RIO Ferdinand has been a truly wonderful servant for Manchester United. It’s now time to press ahead with finding his replacement.
They say there’s no room for sentimentalism in football. I totally disagree, but while we pen the epilogue to Ferdinand’s glorious 12 years as a Manchester United footballer, the need for a top class centre half to arrive at Old Trafford this summer is so pressing, that nostalgia does have to play the supporting role.
With Nemanja Vidic having already agreed to sign for Inter Milan earlier in the season, and with Patrice Evra looking likely to leave Old Trafford too this summer, it really is the end of an era.
The partnership between Ferdinand and Vidic has been immense over the years for United and one of the best the Premier League has ever seen – there can be no doubt about that.
Factor in Frenchman Evra, and the trio has been a huge part of the success the modern day United has enjoyed.
Reflecting on the current United, who have been so poor generally all over the pitch this season, and particularly in defence, it’s perhaps difficult to immediately recall just how good Rio and our defence has been generally over the course of his time here.
Vidic has never been the same uncompromising, no nonsense, ice in his veins rock that made Premier League strikers wake in the middle of the night sweating from a horrific nightmare since his knee injury against Basle in December 2011. That ruled him out for the rest of the season and even when he did return in 2012/13 he was restricted to 23 games and looked a shadow of his former self.
Evra is still a marauding full back capable of hurting opposition defences either with a driving forward run or providing a surprising goal threat from corners. Crucially, though, the job that he’s made a career of – defending – might as well have been made a redundant position in the last three years. Brought on, seemingly, by a drastic loss of pace and stamina, it’s been sad to witness his fall from the top.
Rio’s had his problems with injuries too, most notably a persistent back problem that has dogged him throughout his 30s. His decline, however, has not been quite as alarming, and is perhaps, simply, the signs of a veteran player’s body clock finally beginning to count down on its career.
It must not be forgotten either that in our 20th title winning campaign in 2012/13, Rio was one of our best players, enjoying one of his best seasons in years, despite the vultures circling the previous summer when he was left out of England’s Euro 2012 squad.
Notably, Ferdinand was in the PFA team of the year and scored the winner against Swansea in Sir Alex Ferguson’s final ever home game – five years since his last goal.
United this summer are being linked with the £30m signing of Luke Shaw, which many are questioning. Rio cost exactly that 12 years ago, deemed a lot more back then, yet I don’t think there’s a football fan alive that would say that was not money well spent.
It might be daunting for some United fans to contemplate the departure of all three this summer (obviously we still don’t know what will happen with Evra yet), but I see it as an opportunity. An opportunity, finally, for the likes of Jonny Evans, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling to step up to the plate and prove themselves and claim a centre back berth for themselves.
Yes, that has been said in summers previous too, but the trio has always had the ageing yet legendary figures of Vidic and Ferdinand blocking their path. They’ve never had a clean shot at making a starting berth in the United team their own. Over the summer and in the initial months of next season is when we’ll finally see if they’re United quality or not.
Despite three very capable, if not yet fully fledged, options waiting in the wings, United simply have to dip into the transfer market for a top class centre back this season, because neither of the three players mentioned can yet be trusted to be the cornerstones of the next, great defensive generation.
United’s defence was woeful this season and our confidence has been rocked. Therefore, we need a rock of a defender to come in and stabilise the team, and I’m delighted that we’re being linked with classy Borussia Dortmund central defender Mats Hummels.
Of course, there’s a huge difference between being linked with and signing a player, but the stylish Hummels would be my first choice. He’s young (25) but is already an established German international (28 caps).
He’s been the bedrock of a Dortmund defence that in the last six years (he joined on loan from Bayern Munich in January 2008, before signing permanently in February 2009) has won the Bundesliga twice, as well as the DFB Pokal (equivalent of the FA Cup), the DFL Supercup (played between the league winners and DFB Pokal winners), and the 2009 European U21s Championship with Germany, while he also played in the 2013 Champions League final.
He would be an almost identikit replacement for Ferdinand. Physical and imposing, but adept and confident on the ball, able to bring it out of defence. He even takes penalties!
Despite not having a manager at the moment – although it is the worst kept secret in football that Louis van Gaal will be the next United boss – the club is already making moves in the transfer market, and targeting a defender too, with exciting Southampton left back Luke Shaw being lined up.
£30m for a full back seems a bit of a punt, but as already mentioned Rio cost £30m and that was way back in 2002.
Transfer fees are only going to get bigger, which seems lunacy considering the global financial meltdown, and Shaw’s nationality is only going to see the price soar further, but he’s as close to a sure thing as you can get at 18-years-of-age. He could be United’s left back for the next 12 years.
Now for the second act.
So while we’ve identified the need for United to bring in defensive signings this summer and we also need Evans, Smalling, Jones and the previously unmentioned Rafael to take their careers up a notch next season, we can allow ourselves a sunlit stroll down memory lane to reflect on Rio’s career with the Reds.
Apart from all the trophies we won with him at the base of a glittering period of success, the thing that sticks out for me with the triumvirate of Rio, Vidic and Evra is how much they understand the club; its traditions, mentality and beliefs.
While all three have been leaders and examples on the pitch, they’ve also talked good games off it too. Despite Evra and Vidic being from the continent, while east Londoner Rio grew up as far away from being a Mancunian as possible, they knew what it took and what it meant to be a United player. They bought into the core values of the club, and that, for Reds’ fans, is as vital, if not more important than how good a player you are.
Rio’s United CV is pretty impressive. He made 455 appearances for United – putting him at 17th on the all-time list. In his 12 years, he won six Premier League titles, the 2008 Champions League, two league cups and one FIFA Club World Cup, as well as representing England a total of 81 times.
Former team-mate Nicky Butt once described Rio as ‘a Rolls Royce of a player who could easily glide past people with pace and skill’ – and that is the perfect way to describe Rio. He made playing at the back look sexy, with his confidence and swagger, yet he didn’t shirk the hard work or the physical side of it too.
Former United assistant manager Mike Phelan said of Ferdinand: “Rio’s got to be among the top ten defenders of all time, certainly at United and probably in Europe. When you look at the span of his career, from the early improvements he made at West Ham to his time at Manchester United, he’s always progressed, always managed to deliver his potential.”
Harry Redknapp, who gave Ferdinand his debut at West Ham, added: “I knew he was going to be a special player from the moment he put the shirt on at West Ham. I said he was going to be the best defender in Europe and I was right. He has just been a fantastic player and has enjoyed the career that I thought he would have. He’s been top, top class. The best defender I’ve managed.”
Another former United assistant boss, Steve McClaren said of Ferdinand: “I think the key to Rio is his composure and play on the ball. He was a centre back who could come out with the ball and, many years ago, that wasn’t a big thing in English football but it is now essential in the modern game. He has played for Manchester United for eleven years, and he could have played for Barcelona or Real Madrid. I think that’s as big a compliment as I could pay him.”
In the aftermath of Rio’s announcement following the final game of the season, I read that Rio had been told by Ed Woodward in a corridor outside the away dressing room at St Mary’s that his United career was over.
That has shocked fans and key United personnel, given the service Ferdinand has given. Perhaps he deserved better, for all he did for and achieved with United. However, it just goes to show that while there is plenty of room for sentiment in football, after their worst season in 40 years, United don’t have time for it.
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