“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.
There have been times over the past decade when Rio Ferdinand seemed destined for anything but a lengthy stay at Old Trafford. It has been a journey from a £30 million transfer in July 2002, through a controversial ban and subsequent contract re-negotiation, to genuine – well almost – respect on the terraces. After all, while the Londoner’s way has not always found favour among the faithful, he has absolutely been Manchester United’s finest defender for 10 years or more.
Time flies and Ferdinand’s run at United ended with a transfer to QPR. 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. 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.
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.
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.
The 2007-08 season saw Ferdinand and Vidić become the most frequent names on the United team sheet. Amassing 41 starts together across all competitions, their statistics were more miserly than ever. Ferdinand also had the opportunity to take the captain’s armband due to Gary Neville’s injury problems, which forced him to make just one substitute appearance all season.
Having retained the Premier League title in emphatic fashion, conceding just 22 goals and having a goal difference of +58 – the second highest in Premier League history, behind Chelsea’s +71 two years later – the pair also retained their spot on the PFA’s Team of the Season and had greater success on the grandest platform.
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.
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.
Great partnerships, whether in attack or defence, are hard to come by in football. It’s either one of the two failing to adapt to conditions around them – through either a lack of talent or a lack of adaptability – or a failed experiment by the man at the helm. But some work out perfectly and shape the long-term future and success of a side. One such duo, Nemanja Vidić and Rio Ferdinand, came to be in England with Manchester United and were the backbone of their success for eight years.
They were the silk and steel of the side, with Ferdinand the former and Vidić the latter. Ferdinand was a calm figure, a smart ball-playing central defender who had the elegance to make him one of the best of his generation, while Vidić was the enforcer, the man who would take no nonsense and whose aggression, timing, tackling and aerial skills were in a league of their own. The two complemented each other and together they were the perfect pairing when fit.
Vidić announced his departure to Inter Milan in February 2014 while Ferdinand completed the 2013-14 campaign before being let go by new boss Louis van Gaal to join his former manager Harry Redknapp at Queens Park Rangers. They played their final game together under interim coach Ryan Giggs away at Southampton and received rapturous applause from the United faithful who made the trip to the south coast that afternoon.
After a combined 20 seasons, 755 appearances and 10 major honours, Manchester United said goodbye to a partnership that can be ranked alongside the very best in the game’s history. Classy and powerful at the peak of their powers between 2006 and 2009, they join an illustrious club that contains great duos like AC Milan’s Baresi and Maldini of the 1990s, the Picchi-Burgnich of the Grande Inter era in the 1960s, Piqué and Puyol at Barcelona and a select few others.