On Friday night, we head to Old Trafford for Rio Ferdinand’s testimonial. Rio isn’t a United player in the mould of Gary Neville and Paul Scholes, recent beneficiaries of United testimonials and players who had been at United for the full duration of their careers. Rio Ferdinand doesn’t fall into that category: he arrived at United an established international, having started his career at West Ham and then Leeds, and at the not inconsiderable cost of £30 million, which remains a record for a defender.
It wasn’t long, however, before United benefited significantly from the acquisition. The season before his arrival we’d slumped to third in the league, having lost nine games: despite scoring a healthy 87 goals, easily the highest total in the league, our defensive record was appalling, symbolised by the arrival of Laurent Blanc, where the legendary French World Cup winning captain fittingly donned the red shirt of United and sadly looked a shadow of his vintage 1998 self. Prior to that, the much-loved Jaap Stam had ended his tenure at the heart of the United defence, his departure leaving a gap at the United rear that desperately required filling.
Rio walked in and immediately plugged it. In his first season in the United defence, we regained our title with the best ‘goals against’ tally in the league. Statistics don’t always tell the whole story, but on this occasion they more than adequately reflected the difference made.
Pulling on the red shirt, Rio immediately went from national hero to villain, a path taken by so many who have what it takes to become key figures of our great club, as ABUs all over the country who’d been orgiastic over his defensive displays in Japan and Korea suddenly decided he wasn’t all that good after all and began to elevate alleged character flaws over whatever footballing abilities they couldn‘t deny. His arrival from Leeds inevitably added extra spice to the affair as Rio rubbed salt into wounds still raw after Cantona and many deep enough to go back to the arrival of that other central defensive giant Gordon McQueen.
Rio’s verbal pronouncements on his old club hardly reflected the savage pronouncements of McQueen in his time, but his commitment to the Red cause on the field was easily as evident. The image of Ferdinand that continues to resonate has him fist-clenched, visage creased as he faced the crowd with a winner’s determination that has been a hallmark of the player ever since he arrived at United.
With the graduation of Jonny Evans and the rich promise of Jones and Smalling (not to mention the exciting prospects Michael Keane and Tom Thorpe emerging from the youth ranks), we now thankfully no longer rely on Rio as much as we once did, but there was a time when periods without him in the side would emphasise his true value more than anything he did on the pitch. When he was banned for not turning up to a drugs test, handed a suspension far longer than players who had actually failed one and one for which other similar offenders had only been fined, the gap at the centre of United’s defence often gaped as we struggled to fill the gap of a player whose reading of the game was so sophisticated he often ended games with a perfectly clean shirt while his defensive partner racked up the Persil budget.
Following a number of controversies in his earlier career, Rio has matured into a footballer who’s shown the way in handling the challenges of the modern era. His use of Twitter is frank and often engaging. His commitment to United, despite an earlier transfer saga which led to a well-publicised encounter with the United balaclava boys, is now undeniable. Like so many United players before him, he became an easy scapegoat in the national team, removed as captain then left out of the 2012 European Championships squad with unconvincing explanations, before performances on the field led to his return to the squad only for him, understandably, to refuse the call-up and announce his retirement from international football. The unpleasant terrace chants from England fans that followed, against both Rio and his brother Anton, had, for this writer, far more sinister undertones than is often admitted and only brought further confirmation that he’d been absolutely right to walk away from the England set-up.
Such episodes say much about the character of a player and are so often the hallmark of a true United man. For United fans, Rio is admired for traversing the difficult terrain towards acceptance as a modern United legend with tenacity and an undeniable will to win. His arrival eleven years ago came at a vital time for the club. Over the ensuring six years we would go from a brief period as also-rans in the title race to European champions once again and Rio is prominent among a clutch of United players responsible for ensuring the transition was as swift as it was decisive. His importance in returning United to the top of the English game after a brief, but worrying, period will not be forgotten by United fans, for whom his crucial importance to post-millennium United sides will, I‘m sure be adequately demonstrated on Friday night.