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Old 1st June 2015, 10:49   #1
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Default Andy Mitten: Rio Ferdinand became a Manchester United great after early difficulties

Rio Ferdinand became a Manchester United great after early difficulties
By Andy Mitten
ESPN May 31 2015

Nilmar paused to think. The striker who once scored a winner for Brazil vs. England had been asked to name the best player he'd ever played against. "Rio Ferdinand for Manchester," he eventually replied. "I played against him for Lyon. He's fast, and his positioning was perfect."

It was the 2007-08 season when Nilmar came up against Ferdinand, who announced his retirement on Saturday after playing his final season for QPR. The central defender was at his peak as Manchester United won the European Cup and the Premier League, playing 51 times for his club, more than any teammate.

Furthermore, Gary Neville's injury problems that season also saw Ferdinand step up to captain the side; a position that would have seemed implausible after his 2003 ban -- which saw him miss eight months of football after missing a drugs test -- and his reluctance to sign a new contract in the summer of 2005.

Fans were angry, and a group even turned up at his Cheshire home to confront him. Ferdinand spoke to them and admitted that he had been fortunate to receive full pay while banned.

Three years later, though, the redemption of the first name on Sir Alex Ferguson's team sheet was complete. Ferdinand celebrated a key Carlos Tevez equaliser at Blackburn in April 2008 with the vigour of Red icons like Neville or Roy Keane, having pulled on the goalkeeping gloves earlier in the season vs. Portsmouth in the FA Cup.

Most notable, though, was the establishment of his partnership with Nemanja Vidic at the heart of the champions' defence, which offered great stability.

"Rio is superb on the ball, a leader in the team who always talks," said Gerard Pique, whose own game has been influenced by his one-time United teammate. "He is deceptively strong -- I saw that in the gym. One of his skills is that he is quick enough to get close to any striker to stop him turning. Fernando Torres barely touched the ball at Anfield against Rio in the league."

"[Vidic] is more aggressive," Pique continued, "but they share many similar qualities: both are tall, quick, hard players who read the game well and anticipate attacks. They are two of the best centre-backs in the world, and probably the best central defensive partnership."

Thanks to Ferdinand and Vidic, United conceded just 22 league goals in 2007-08, security at the back that provided a base for the attacking flair of Cristiano Ronaldo, Tevez, Wayne Rooney et al.

"Centre-halves have evolved," said Paul Parker, who played for United in the 1990s. "You don't get many stocky 'British bulldog-type' centre-halves in the top level like when I played. Rio is a modern defender: sleek, athletic and powerful."

Ferdinand has admitted the 2008 Champions League win led to him overdoing his celebrations, so much that his father had to put him in the shower before dragging him to make the team flight back to Manchester.

"A couple of fans got in [to the postgame party] and one accused me of not being able to drink so I downed a pint of beer. Then he dared me to go one-for-one with him so I did that until they were both out after five pints. A couple of my best mates were there from when I was a kid, my wife had gone to bed and I remember my dad saying: 'the coach to the airport leaves in half an hour.'"

Not unreasonably, dad expected son to take off his clothes. Son refused. Ferdinand somehow boarded the coach, where he amused teammates by singing Manchester United songs all the way to the airport.

"I couldn't have faced losing to an English team," he said of the game. "And Chelsea at that. It was a beautiful moment."

Ferdinand left United in 2014 having made 455 appearances -- 18th on the club's all-time club list -- since signing from Leeds for £29.1 million, a world record for a defender, 12 years earlier.

"Holding the kit for the first time was a highlight of my career," he said. "On the day I signed I just sat there in the changing room with it. It took me back to being a kid when I was rubbing the kit and smelling it."

During interviews in 2012 and 2013, Ferdinand discussed his future and whether it lay in Manchester -- where he'd settled so well and was co-owner of a restaurant -- or London.

"I really like Manchester and the pride that people have in their city," he replied. "You don't get that in London. Maybe people are proud to be from a certain area -- I'm proud to be from Peckham -- but not the whole city. We'll have to see what happens when I finish. I'd say we'll probably go back south to be nearer the grandparents. They miss seeing their grandkids, but who knows what the future holds?"

Ferdinand knew then that his wife, Rebecca, had cancer, and that was the main reason his family were going to return to London, but they kept the illness as private as they could. He also wanted to keep his options open.

"When I got to 26 or 27 and understood what made me tick to play the best football I could, I just wanted to be in a position when I finished that I had options, whether they were coaching, my restaurant, magazine or the [business] stuff that I do," he explained. "I just wanted to be able to pick and choose, but we'll cross that bridge when I come to it."

Ferdinand announced his retirement less than a month after his wife died. A career in MLS once seemed likely but now, in addition to supporting his three children, he's signed up to do media work. He'll be in demand to work in football, too.

"Gary Neville is management material, as is Rio Ferdinand, but he'd need the right staff around him," his former United coach Rene Meulensteen once said.

Though his personality wasn't always a natural fit with many United fans, Ferdinand became more popular as his career went on and his 2013 testimonial, proceeds from which were donated to Mancunian charities, was well-supported.

However, it's his partnership with Vidic, the best defensive pairing the club has ever seen, for which he'll be most remembered. Together they won the lot.
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. Martin Luther King
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