A Brief History of Rio Ferdinand

Rio Ferdinand was one of his generation’s
most talented and successful footballers. South London
born and raised, he is part of a famous football family; his brother Anton had a decent career
and his cousin Les was one of the 1990’s most dangerous
strikers. As a youngster, he attracted plenty of attention,
with his youth coach and mentor Dave Goodwin giving him the nickname “Pele” thanks to his
level of ability. He trained with Queens Park Rangers,
Milwall, Charlton, Chelsea and, confusingly, Middlesbrough, before signing up with West
Ham United.
Before he committed to football, though, he famously trained as a ballet dancer, something
he credits with improving his flexibility and
balance, two crucial aspects of his skill set as the definitive
Rolls-Royce defender of his generation. At West Ham he served his apprenticeship in
an academy which also produced Frank Lampard, Joe
Cole and Michael Carrick around the same time—an incredible fertile ground for development.
The Hammers’ manager, Harry Redknapp, was fully prepared to back his young talents,
putting them in the first team as soon as they were ready.
Thus, at just 19 years old, Ferdinand had become a
regular and was included in the 1998 World Cup squad, an unused substitute for whom Glenn
Hoddle had big long-term plans. Ferdinand is the first to admit that he was
happy to seize on the opportunities for distraction that
presented themselves to a young footballer who had never really had money before. He
had a well- earned reputation for enjoying the fruits
of his labours off the pitch. But then came the moment
which changed the direction of his career for the better—his £18m move to Leeds United
in 2000. He credits his leaving London as a turning
point. As he told the Guardian in 2008, ‘I had time to sit and reflect and think,
“If I don’t knuckle down now, when will I and what will I
achieve?”‘ Knuckle down he did. By the time the 2002
World Cup came around, he had made himself a key part
of the side. Leeds United had reached the semi-finals of the Champions League and Ferdinand’s
reputation was growing. The partnership he formed with Sol Campbell was one of the best
things about the England side, and BBC pundits discussed
whether Ferdinand now belonged in the “World Class” bracket.
In the aftermath of that tournament, as Leeds’ financial mismanagement caught up with them,
Ferdinand made the defining move of his career, signed for £30m by Sir Alex Ferguson and
Manchester United. The rest was history. Between 2002 and 2014 he played 455 times for the
Red Devils, of which 444 were starts. Only 18
men have made more appearances in total, only 15 have
featured in more starting XIs. He won six Premier League titles, two League
Cups, a Champions League title which he lifted as
captain and the FIFA World Cup When he got to United, he recognised he would
have to step up his game. He later told four-four- two:
“The most nerve-wracking time was the first training session. We’re playing a piggy
in the middle- type game and I could hear Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
saying “How much? Thirty million? What?!” I would
have expected that from Keano or Butty, but not him.”​
He won his first Premier League title in his first season, but what followed was his toughest
time at the club. He was banned for eight months following
a missed drugs test—he was out buying sheets for his new home when the testers called.
Sir Alex always maintained the punishment was harsh, as a
high-profile United player was made an example of. Comparisons with other similar cases bear
this theory out to some degree.
He missed Euro 2004 because of the ban, but returned to make the Premier League team of
the year for the second time in 2004/05, one of six
appearances. Then in January 2006–as United were on
their way to reclaiming the Premier League title for the first time in three years—another
defining moment in his career occurred as Ferguson
signed Nemanja Vidic. Ferdinand specialised in partnerships, making
whoever played alongside him look better thanks to
his brilliant organisation and communication skills, but Vidic was the ying to his yang,
and between them they forged the best defensive partnership
United had seen since Bruce and Pallister. Rio was
the proto-typical clean-shorts defender, all timing and interceptions, going months and
months at a stretch without so much as a yellow card.
In fact, in 312 league appearances for the club he
committed a total of just 68 fouls. Vidic, it is fair to say, took a different approach.
One last controversy remained. During contract talks he was pictured dining with his agent
and then Chelsea Chief Executive Peter Kenyon. A militant
group of United supporters the “Men In Black” turned up at Ferdinand’s house and suggested
he should sign a new deal. He did, but he probably
would have anyway. He had his best season in 2007/08, as United
won the League and Champions League double. He and
Vidic protected Edwin van der Sar brilliantly. Alan Hansen said “‘This season all the plaudits
have gone to Cristiano Ronaldo, but… when the
going has been tough, Ferdinand has performed better
than anybody.’ He turned 30 during the subsequent campaign
and Sir Alex started to protect him, rotating him and
calling on him when he really needed his brilliance. When David Moyes arrived in 2013 he played
Ferdinand in the first six competitive games in a row. Every United fan knew what would
follow— Ferdinand’s engine needed much more careful
management by this point. The inevitable injury followed and he left at the end of the campaign.
It was a shame, Louis van Gaal could probably have
used him. Ferdinand played on for a season at Queens
Park Rangers, though no one knew that in the background he was enduring his life’s worst
moments as his wife Rebecca battled cancer, dying in
May 2015. He retired in the wake of that tragedy and has since worked in football media, becoming
one of the game’s most incisive pundits. He has also proved to be a remarkable man,
as if that proof were needed. Knowing he was ill-
equipped to help his children with the emotional challenges they faced he has dedicated himself
to developing his own emotional insight, making
a television programme and writing a book about his
struggles as a means to help others dealing with similar issues, and as a means of learning
the complex lessons he now needed to learn.
That drive for self-improvement should come as no surprise. It was what defined him as
a player, always growing. He became as better and better,
polishing the cracks out of his game, cutting out the
mistakes and becoming one of the finest players of his generation. He won pretty much everything
there was to win, proving he had the substance to match his superb style.

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