Rio Ferdinand is set to clock up appearance number 400 for Manchester United this weekend, a tally which seemed unlikely not too long ago.
On the back of his impressive showing for England at the 2002 World Cup Finals, Ferdinand followed in the footsteps of the likes of Joe Jordan, Gordon McQueen and, most famously of all, Eric Cantona, when he swapped the white of Leeds United for the red of their archrivals. The fee for this transfer was a whopping £29.1million, and a decade later, such an amount still makes him the most expensive defender in English football history.
During his time at Old Trafford, the 33-year-old has collected a trophy haul which includes five league titles, a UEFA Champions League, an FA Cup, two League Cups and even a FIFA Club World Cup. He has been voted in the Premier League Team of the Year on four occasions, and was named in the FIFA World XI in the 2007-08 campaign.
When Wigan Athletic visit on Saturday, Ferdinand will likely partner Nemanja Vidic in the heart of the United back four, and in doing so, will rack up appearance number 400 for the club. Considering only 23 other players have reached this milestone in the club’s 134-year history, this is some achievement for the former West Ham United youngster. And, to be perfectly honest, it is also a figure not many would have expected him to reach.
Not that he has ever been anything less than perfectly capable of providing the backbone of the Reds rearguard. Over the past decade Ferdinand has arguably been not only the best central defender in the country, but you would struggle to find his equal in Europe and beyond. Because on his day, there are few who can match the England international, who has more than lived up to the reputation he earned as a youngster at Upton Park.
No, it is aspects other than his ability which make his 400 appearances something of a surprise. Who, for example, could have imagined Sir Alex Ferguson would stand by a player who was forced to miss eight months of action after missing a routine drugs test? Or, how many players could flirt with a move to a title rival, as Ferdinand undoubtedly did with Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, and still later go on to captain his existing employers?
At the time Ferdinand had been at loggerheads over a new contract at United, despite the club paying his already-handsome wage during his lengthy suspension. This episode resulted in a number of balaclava-clad fans turning up at his home to demand answers, and for some, his reputation has never recovered from the delays in committing to the club. The same could be said for Wayne Rooney who, two years ago, doubted the club’s ambition before a new contract of a reported £250,000-per-week seemed to change his mind.
There have also been a string of injury problems which have postponed Ferdinand reaching his pending milestone. He appeared to be on borrowed time during the 2009-10 season when a long-standing back problem flared up and restricted him to just 13 league outings (who can forget they roasting Craig Bellamy gave him in the Manchester derby?). Then a knee injury did for his England chances at the World Cup Finals in South Africa that summer.
Yet he bounced back from these setbacks and continues to play a key role for United, last season making 30 appearances in the league when, due to the injury absence of Vidic, his presence and leadership qualities were needed the most. He may have lost a yard or two of pace as age – he turns 34 in November – catches up with him, but whilst his speed was an asset during his absolute prime, his ability to read the game has not waned.
Ferguson knows his number five can’t go on much longer, and has accounted for this by signing Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, whilst the faith shown in Jonny Evans has shown indications of paying off in recent times. The former two are currently sidelined with a knee and metatarsal injuries respectively, whilst the latter is a doubt for the clash against the Latics due to an ankle problem. It’s just as well, then, that Ferdinand is fit, especially with the Champions League getting underway next week against Galatasaray.
When it boils down to it, for all the misdemeanours of his missed drugs test, contract wrangle, flirtation with the opposition and other questionable off-field activity (‘merked’, anyone?), there is no doubting that Ferdinand has not only been a genuine world-class performer for United, but also a great servant to the club.