When Sir Alex Ferguson splashed out £29.1 Million in the summer of 2002 to make Rio Ferdinand the then most expensive defender of all time, doubts where inevitably raised. Was a defender really worth all that money? The answer was an emphatic ‘Yes!’, as Rio went on to become one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s finest ever signings during his managerial career at Old Trafford.
In a stay that spanned 12 years at the Theatre of Dreams, Rio won almost everything there was to win in the game. 6 Premier League Titles, 1 European Cup, 3 League Cup’s, 1 Club World Cup and a bundle of Charity shields, with only an FA Cup winners medal missing on the centre back’s mantel piece.
His partnership with Nemanja Vidic became an essential part of United’s success in the late 2000’s. They were our very own Morecambe and Wise, without one we were just not the same team. The likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney may have grabbed the headlines, but Rio and Vida’s contribution was just as important to Manchester United, if not more.
However it wasn’t all plain sailing, far from it in fact. United’s slow start to the 2002/03 campaign was having an effect on the centre back’s performances and confidence. He just didn’t seem the same player we had previously witnessed blossom at Leeds. By no means was he poor, we just expected a lot more. It wouldn’t be till after the New Year where the Real Rio Ferdinand would stand up.
Maybe it was his confidence, maybe it just took him a little extra time to settle down, maybe it was even the whopping price tag on his shoulders. Whatever it was, Rio looked a complete different animal after the new year, as United hunted down Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal side. Key results followed against Newcastle United (6-2) Chelsea (2-1) and Liverpool (4-0) as the club regained the Premier League Title for an historic 8th time.
If anyone was to doubt just how important Rio Ferdinand was to Manchester United, then the following season (2003/04) would be the season where we would find out just how vital he actually was. After reportedly missing a drugs test in September 2003, the defender was banned from football for 8 months. Let’s be honest here, I don’t think any one of us out there actually thought his absence would have such an enormous effect on the side, we didn’t just drop away a touch, we completely collapsed. Goals started to be conceded left right and centre, 2 against Southampton, 3 against Everton, 3 against Middlesbrough, 4 against Manchester City. Even goalkeeper Tim Howard who had previously looked magnificent, was now all of a sudden looking a nervous wreck. United may have ended the season positively by defeating Millwall 3-0 in the FA Cup Final, but it could have been so much more and you can’t help but think if Rio hadn’t of been banned we probably would have won the league that season.
He finally made his long anticipated return to football on 20th September 2004 and what better fixture to announce your return in, than against arch rivals Liverpool at Old Trafford helping the club secure a 2-1 victory. Just to see Rio back in a United shirt again was good enough for me, but what was even more impressive was the fact it looked like he had never been away, the Rio Ferdinand we all knew and loved was back.
Despite Rio’s return to the United side, the club’s struggle’s on the pitch remained a major problem, as the club fell short of Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea side. However in what was admittedly a couple of disappointing campaigns (2004/05, 2005/06) there was light at the end of the tunnel, and in that light came Neamnja Vidic and Patrice Evra. This would prove to be a real turning point for not just Rio, but for the club as a whole.
Prior to the start of the 2006/07 season, you could almost sense something special was going to happen, you just had that feeling this would be the season where the real Manchester United would return. What was to follow was nothing short of magnificent as the club finally reclaimed the Premier League Title from Chelsea. The introduction of Nemanja Vidic in the centre of defence made Rio even better as a footballer, He was already World Class, now he was near immortal. He even found himself on the score sheet, scoring the all-important 2nd goal against Liverpool at Old Trafford with a wonderful strike into top corner. His magnificent efforts on the field for United were to be rewarded personally, as he was named in the PFA Team of the year along with the rest of the United back 4.
Things for not just Rio but for the club as a whole, where about to be taken up a whole other level as the 2007/08 campaign loomed. It would be the season where United didn’t just reach the peak of English football, but reached the peak of European football by defeating Chelsea in the European Cup final on that unforgettable night in Moscow. Rio’s ever blossoming partnership with Nemanja Vidic wasn’t just becoming one of the finest centre back partnerships of that time period, it was fast becoming one of the best centre back pairings football had ever seen, no forward in the land nor Europe could get the better of them. Once again his efforts on the field were rewarded as the defender was again named in the PFA Team of the year for the 2nd year running.
The following season brought yet more success to the club, as United won the Premier League Title for a 3rd consecutive season and brought the League Cup back to Old Trafford after defeating Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley. Despite Rio edging ever closer to the merry old age of 30 his performances remained as consistent and superb, as the club went an astonishing 21 hours without conceding a goal. It was getting to the point where we would be shocked if the opposition even had a shot on goal. We were just that good and we knew it!
Of course just like anything good it does have to end eventually and as the 2009/10 season got underway, flaws into Rio’s game were starting to creep in, that yard or so of pace he once had was now starting to fade, most notably against arch rivals Manchester City at Old Trafford, where after giving the ball on the way on the halfway line, he failed to catch up then City forward Craig Bellamy who then levelled the game up at 3-3. It something we were just not used to seeing with Rio, we even had confirm it amongst ourselves that it had actually happened, that we hadn’t imagined it. In all it was disappointing season for Rio with in all, managing only a mere 21 appearances due to injuries.
The following seasons brought something of a mixed bag for the defender. He was still as ever present in the heart Manchester United defence, but you couldn’t help but feel he just wasn’t the same player any more. The standards he had previously set was so ridiculously high, that now with him entering his 30s, it was near impossible that Rio could reach those standards again. However it wasn’t all doom and gloom with arguably the stand out moment coming in Sir Alex Ferguson’s final game as Manchester United manager against Swansea City, where he emphatically volleyed the ball home from inside the penalty area, handing United a 2-1 victory.
His time at the club was officially brought to an end on 12th May 2014, where after much discussion the club decided against offering Rio a new contract brining to an end his 12 year stay at the club. His time at the club may be up, but his legacy will live on forever in the hearts of the Manchester United faithful.