There was a time when the Premier League was almost exclusively contested between the red corner of North London and the red half of Manchester and, even more incredibly, there was a time when United were not afraid to tap into the transfer market in a swift, secure, way, without baulking at transfer fees.
A decade ago United still boasted a midfield that was envied by many, with the likes of David Beckham, Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes all in their pomp, while Argentine playmaker Juan Sebastian Veron had joined the club in 2001, becoming the most expensive transfer in English football at that time.
For all their flair and steel in midfield, something United are desperate for these days, the Reds’ back four hadn’t looked the same since Jaap Stam was allowed to join Lazio and his replacement, the experienced Laurent Blanc, was clearly entering the winter of his career and his sense of positioning simply wasn’t enough for the Frenchman to cope with the pace of the Premier League.
Having lost the title to Arsenal the previous season, in the summer of 2002 Fergie set out to address United’s achilles heel and broke the British transfer record, as Rio Ferdinand traveled across the Pennines as Eric Cantona, Gordon McQueen and Joe Jordan had done before him.
At 23, Ferdinand had already broken the British transfer record twice – having moved from West Ham to Leeds United in 2000 – but despite arriving on the back of a successful World Cup, the former Leeds captain was treated to a mixed reception. For a start, Rio’s attitude was too “flashy” for a club who, apart from David Beckham, was still very much rooted in an era when players monetising on their public appearances were the exception rather than the rule.
Despite winning the league in his first campaign at the club, Ferdinand’s first years at Old Trafford were marred by controversy, some of which was self-inflicted. If the 2003 failed drug test fiasco only highlighted the disgraceful double standards endorsed by the FA, Rio did himself no favours by refusing to sign a new contract with the club at the back end of the 2004-05 season, particularly after having been pictured in a London restaurant with Chelsea’s chief executive Peter Kenyon.
Ferdinand himself admitted that he only considered United a temporary destination: “I thought I would be at United for a couple of years, maybe three or four, and then go abroad somewhere. But I just fell in love with Manchester United. I fell in love with winning, fell in love with the history of the club and being part of it was something I could never have imagined.”
However, as United entered a phase of transition in the 2004-05 season, which saw Roy Keane departing the club in acrimonious circumstances, Rio gradually began to emerge as a pivotal figure for the club and, furthermore, he increasingly showed how much the club had begun to mean to him.
Having shed the clothes of wanna-be rapper, Ferdinand emerged as a more mature figure, on and off the pitch, going on to form a formidable partnership with Nemanja Vidic, after the Serbian arrived from Spartak Moscow in January 2006.
With United all but written off as the press anticipated a decade of Chelsea domination, Ferdinand and Vidic were the backbone upon which United built one of their greatest teams of the modern era, arguably the finest vintage post 1999.
As imperious as Ronaldo was, Ferdinand, Vidic and Van der Sar were just as pivotal to United’s three consecutive league titles and to their success in Moscow, where Ferdinand had the honour of lifting the European Cup as captain.
Throughout the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons, injuries confined Ferdinand to a somewhat more marginal role, certainly more marginal than he would have liked, but he returned to form imperiously last season, producing the sort of dominating displays that have made him one of the world’s best defenders as he built a successful partnership with Jonny Evans.
Evans, alongside the likes of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, has reaped enormous benefits from training and playing alongside Ferdinand in terms of composure on the ball, positioning and ability to read the game, pillars upon which Rio has built his game, for while he’s never turned down physical confrontation, the 34-year-old isn’t and never has been the sort of “blood and thunder” defender capable of capturing the imagination of many.
Ferdinand’s maturity in the dressing room will be extremely important for David Moyes, for the Londoner is now one of the players younger members of the squad look up to, much in the same way Ferdinand would have done when he entered a dressing room containing the likes of Roy Keane and Gary Neville.
Over the last couple of seasons, Ferdinand has arguably become an even more appreciated figure by United fans, particularly after he was overlooked by England manager Roy Hodgson, who claimed Rio’s exclusion from the Euro 2012 squad had been motivated by “footballing reasons”, rather than by Rio’s decision to support his brother, who had been racially abused by England’s very own Lionheart, John Terry.
When Hodgson did come calling again, Ferdinand opted to quit international football to extend his club career, as Paul Scholes had done almost a decade earlier, receiving complete backing from Sir Alex Ferguson who, in customary fashion, stressed how the club, unlike the national side, had always stood by their man.
Only 18 players have appeared for Manchester United more times than Rio Ferdinand who, after six league titles, one European Cup and a decade at the club can well and truly be considered not only one United’s best ever defenders and one of Sir Alex’s most inspired transfers, but also one of the club’s greatest servants.
Ferdinand’s face covered in blood after being hit by a coin as he celebrated Robin Van Persie’s last-minute winner against Manchester City somewhat tarnished one of the games of the season, but Ferdinand’s raucous celebration spoke volume for his feelings towards the club and proved, if there was any lingering doubts, that Rio, to coin a phrase, “gets United”.
As such, he fully deserves his testimonial.
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