COMMENT: The veteran defender is leaving the club for a new challenge but the part that he has played in the team’s success since the turn of the century cannot be underestimated
Manchester United and great players go hand in hand. You just have to visit Old Trafford and see the statues and names that adorn the Theatre of Dreams to know that. Particularly in the Sir Alex Ferguson era, the ability to field such fantastic footballers together on a regular basis brought silverware with an uncanny regularity.
One such figure was Rio Ferdinand; arguably the poster boy for the Red Devils’ dominance since the turn of the century. He is by no means the player that he once was but his departure from the club after such a disastrous campaign as this should not detract from the influence that he has had on the red side of Manchester.
Brought to the club in 2002 by Ferguson as – at the time – the most expensive British footballer ever, he went on to appear 455 times in a United shirt; only 16 men have played more games for the club. If that does not secure his status as an Old Trafford legend, then the fact that he was involved in picking up 10 trophies certainly should.
Marked out for his ability to carry the ball out of the defensive line as well as the pace that he showed in recovery, few could argue that the West Ham academy graduate was one of the standout defenders of his generation.
Able to impact the game at either end and with more than just basic dribbling skills at his disposal, there are few centre-backs easier on the eye in recent memory. That is not to say that he shirked his responsibility in a scrap but Ferdinand always stood out for his confidence with the ball at his feet.
His time at the heart of the United defence will always fall under the same bracket as that of Nemanja Vidic. The pair formed a formidable partnership in the mid-to-late 2000s and the fact that they are both leaving the club at the same time just highlights the predicament that Louis van Gaal will face when he finally takes over at the 20-time English champions.
A perfect foil for the Serbian’s uncompromising style, Ferdinand – along with Edwin van der Sar behind them – formed a base from which the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney were able to build at the sharp end of the pitch. It is the attackers who adorn most of the memorabilia in the club shop but they would be the first to appreciate the work that Ferdinand et al did.
The 35-year-old did not have all his own way in his time in Manchester, most notably in 2004 when he was banned for eight months after failing to appear for a routine drugs test. Written off by plenty in the aftermath, he enjoyed some of his best seasons in the years that followed.
Having realised that he had to make up for lost time as well as re-establish himself both for club and country, the way in which he reacted is an example to any young player recovering from any adversity. Careers are not always ruined by acts of stupidity and Ferdinand is testament to that.
The way in which he reinvented himself after Ferguson claimed that he had lost his pace in recent years proved to be a masterclass in how to extend your career at the top. Though his league-winning days may be over, few others would have shown the same longevity when faced with the loss of such a key asset to their game.
His impending departure has been no secret to many, with interim manager Ryan Giggs letting slip that the defeat to Sunderland would be his last game at Old Trafford later that same week. With his children as mascots, Ferdinand was able to go out on his own terms. It may have been a dark campaign in Stretford but at least the class of this fabled club remains to a point.
Ferdinand may not have a statue or a stand or executive suite named after him at Old Trafford as he takes his leave but few could dispute that he is one of Manchester United’s true greats.