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Premier League Hall of Fame: Rio Ferdinand

A supremely elegant defender, Manchester United legend Rio Ferdinand was one of fan inductees to the Premier League Hall of Fame in 2023.

Rio Ferdinand profile

NameRio Ferdinand
Date of Birth7/11/1978
Place of BirthCamberwell, London
Premier League clubsWest Ham, Leeds, Manchester United
Premier League appearances504
Premier League goals11
Premier League assists8
Premier League titles6

Off the West Ham conveyor belt

One mark of a truly good footballer is how comfortable they’d have looked playing the game in different generations. 

While Ferdinand would’ve been a ball-playing visionary in the 1970s and 1980s, he’d have perhaps been more at home in the modern game than he was during his era.

And that’s not to say he wasn’t at home throughout his playing days. 

An attacking midfielder with an eye for goal in his youth, Ferdinand was moved to centre-back owing to his increasingly imposing stature.

Coming through the West Ham academy of the 1990s that boasted the likes of Frank Lampard, Joe Cole and Michael Carrick, Ferdinand made his debut at the end of the 1995/96 season and made 11 starts the following campaign, catching the attention of his future employers.

Manchester United had won four of the first five Premier League titles, but the old duo of Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister needed replacing. Alex Ferguson had looked long and hard for a centre-back but had a move for Ferdinand rebuffed and signed Blackburn’s Henning Berg instead.

Still only 19 years old, Ferdinand then captured the attention of Glenn Hoddle, who handed him his first England cap to make Ferdinand the Three Lions’ youngest ever defender; one of a number of records Ferdinand would break in his career.

So impressive was Ferdinand that season he’d beat the likes of John Hartson, who scored 15 goals, Eyal Bergovic, who had 16 goal contributions, and Lampard to be named Hammer of the Year with the Irons finishing eighth in the league.

By the end of the 1990s, Leeds United were the latest club to take the punt on European football, heavily investing in the squad to try and mix it with Europe’s elite. After reaching the semi-finals of the 1999/2000 Champions League, Ferdinand was signed for £18m – a world-record fee for a defender, and smashing the club-record £7m paid for Olivier Dacourt earlier in the year. 

It wasn’t long after Roma – who’d spent big themselves in the chase for a Serie A title – forked out huge sums on the likes of Gabriel Batistuta, Emerson, Jonathan Zebina and Walter Samuel, the latter for a record fee for a defender, the record only lasting a few months.

Already on a lucrative wage at West Ham, Ferdinand would earn a payrise to rival Leeds’ top earners but it was less about the money for Ferdinand and more about improving himself and challenging for trophies.

Not yet 23, Ferdinand had established himself as a regular member in the England side and would be given the armband from Lucas Radebe, going on to be named in the PFA Team of the Year in his first full season in West Yorkshire.

Hitting the big time

A mark of Ferdinand’s growing reputation in the game was his inclusion in Nike’s iconic ‘Scorpion KO’ marketing campaign. Ferdinand was one of 24 footballers selected to participate, with Lilian Thuram, Roberto Carlos and Fabio Cannavaro the only other defenders.

But less than two years after Ferdinand arrived at Elland Road, financial difficulties forced the club to start selling their most valuable assets, and there were none more valuable than Ferdinand. 

For the second time, Ferdinand would break the British transfer record and the world record for a defender, this time moving to hated rivals Manchester United for around £30m. It was a move that was so badly received by the Leeds fans, police warned Ferdinand not to return to Leeds until the animosity had died down.

Ferdinand had to rise above that, however. He’d taken his game to new levels at Leeds under David O’Leary, had enjoyed an excellent World Cup with England and was ready for the next step. Or so he thought.

Ferdinand recounts a story of an early training session with his new club where played what he thought was a good pass to Gary Neville, only to be barked at by Roy Keane that he wasn’t ‘at West Ham or Leeds now’, urging Ferdinand to be more aggressive with the ball.

Ferdinand was one of the first players who’d help transition the club to a new era at Old Trafford with the treble-winning team of 1999 mostly gone; the likes of Jaap Stam and Ronny Johnsen were out, as were Peter Schmeichel, Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke. It was a period of transition that saw United win just one league title in five years – as lean as times had been under Ferguson in the Premier League era.

Ferdinand was part of the 2002/03 title-winning side, but the following season would jeopardise Ferdinand’s career. Absent-mindedly missing a drugs test – that Ferdinand would later pass and even offer a hair follicle test – would rock not just Manchester United, but England. Team-mate Gary Neville even attempted to co-ordinate a strike from the national team in defence of Ferdinand, who’d miss Euro 2004 through suspension.

But Ferdinand’s resilience saw him return to the PFA Team of the Year alongside England colleague John Terry following his eight-month suspension, though the United side was still in transition and not in a position to challenge for major silverware.

A potent partnership

Half of arguably Manchester United’s greatest ever back-four would arrive in January 2006 in the shape of Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic and Ferdinand would strike up a partnership with Vidic that would help United to three straight titles and a Champions League win. 

United’s Class of ’92 were now the experienced members of the squad, while the likes of Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo were approaching their primes. 

A surprising fact about Ferdinand is that he took ballet classes in his youth, and the comparison between a ballet dancer and Ferdinand’s on-field grace is hard to ignore. Far from the blood-and-thunder nature of his defensive partner Vidic, Ferdinand was more poise and composure.

A compilation of Vidic’s career highlights will featuring towering headers, hair-raising slide tackles and last-ditch interventions. 

Ferdinand’s compilation, however, would be much less rousing. Ferdinand wasn’t one for last-ditch tackles; indeed, he came from the Paolo Maldini school of ‘if I have to make a tackle I’ve already made a mistake’. Between 2009 and 2011, Ferdinand went 39 games without receiving a yellow card.

Ferdinand had tremendous reading of the game to be able to nip in ahead of onrushing attackers as well as the pace to get him out of trouble. 

If there was a criticism to level at Ferdinand, it’s that he could be too casual on the ball at times, but even that came from a desire to elude a calmness that he would hope spread to his team-mates. The truth is Ferdinand found the game easy and he made it look easy.

Alongside Vidic, Ferguson had a partnership that could rival – and even exceed – that of Bruce and Pallister. In United’s three title-winning years of 2007, 2008 and 2009, Ferdinand and Vidic would occupy the two centre-back spots in the PFA Team of the Year, while making two Champions League finals. United failed to reach the final in 2007, the year in which Ferdinand missed both legs of the semi-final with Milan.

It was a three-year stretch that will rival any in English football, past, present and future. Edwin van der Sar receives the credit for keeping 14 clean sheets in a row, but it goes without saying he couldn’t have done it without his supporting cast. Though Ferdinand missed part of the run, he was there for eight consecutive clean sheets as United won a third straight title. 

The Red Devils’ failure to make it four in a row could be attributed to the losses of Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, but the absence of Ferdinand, who started just 12 games that season and never strung together more than three in a row was just as important.

Injuries would blight the latter years of Ferdinand’s career, though United would win two more titles in the next three years, with Ferdinand returning to the PFA Team of the Year for a sixth and final time.

Ferdinand stayed for one deeply ill-fated season under David Moyes after Ferguson’s retirement, bring an end to 13 consecutive seasons of finishing in the Premier League’s top five, before a move back to London with QPR.

By 2014, Ferdinand’s best days were long behind him, suffering with a persistent back injury and increasingly frequent muscle injuries, only playing a bit-part role as QPR were relegated at the end of the season.

On May 2015, Ferdinand officially hung up his boots, bringing the end to a career that saw him become one of the Premier League’s greatest defenders.

Style of play:

To be a centre back at a top club in the modern game, you need to be good with your feet, but Ferdinand was well ahead of his time. A supremely elegant footballer who could’ve been mistaken for a more exotic European defender, Ferdinand had the pace to keep up with all but the paciest of strikers, but also showed a brilliant reading of the game from a defensive point of view throughout his career.

Despite his defensive talents, it’s perhaps his ball-playing he’s best remembered for. While it was by no means a pre-requisite in Ferdinand’s day, he was able to cut out opposition attacks before building them for his side thanks to his positioning, anticipation, touch and passing ability. 

Life after football:

Ferdinand briefly attempted to launch a professional boxing career but was denied a licence and has since been a regular TV pundit for TNT Sports, as well as launching his own YouTube channel, magazine and podcast.

Did you know?

Rio Ferdinand’s footballing bloodline not only includes brother Anton and cousin Les, but son Lorenz, who is a goalkeeper at Brighton’s U18s team. 

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