Controversial, outspoken, joker, campaigner but most of all exceptional. Rio Ferdinand by those of us with common sense will be remembered as the greatest defender England has ever produced, United have ever had and arguably one of the best the world has ever seen. That is no exaggeration either as the numbers tell their own story. For United alone Ferdinand won 19 trophies in 455 games and was a cultured shining light in England’s still antiquated notions of defending.
Ferdinand waltzed into Old Trafford with exactly the kind of marvellous arrogance, pomp and circumstance you would expect of such a big personality and big match performer. Decked out in a crisp white suit, bleach blond hair and giant diamond stud in his ear wearing a £30 million fee and the ire of the city of Leeds at his back. That £30 million, a then record for a British player and world record for a centreback, was now 13 years later the biggest bargain since a Welsh firebrand named Anuerin Bevan had the notion of using tax money to set up a free national healthcare system.
His entrance to United and transformation from bigtime talent to bigtime Charlie symbolised his time at the club, polarizing opinion, sometimes even amongst United fans. His contract wrangle in the aftermath of his lengthy ban for missing a drugs test in 2005 even lead to an infamous incident when a group of hardcore fans turned up at his house threatening him if he didn’t sign a new contract. Ferdinand’s retelling of the tale was classic Rio; hilarious, straight shooting and a little mischievous:
“So I go to the side door and grab a big bit of wood, jump on the side of the wall and I’m just about to scream ‘raaaah!’ when I see there’s a massive group of people, with hoodies and caps covering their faces.
“I just thought, ‘I’m going to get served up in a moment, so go bananas and they’ll think you’re a nutter!
“Then one of them said ‘We’re the United boys, f***ing sign your contract’ and I was like ‘What you talking about? I’ve only just started negotiating two months ago, what you worrying about?'”
In many ways that quote encapsulates a man who brought the phrase “merked” to public attention when pranking David Beckham in Moss Side. It’s brash and unfiltered but showed a man with a good heart and a keener mind than often given credit for as his instant sincere apologies, charity work in deprived areas and campaigning against racism. The latter contributed to his exit from the England set-up as Ferdinand rightly refused to play nice after England team-mates and central defensive partner John Terry racially abused his brother.
Turns out the stuffed shirts at Wembley didn’t appreciate a few home truths.
As a footballer in his prime, was where Ferdinand really shined though. He was like a great chess player or slick, untouchable pugilist, seemingly able to think several moves ahead of the opposition. Some people felt he was lazy and sometimes used the description of a “Rolls Royce footballer” as an underhanded insult. Rio always had the last laugh though by making a mockery of opposition attackers before they even knew what time of the day it was. That intelligence was reflected in a superb discipline record. Just 68 fouls, 20 bookings and only a single red in 312 league games at United while he barely ever got his shorts dirty.
Rio was technically gifted too. Ferdinand was a tremendous distributor of the ball and superb dribbler. Indeed he showed great promise of a midfielder in his younger years at West Ham before being moved into centre of defence and help return the role to its classier days of Duncan Edwards and Bobby Moore. He was always a superbly clean striker of the ball too. Watch this goal against Liverpool in 2007, a feathery flick of a first touch to set himself before smashing the ball into the corner on the half volley. Had he plied his trade in the continent he likely would have scored a few more of those, it isn’t hard to imagine him as a rampaging Libero in a back three at Barcelona.
Not forgetting his physical attributes too, an imposing muscular, 6 feet two inch frame and more pace than a supercar. Rio was classy first but anyone who tried mixing it up physically with him ended up being bulldozed over on their backsides in a daze and left in a trail of dust.
So there it is, man full of class and controversy but never boring and always brilliant draws a curtain down on a stellar career during a difficult personal period in his life. Consider this a love letter, to the greatest centre half United have ever had and one of the more admirable characters in the modern game. Enjoy your retirement Rio, you deserve it, millions of reds all over the world will love you forever!