So the dreaded day has finally arrived. No matter how long we saw it coming, Rio Ferdinand’s exit from Manchester United has hit home hard. The elegant defender who formed the foundation upon which the club embarked on its most successful era retires after 12 years of service to Man United. And boy will we miss him.
The day Rio arrived at United in that hideous white suit is a day I remember quite vividly. We were signing one of the world’s best defenders for big money and I was embarking on a personal milestone having accessed the internet for the very first time to confirm his arrival. I took to him instantly. His effortless stride and graceful defending in a role known for its aggression made it look cool to be a defender. He could defend alright but he was equally comfortable with the ball at his feet. Like every kid, I wanted to be an attacker but watching Rio strut his stuff with such class made me switch to a defender. ‘I could play ball at the back too,’ I thought. My people from Highie can attest to this.
What made Rio stand out among the world’s best defenders was his incredible ability to read the game, anticipate the opponents next move and move in quickly to avert the danger. There was no last ditch tackles, no mud or grass marks on his shorts, no fouls, cards, nothing. Rio would simply position himself perfectly to neutralize the opposition with an interception or shepherd the opponent away from goal without the need to resort to a tackle. A simple interception that didn’t come with the thunderous applause a tackle would generate but more effective. Preventive rather than curative. Pre-emptive, not reactive. His style meant that he rarely conceded a foul, let alone a caution. Amazingly, he once went 4515 minutes – close to 2 years of football – without getting a yellow card and averaged a foul once every 811 minutes played or one foul every nine games! That was Rio for you, earning the nickname ‘the interceptacon’ for his defensive style. He truly was a transformer.
But as you would have it, fans tend to appreciate the physicality and perceived commitment that comes with crunching tackles. To that effect, Rio’s defensive partner Vidic was the more popular defender with the fans. And supremely talented as he was, Rio could also be quite a dick at times with his off-pitch antics. His missed drug test, holding the club at ransom when negotiating a new contract shortly after the 8 month ban when the club stood by him and his goofy character on social media somewhat watered down his on-pitch excellence.
But all this did little to tarnish Rio’s image in my eyes. He has undoubtedly been United’s most important player during the last decade. He led from the back whether he had the armband or not and was one of the several leaders you need in a team if it is to be successful. Having Vidic by his side and Van de Saar behind him further fortified United’s impregnable defence. Lesser opponents were easily vanquished while greater enemies would more often than not suffer defeat when they attempted to lay siege on fortress United. I’ll forever remember his display during the Champions League semifinal win over Barcelona in 2008 on our way to Moscow. That he rivaled CR7 as the club’s player of the year when Ronaldo won the World Player of the Year in 2008 tells you all you need to know about how good he was at his peak.
As he aged, Rio lost some of his pace but this had little effect on his performances as he compensated for it with excellent positioning and anticipation. A few speedy players gave him difficult games but this was the exception rather than the norm. He overcame back problems and premature obituaries to have one of his best seasons in 2012-13. In hindsight, he should have gone out on a high with Fergie and not have the annus horribilis at the sunset of his career. But as someone mentioned, he had one last in getting the hapless Moyes out of our club.
As another illustrious United chapter comes to an end – and they’ve been quite a number lately – I’m left reminiscing on the great times and appreciating arguably the best defender in United’s history. The best I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching for certain. While he didn’t achieve the cult status that his performances merited, may be the fans will appreciate him more now that he’s gone. So here’s a toast to the 5 star King, supreme, won’t see your type in a while it seems. Adios amigo.
Transitions abound at United and this is also a perfect opportunity to salute our warrior-leader Nemanja Vidic, the indefatigable, frank and United-obsessed Patrice Evra as well as the veteran playmaker Juan Sebastian Veron. I could write a whole other piece on Vidic but I’ll limit it to appreciating his bravery, winning us games single-handedly through sheer bullying of opponents and generally ‘putting his head where other wouldn’t put their feet’ to ensure United comes out on top. The legendary back four with Rio, GNev, Evra and VDS behind them propped the team brilliantly thanks in no small part to the efforts of the Serbian beast. He came from Serbia, he fuckin murdered y’all.
Evra was imperious from 2007-11 and I doubt you’ll get a player who will come from outside and get United the way Patrice does. His speeches could form part of the orientation for academy kids on what it means to play for Manchester United. If he does follow the veterans out of the club, we’ll be losing out on a great deal of experience at once which doesn’t bode well for continuity and institutional memory. So long Patrice.
Veron was a pre-cursor to Shinji Kagawa in being a sensational playmaker we bought with no clear idea on how to make use of. Much as it didn’t work out as planned, he had some outstanding games particularly in Europe and the excitement of witnessing one of the first big name signings long stayed with me. I’ll forever remember his assist for this crazy Van Nistelrooy goal. To the three and all others who might be leaving the club this summer, thanks for the memories. It was one crazy ride. United.