Rio Ferdinand & the smooth symphony of his Manchester United years


Since Rio Ferdinand announced his retirement last week, the expected flurry of sporting obituaries hasn’t really materialised. There have been tweets and acknowledgements - and well-wishes at what is obviously also a harrowing time for Ferdinand personally - but he hasn’t been embraced in the way that might have been expected.

His departure came at a time of slightly distorted context because, to an extent, Steven Gerrard’s departure from English football has been the victory parade to outdo all others. Gerrard was so loved and so cherished on Merseyside that his farewell, protracted as it was, became an all-encompassing national event.

While Gerrard has figuratively been carried out on his shield, Ferdinand has been offered little more than a swift, respectful handshake.

And maybe that’s appropriate.

Forgetting that the most successful era within his own career took place within a city to which he had no natural attachment, Rio Ferdinand wasn’t the sort of player to inspire strong emotions. That’s a compliment, too. Lung-busting midfielders and glory-hoarding forwards will always resonate with the masses, but cultured centre-halves are more of an acquired taste. They’re spoken of in a different way, in quieter terms, and are remembered more with reverence than they are bubbling enthusiasm.

That in itself cuts right to the position’s nature and it provides an important commentary on the qualities needed in a great defender. While we, as supporters, applaud and cheer sliding tackles and heroic blocks, those - ironically - are symptoms of something short of greatness. The truly elite defenders are, and have always been, those who see the game quicker than the other players around them and who are, by virtue of that foresight, not reliant on anything particularly dramatic.

That was Ferdinand and, at his prime, he had a truly imperial quality. Blessed with heightened technical ability, he always exuded a certain elegance on the ball, but it was his comprehension of what was required without it that afforded him his regal glint. Over time, physical wilting left his body lagging behind his mind, but at his very best his output was staggeringly smooth. Think back to those seasons between 2002 and 2010 and remember how infrequently he was found out of position and how rarely he was forced, through desperation, to leave his feet. He glided around the pitch, always in the right place, always where he needed to be.

How do you celebrate that? How, when something is so consistently above average for such a long time, do you bottle and preserve it?

When an attacking player retires, his eulogy is pre-written. His memory is preserved by all the memorable high-points that he’s naturally intertwined with and his legacy is secured by dozens of highlight videos and heroic poses. For a defender, it’s different. Unlike a Steven Gerrard, a Paul Scholes, or a Ryan Giggs, Rio Ferdinand’s career was not the cumulative product a series of individual moments. It’s been smoother than that. With the exception of the first and last few, his 710 professional club performances look, in retrospect, like one long, continuous ninety minutes. The seasons rolled on and the team changed around him, but Ferdinand remained locked in the same high gear for almost a decade.

He’s been the bass player in the world-conquering band. He’s provided the steady, anchoring rhythm while the guitars have screamed, the drums have thundered and the voices have wailed. Led Zeppelin’s fans hung posters of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant rather than John Paul Jones, and that’s because, as with Rio Ferdinand, there’s no flourish or flair to unwavering quality and no proper handle with which to grasp it.

It’s just been less obvious, but no less great.

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