These days it seems that the art of defending has lost its lustre, gone are the times of the truly great defenders who attracted such plaudits and accolades for their style, panache and professionalism. It is often forgotten that titles and cups are won on the backbone of a solid defence, a universal truth that is not lost on Mourinho who likes to build his teams from the back. How then, he would welcome the subject of this piece, back to the club in his heyday. Rio Ferdinand, by all accounts, was a simply exceptional defender. When United bought him from Leeds for a world record fee for a defender, there were those who would have baulked at the price tag, Sir Alex’s faith and judgment was rewarded with peerless, fearless service from Ferdinand. Our dominance over Sir Alex’s latter years was built on the bedrock and foundation of the defensive solidity of this man’s partnership with Nemanja Vidic. Whilst the Serb was the uncompromising warrior who put his body on the line where necessary, Ferdinand was the thinking man’s defender, calm, cool and composed when on the ball, capable of the quality and skill necessary to bring it out and set willing runners ahead of him free. Ferdinand, above all, was also a consummate winner whose failure to win an FA Cup during his United tenure, still irks him to this day. He talks like Roy Keane does; of the nature of having good characters in the dressing room and it is perhaps his leadership and personal characteristics combined with his supreme playing style which make him the best Premier League central defender of all time. As Ryan Giggs praises he had a myriad of talents which put him above his peers:
“He was a brilliant leader, brilliant in the air and a great defender.”
When Ferdinand came to the club, as I have already alluded to, it was under the weight of expectation which a hefty transfer fee brings. He had shown already at Leeds that for one so young, he had rare leadership skills, having secured the captaincy the previous year. However, Leeds’ precarious, perilous financial position at the time necessitated the sale of their prized asset and their loss was certainly very much United’s gain. He had the balance and grace which we associate with him already in abundance, as in his more youthful days he had trained as a ballet dancer which gave him an enhanced flexibility, extremely beneficial in dealing with all of the exertions one has to as a Premier League defender. In the first training session, Ferdinand was understandably at his most nervous surrounded by stellar household names and in particular was devastated when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, during a game of piggy in the middle, was teasing him about his large transfer fee and whether he was really that talented or not. Ferdinand also recounts how in one of his initial training sessions, he was introduced and inducted in the United way of playing when he passed the ball sideways to Gary Neville. Roy Keane was apoplectic, raging that Ferdinand wasn’t at Leeds or West Ham now and that at United you took risks if you wanted to win trophies. Ferdinand spent time mulling over his words, before realising Keane was right, it’s all about the details at the highest level, those extra ingredients make the difference between sweet victory and agonizing despair. He started off though extremely well in his first season at the club, winning the Premier League and showcasing some of the excellent form which had justified Sir Alex Ferguson’s faith in bringing him to the club. However, in the following season, Ferdinand became embroiled in a drug test scandal which was to mark one of the lowest points in his United career.
Ferdinand had been said to have gone shopping for some sheets for his new home, when the testers called but missing these was not something which was condoned for any reason. He was then banned for 8 months as a punishment, which seemed a rather harsh sentence given the other punitive measures that were being utilized at the time. Certainly, there is evidence to suggest that Sir Alex Ferguson’s assertion that he was being punished as a high profile player does hold some credence. Ferdinand returned for the 2004/5 season, dusting himself off and enjoyed a superb run which earned him a spot in the Premier League Team of the Year. However it was to be in January of 2006, that Ferdinand was to meet the greatest defensive partner he ever had when United signed Nemanja Vidic, the Serb and he were to form the greatest defensive partnership that the Premier League has ever known. Ferdinand with his communication and organisational skills was the perfect complement to Vidic’s aggressive, no nonsense, and physical defending style. Ferdinand was so masterful, his intelligent reading of the game and ability to intercept at crucial points made his disciplinary record exemplary, where he could go months without picking up a yellow card. In 312 Premier League appearances for United he committed a paltry 68 fouls. His effectiveness made him a joy for his fellow team mates to play alongside as Mikael Silvestre articulates:
“Rio Ferdinand was so calm and composed. He read the game so well and his technique was superb. There is no panic from him and that is what you need at the back. If the defence is shaky, it brings negativity to the whole team. Rio’s main attribute was bringing a balance to the side.”
Ferdinand was like a well oiled machine, he seemed able to assess any dangerous situation and work to snuff it out in an efficient and conscientious fashion. There were so many imperative blocks or defensive actions where he required all of his nous and know how to pre-empt threats, he made movements which other lesser defenders never would have done because he was so adept at predicting how the play would unfold, and he was blessed with perfect vision and anticipation. Currently, United’s defensive contingent is not blessed with anyone who can hold a candle to his ball skills, he was expert at bringing the ball out of the defence and spraying it to forward players, he had all of the composure and finesse that our current crop of defenders so evidently lack. There had been much discussion earlier in his career about whether he was world class or not but in the late Noughties, there were no longer questions, only accolades and epithets about what a superb player he was. Alan Hansen, in particular, (a defender by trade), glowed with praise for Ferdinand during the 2007-08 season when although Ronaldo was the one who was taking the world by storm, said that when Ferdinand had been at the top of his game, he’d been better than anybody in the United team. This had been further reinforced with captaincy for the Champions League final as Ferdinand skippered us to glory in club football’s most prestigious trophy.
From a young age, he had always set himself new targets and aspirations of what he wanted to achieve and this represented the pinnacle of all of those hours of hard graft and effort which had been extolled. He had a fear of failure and of complacency which was to make him deeply insatiable for success, a fierce competitor and a relentless winner. He talks of how he had to learn how to win when he came to United, how he was a student who was like a sponge, soaking in the knowledge and wisdom of his new team mates who were serial winners. From then on it was all about self sacrifice, about having full clarity on what he wanted to achieve and working tirelessly to achieve his goals and dreams in football. He had become so incredibly consistent during his late twenties that it was truly remarkable, his continual drive and desire to succeed had propelled him onto a level that was simply magisterial. Even after just winning the Champions League his first question to the higher ups, at the celebratory feast was who were they signing, he needed some reassurance and comfort that they would enjoy further continued success the next year. This aura and expectation of the highest standards attainable transmitted to the entire United defence in 2009, when they combined to secure goalkeeper Edwin Van Der Sar a new clean sheet record, the hallmarks of a defence firing on all cylinders indeed.
In 2009-10, Ferdinand was to suffer a series of injuries as age began to take its toll on his body as a knee injury ruled him out of the 2010 World Cup with England and he suffered further time on the sideline at the beginning of the following season. Over the next few years, Ferdinand still showed that when used he could do a great job for United but the successive injuries he suffered plagued his career which became very stop start. A highlight in 2012-13 was scoring the final goal of Sir Alex Ferguson’s managerial reign in a 2-1 win over Swansea, with a finely struck volley, exhibiting more of the admirable skills that he possessed for a centre back. He had shown these throughout his career which was in truth somewhat pioneering during the early part, given that previous generations centre halves were required to be tough tackling hard men, Ferdinand brought an elegance and sophistication to the role which Gerard Pique describes here:
“Now the position of the centre-back is not just about defending or being nasty or tough. It’s about knowing how to play football, control the ball, pass and be more comfortable in possession. This is something that 10 years ago [in England] they didn’t understand. Rio was the first one who did it.”
Ferdinand was to leave the club in 2014, having not been offered an extension when his contract expired amid a season of mediocrity, following the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson and the short tenure of David Moyes. There is no doubt that he had been unbelievably successful as he came away with a staggering medal haul of 6 Premier League Titles, 2 League Cups and 1 Champions League, as well as being named in the PFA Team of the Year 5 Times whilst in United colours. He had been a defensive rock, a defender who was cultured but who knew when to use brute force if need be. He had shown such incredible composure and had been feared by many opposing strikers who had struggled to get by on the limited service they received with Ferdinand’s interceptions minimizing their goal scoring opportunities with style and class. He has received well deserved acclaim from pundits, fans and players alike for his fantastic career where he proved that he was truly world class and a United Legend to boot. He dominated all types of strikers whom he faced, he provided a platform for his defensive partners to be better by influencing them with his communication and leadership attributes, he was a leader not only of the back line but in the commandeering way he galloped forward. He was incredibly consistent for a long period of time for United, bringing us the stability and reassurance that one needs in a back line and always performed outstandingly in big games, in particular in shutting out Barcelona for 180 or so minutes in the 2008 Champions League Semi Final legs. Ferdinand was incredibly brave, and when called upon would throw himself in front of the ball to prevent shots or goals. He could pass incredibly well for a defender, finding team mates and would play forward, running with the ball seamlessly and effortlessly, gliding over the pitch like a swan. It is fitting that Scholes, who Ferdinand cites as the best player he played alongside, has the final words on the legendary central defender:
“He was a great player, without a doubt the best centre-half I ever played with. I would say for a time as well he was the best centre-half in the world. He was such a pleasure to play with and play in front of. To play in front of him, he made your job so easy.”