Rio Ferdinand has been a Manchester United player for over ten years, but unlike other players who have given the majority of their career to the club, he still splits opinion amongst the fans. We can address all the reasons for and against Rio’s popularity as we go along, but the turning point for most fans came back in 2005.
Ferdinand was on the receiving end of plenty of stick after taking several months to put pen to paper on a contract reportedly worth £100,000 a week. Just a year after his ban, following his missed drugs test, Ferdinand was holding out for a deal worth £120,000 a week. The club had paid him over £2m in wages for the eight months he was forced to sit out, as our title challenge dissolved rapidly in his absence, which frustrated the fans no end.
With contract negotiations still under way, Ferdinand was spotted with his agent and Peter Kenyon in London, with reports of another Chelsea tapping up scandal filling the papers. Both Ferdinand and Chelsea claimed it was a chance meeting, but Sir Alex Ferguson disagreed.
“Some may view the meeting as unfortunate but that’s not my view,” he said. “I want to let my supporters know that we’re not happy with it. It’s an issue for us. I have to say that I believe Rio. Whatever way he was enticed to that meeting, I believe he wants to sign a new contract with us and I believe he wants to stay here.”
In our pre-season friendlies that summer against Clyde and Peterborough Ferdinand was booed. After telling the fans that something dodgy had gone on, Ferguson then had a pop at them for expressing their dissatisfaction with Rio’s behaviour. “I’m not entitely happy with the reaction of the fans,” Fergie said. “Players who go on the field and hear their own fans booing them is not encouraging at all.”
When United played Kashima Antlers further in to the pre-season, Ferdinand stuck two fingers up at the jeering United fans in response to the chants of “Chelsea rent boy”.
His decision to snub our initial contract offer would have likely infuriated our fans regardless, but this period happened to coincide with the Glazer take over. With fans already angry about the direction our club was heading in, more a money making business than ever before, Ferdinand’s decision to ask for even more dosh couldn’t have come at a worse time.
Ferdinand did eventually sign the £100,000 a week contract and his injury time goal against Liverpool a few months later helped in rebuilding his relationship with the fans, but for plenty, the damage had been done.
More often than not, fans give their players the benefit of the doubt, but with Rio, he makes it hard for us not to assume that he’s a prick.
The summer following his contract debacle he introduced the word “merked” to the masses when bringing out a TV show that took the mickey out of England players. Gary Neville was confronted with a scouse copper and Wayne Rooney was left having to break the news to a kid that his dog had died. There were other hilarious stunts set up for his England team mates, with Rio behind the scenes cracking up. “You got merked, bruv!”
The next season he scored another goal against Liverpool, a blinder, but then chose to repeatedly “brap!” at the crowd in celebration, which didn’t do anything for me. Then there was the disastrous Christmas party, with Rio organising girls to be shipped in, with no wives or girlfriends allowed, which saw Jonny Evans accused of rape. This was the last Christmas party our players were allowed to have.
The following year Ferdinand launched his next project, partnering up with Ashley Cole, to make a gangsta movie starring Danny Dyer and 50 Cent. The plot was focussed around drugs, gangs and violence, which was slightly puzzling when you consider that Rio signed up as an anti-gun crime ambassador two years earlier.
Rio began to draw more attention to his off-field ventures, with him setting up his own restaurant in town, an online magazine, a clothing line and a record label. I understand that football is a short career and it’s sensible for players to make plans for the future, but when you are one of the fortunate ones like Rio, earning close to half a million a month, is it really necessary to have so many distractions whilst you’re still playing? No fan wants that from their players, let alone one that held the club to ransom for more money a few years before.
Whilst it’s easy to write Rio off as a prat, he does have some redeeming characteristics, which is why he’s managed to escape universal dislike from our fans. To start with, he’s an exceptional defender who, even despite his lack of pace these days, is still in our first choice XI. It’s easier to forgive a player for being a cock when they’re talented, as Kieran Richardson learnt the hard way. Rio’s crowning moment came when he captained us to European Cup glory in 2008 though, as he put on an outstanding display against Chelsea in Moscow. When a player is significantly contributing to your club winning trophies, it’s easier to turn a blind eye to their flaws.
However, I don’t think it’s as difficult to like Rio as some may make out. Watch him the next time United score an important goal, if you haven’t spotted it several times already, and see just how much it means to him. We can talk about his distractions and how this must demonstrate his lack of passion for the game, but when you see him celebrate a big goal, going absolutely bonkers like one of the fans, it’s obvious how important winning still is to him. More recently against City, before getting pelted with the coin, he was having a fit in front of our fans, and that’s something you couldn’t fake. He’s a winner, course, but he actually seems to appreciate what being a United player means too.
“I couldn’t stand United when I was 21 or 22 because they used to win everything,” he said a few years ago. “A United fan came up to me once and said ‘I bet you’d love to come to United’. I said ‘I’ll never go there’. But I have to admit I was so excited when I arrived. The first thing I remember doing when I got into the changing rooms was feeling the kit, touching the socks and realising this was a Manchester United kit.”
It’s not just on the field where Rio is having an influence but behind the scenes in the dressing room too.
“He has taken on that role of the influential person in the dressing room,” Ferguson said. “He’s great in the dressing room with the players. That’s the advantage you have if you can keep players long enough for the influence to spread. In the modern game, as we know, it’s difficult to keep players for more than five or six years. But the longer they stay here the better the influence spreads to them and they can maybe take over from the older players as they disappear.”
It is likely that Rio will be one of the older players who disappear this summer though, hopefully adding another trophy or two to the five league titles, European Cup and two League Cups he’s won with the club. By the end of the season, he will feature in the top twenty players for number of appearances made, having played more games for us than the likes of Denis Law, Peter Schmeichel and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. We will only offer him a year long extension on a pay cut and that provides little security for an injury prone 34-year-old. You couldn’t begrudge him for signing a big money deal with LA Galaxy to see out the last few years of his career.
Undeniably, Rio has flaws, and these flaws are too much for some reds, but we should all be mindful that you don’t get eleven seasons in United’s first XI if you don’t have something special about you. His name is in our club’s history books and, whilst he’ll never be the most popular player to wear our shirt, he has definitely contributed to one of the most successful periods we’ve ever seen and whatever you think of him personally, he deserves respect for that.
“I want to retire while at United. It would be great to do what Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville and Paul Scholes have done and stick with one club for a long time. Finishing my career at United would be a dream come true and those guys are such inspirations. They are all synonymous with Manchester United and I want to achieve that as well. I would like to be remembered as a player who was at United during a successful period in the club’s history. When I first arrived, I knew this place was special and when the time comes to walk away I want to be able to do so with my head held high.”