You might not have realised it yet, but the world, one way or the other, has been influenced, big or small, by a number of Ferdinands. They’ve all been important in their own way. Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in 1914 led to the Great War; the indie band under the same name, taken from the Austrian, assasinated music; in 1519, the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan defied scurvy and became the first man to cross the Pacific; the striker Les defied brutish defenders without teeth and became the first man to score goals for six different Premier League clubs, lethal from the cross. Les’ cousin — Rio — would be recognised as one the finest defenders in modern football; most notably at Manchester United, where his years spent at the club recently struck ten.
It’s quite a feat. Landmarks don’t matter — yadda yadda — you might think, as, of course, it’s just a number. But it’s not just a number. The number represents something more. Few players manage ten years at the same club; the fact that these ten were spent at a club like Manchester United would act as convincing a tribute as any other.
The years are especially important when considering the transfer fee. £30million in 2002 was a risk with no exclusions, particularly on a man whose taste in white suits could have conceivably knocked a few rocks off in negotiation with Leeds United out of sympathy. Regardless, even with the baggage (the harsh drugs ban, the stalling of contract, have we mentioned the suit?), the investment was a good one. His finest season, 2007/08, would have been his to have if not for 42-goal Cristiano Ronaldo (Sir Alex: “Rio has been the best defender in the country if not Europe for a couple of years”); he captained a United side, the best since ’99, to a League/Euro double; and can claim to have been one half of the club’s most defensively-secure partnership. And though it’s debatable, Ferdinand can think of himself as the finest English defender in recent times, and maybe of Ferguson’s reign. In dividing the fee with years spent, £3million for Ferdinand’s services per campaign might sound like a pricey loan, but it’s good value given the output.
There are some, however, with reservations. The legendary Franco Baresi appeared excited by Ferdinand’s potential under Harry Redknapp in 2000; six years later, he stated that Ferdinand “plays as though he is looking at himself in the mirror,” a small criticism of his want to play with the ball, surprising in that this particular aspect of Ferdinand’s game is one that he has earned a lot of praise for. “Ferdinand doesn’t generate that sense of security and trust,” Baresi continued. “He is responsible for conceding too many goals.” Baresi’s opinions were not unique, though — indeed many would agree that he does, at times, look vulnerable even if, like Baresi, they recognise that Ferdinand is an accomplished player. But, would it now be wrong to suggest Baresi would retract his comments in present day? After all, he did hint that then-Arsenal Philippe Senderos was a better player, as was Jamie Carragher for his part in Liverpool’s 2005 Champions League success. Would Baresi, upon seeing Ferdinand and United conquer Europe in 2008, change his mind? Certainly, yes. That year was one of Ferdinand’s best, as touched on, but two years after the Italian’s claim. Back then, many would agree — Ferdinand still had a lot to prove and it wasn’t until the later emergence of Nemanja Vidic or the Double could he really move anywhere close to the near-untouchable level that Baresi himself managed as a professional.
Going further back — 2004, to be precise — Richard Kurt of Red Issue dismissed Ferdinand’s return from his drugs ban as being something of a heroic one, or a ‘Second Coming’ that would share a similar importance to Eric Cantona’s against Liverpool in 1995. He was not wrong; United might have been suffering in Ferdinand’s absence, but there would be no guarantee of a change inspired by the ex-Leeds United player; because, indeed, his first few years at Old Trafford were only good at best, and, as pointed out, he had to do better to show he was a £30million player. “What does he owe us?” asked the writer. It was the answer that acts as the reason for the referencing of this particular write-up, that does well in putting Ferdinand’s eventual speedy rise into context. “For starters, eight months of head-down, commitment.” While the contract fuss shortly after (where his apparent reluctance to sign a new contract upset many) contradicts any claim of ‘head-down commitment’, United have received eight years, let alone months — and counting — of fantastic service that must be appreciated all the same.
The best you could say about Ferdinand is that even with the doubts, the knocks and the setbacks, his reputation as just a footballer in spite of all that is still one for others to be envious of. It’s worth acknowledging that life in the world of defenders is lived mainly on the edge, a truly terrifying place where the disapproving have little patience and reject the healing power of time, their collective words harsh and unforgiving, and not too dissimilar to Mary Shelley’s village mob in Frankenstein. The critics watch over intently as if a physical version of Orwell’s telescreen, and wait for an error as if a slip fielder because, well, defenders are the easy target. And some struggle to forge a reputation for this very reason; redemption is difficult for a defender when another player, a forward, can find it simply with a string of goals. Good form is barely acknowledged for someone at the back because what they are tasked with doing would naturally be understated, because it is expected, meaning any mistake is then overstated. And so, it is why when you hear of a defender widely regarded as a great footballer that you could truly appreciate their talent, overcoming, arguably, the most demanding (in that you require a stupendous level of consistency) and most scrutinised position on the pitch. Rio Ferdinand, rambling now over, falls into this special category.
Goalkeepers are always said to be not far away from a costly error but the reality is that a defender commits more mistakes, especially a centre-half, and the most common crime, if not positional indisclipine, is the inability to win battles against more agile forwards, especially as pace, the attribute of the young, disappears as quickly as the possessor’s locks. If you’re not wily enough to make up for the deterioration of pace, then you’re in trouble. Ferdinand, thankfully, still holds considerable pace for a veteran — and twinned with his unique brand of footballing intelligence — it’s a sure sign, and a rare one at that, of a player that still has it.
Going further, for defensive players, perhaps more than any other position, a lot is made of longevity; how a player will cope at a particular age concerns the most anxious of football observers (because, of course, a defender no longer up for it is the last thing a team needs, positioned where they would be most vulnerable). A youngster is said to be naive when mistakes are made, or if their underperforming is not exclusive to the occasional game. A player ten or fifteen years his senior is said to be well over the hill, and on their way to Green Grove retirement community/nursing home. The fact that Ferdinand is still going, well into his thirties, and still considered a key first team player in a team where there are a number of younger alternatives is a true indication of a player that has achieved something that must be a great personal satisfaction — to go with the impressive longevity is to know that the years put in were worth it, and to know that those several appearances in the column on the right-hand-side to your name were all deserved.
Regarding his age, Sir Alex Ferguson said recently: “He has adapted really well to the challenge of making sure he is fit and fresh to play in the games when we need him. How long he goes on for is all down to how he feels physically, other than that he has no issues at all.” In 2008, just months after the Double, Ferdinand gave himself a revised target, something that would constitute a different kind of success to all the accolades, the silverware. Having longevity is the ultimate goal, but perhaps the toughest to achieve, for a defender: “If I’m still playing in the first team at 34 I’ll be delighted.” All that should be said now is that Ferdinand turns 34 in November.
Published with permission from ManUtd24.