had gained a reputation for switching off during 158 matches at West Ham United and 73 more at Leeds. More than 450 games for United later and that penchant for errors was almost entirely eradicated from his game.
Ferdinand’s transfer to United was five years in the making. Ferguson first spotted 17-year-old Ferdinand playing for a Bournemouth team managed by friend Mel Machin in 1997. The defender spent 10 games on the south coast, with the Hammers subsequently rejecting two United bids for the player.
By the time Ferdinand moved to Leeds, for a world record £18 million in 2000, Ferguson deployed Ronny Johnsen and Jaap Stam as the regular central defenders, with the youngster Wes Brown also making an impact on the squad. Three years later, Ferguson made a third, this time successful, bid and promised to make the 23-year-old “the best centre-half in the world.”
“I want to win things and I feel I can do that here,” said Ferdinand in July 2002. “In recent years they have dominated. Every year they buy players to show they want to continue that dominance. Everyone here is hungry for success. I haven’t won a championship and I want to do so. I know this is going to be a big challenge but want to prove my doubters wrong. I want to fulfil every bit of potential I have got.”
Ferdinand left Old Trafford in the summer of 2014 boasting six Premier League titles, three League Cups, an FA Cup, a Champions League, the UEFA Super Cup, six Community Shields and the FIFA Club World Cup. Potential fulfilled over an outstanding career.
Ferdinand has not always enjoyed the good times at United. Little more than a year after his arrival the player failed to attend a routine drug test. Despite being familiar with the routines of drug testing, Ferdinand left United’s training ground at Carrington for a shopping session in town, missing his slot and only later attempting to correct the mistake. The FA Disciplinary Committee imposed an eight-month ban and a £50,000 fine, with the player missing much of the 2003/4 season and Euro 2004.
It is an episode that still reflects poorly on the player, for failing to attend, the club, for not keeping closer tabs on a £30 million asset, and the FA’s drug-testers for dogmatically refusing to allow Ferdinand to take his test later that day. Indeed, the player took and passed a test the following day, with an offer for a hair follicle exam turned down by the FA. The triumph of process over common sense.
Years later Ferguson wrote that his “indignation endures to this day” after the testers failed to “do their job” and the FA handed down a “brutal punishment” to the defender. Not least because the FA committee failed to accept any mitigation, including the case of Manchester City’s Christian Negouai who was fined just £2,000 for missing a test the season previously.
The politicisation of the case did not help, with both FIFA President Sepp Blatter and World Anti-Doping Agency seeking a longer punishment despite the seemingly innocent nature of Ferdinand’s error.
It was an episode that also precipitated the degradation in the player’s relationship with United’s supporters. Rio’s return to Ferguson’s side the following autumn coincided with an extended period of contract negotiation – a time in which the player was photographed at a London restaurant with then Chelsea CEO Peter Kenyon. “I was never a part of that meeting. I bumped into my agent and he was sat with Peter Kenyon. It was literally just a case of me popping in to say hello,” Rio would later claim. Not all supporters believed an innocent motive.
Still, with a crucial goal at Anfield in January 2006, a new five-year contract signed in 2008 and an outstanding partnership developed with Vidic, Ferdinand eventually won back all but the most steadfast Old Trafford critic. In the period from 2006 to 2009 Ferdinand and Vidic formed the most formidable central defensive pairing in world football. Rio’s pace, outstanding intuitive reading of the game and comfort on the ball superbly complemented Vidic’s darker arts. It is a period that cemented Ferdinand’s reputation as one of United’s finest ever.
“He was a great player, without a doubt the best centre-half I ever played with,” said Paul Scholes this week. “For a time as well he was the best centre-half in the world. He was such a pleasure to play with. To play in front of him, he made your job so easy.”
In subsequent years injury and then age restricted Ferdinand’s appearances for Ferguson’s side and the defender became increasingly frustrated with life as a part-time player under David Moyes.
Meanwhile, on the international stage, Rio’s love for England was never quite as firmly reciprocated, despite the player’s 81 caps. In all he missed four tournaments: Euro 2000, Euro 2004, Euro 2008 – when England failed to qualify – and Euro 2012. The FA’s handling of the 2004 ban and, later, Fabio Capello’s controversial decision to sack Ferdinand as captain in favour of the racist John Terry still rankles with the player and supporters.
None of it diminishes Ferdinand’s standing as the nation’s finest defender of the past generation.
- 1995: Turns professional with West Ham
- 1996: Makes West Ham debut against Sheffield Wednesday
- 1997: Makes England debut against Cameroon at Wembley
- 1998: Unused player in England’s World Cup squad for France ’98
- 2000: Not included in England squad for Euro 2000; makes £18 million transfer to Leeds
- 2002: Joins United for £30 million
- 2003: Wins first Premier League title; receives eight-month ban and £50,000 fine
- 2004: Misses Euro 2004 through suspension
- 2005: Agrees new four-year deal with United after lengthy negotiations
- 2008: Captains England for the first time; captains United to Champions League victory over Chelsea in Moscow
- 2009: Secures third successive Premier League title; part of side that loses to Barcelona in the Champions League final
- 2010: Succeeds John Terry as England captain, but is ruled out of the World Cup with injury
- 2011: Loses England captaincy to Terry; wins fifth Premier League title with United; United lose 3-1 to Barça in Champions League final at Wembley
- 2012: Left out of England’s squad for Euro 2012
- 2013: Announces retirement from England duty
- 2014: Leaves United after 12 years at the club