One of the greatest ever English central defenders, Rio Ferdinand is largely remembered as the bedrock of Sir Alex Ferguson’s last great Manchester United side. Indeed, alongside Nemanja Vidic, the Peckham-born defender won it all with the Red Devils and will go down as one of the best to ever play in the Premier League.
However, it was with United’s great rivals where he proved he was ready for life at Old Trafford. Having come through the ranks with West Ham United, Leeds’ decision to break the bank for a teenage Rio back in 2000 gave him the chance to prove himself on the world stage.
Ferdinand, who claimed that joining the Whites at the start of the millennium was his best decision, was considered a risky talent at West Ham. Clearly a supremely talented player, it wasn’t quite obvious as to where he was better off playing, in either central defence or holding midfield.
That conundrum was largely due to some of the mistakes he made when on the ball. As we’ve seen with John Stones, the English press and football in general can lack patience with a ball-playing defender – even less so 18 years ago – and Ferdinand was seen as a risk.
Indeed, his horrific debut away at Leicester City in 2000 when part of a back three with Jonathan Woodgate and Lucas Radebe must have had everyone thinking: why risk it?
However, the world’s most expensive defender at the time would certainly come good.
Ferdinand embraced the one-club city culture of Leeds United and helped develop his game as a defensive lynchpin. The dwelling on the ball or the image of him being overpowered at set-pieces soon stopped and a truly Rolls Royce defender would emerge at Elland Road.
His temperament would soon improve and he’d use his class to effect when marking opposition out of games, rather than risk his talent on the ball. Indeed, he’d help Leeds on their mythical run to the Champions League semi-finals in 2001, scoring a thumping header against Deportivo on the way, and proving the club were right to break a world record to sign him.
Over the course of that decade, the Yorkshire giants made an awful lot of stupid financial decisions, though it’s hard to argue that paying even an unprecedented amount for Ferdinand was one of them.
Manchester United might have got the best of him, but it was with Leeds where the Rolls Royce got into gear.