THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

For a £30million footballer, Rio Ferdinand is going to need to start showing class off the pitch, writes Ashley Shaw, as well as on it

Any footballer who associates himself with Jody Morris is looking for trouble. The turning point in PFA player of the year John Terry’s career was probably the night he opted to stay in when Morris and his pals were urging him to join their latest bender. England centre-half Rio Ferdinand, by contrast, seems to court publicity and, following successive tabloid stings involving Peter Kenyon and a fight with a photographer on a night out with Morris, it seems he doesn’t learn. Ferdinand has the millionaire lifestyle – the car, the clothes and presumably the women – but he lacks the vital component required to take the next step to football greatness: common sense. Morris, who has a conviction for assault and was sacked by Leeds for being drunk at training, is the personification of the current football disease – so why would a player of Rio’s standing think that a night on the tiles with him in celebrity central was a great idea?

The only conclusion to be drawn is that, unlike his England team-mate, Rio Ferdinand ignores good advice. He seems happy to allow sycophants such as Morris and Peter Kenyon to take advantage of his egomania and get what they want from him. He comes across as arrogant and dumb – his explanation concerning the missed drugs test still beggars belief while his subsequent disregard for both his employers and his boss when offered a significantly improved contract, having paid him his wages in full during the ban, inevitably invited the scorn of United supporters at Charlton.

Yet ultimately fans are disappointed because Rio shows no sign of being the inspirational leader Alex Ferguson thought he had signed from Leeds for a mammoth £30 million three years ago. Rio presumes greatness without sweating for it, the line between elegance and arrogance has been crossed and what he really needs is a rollicking from Roy Keane and Ferguson rather than the offer of a better deal. Then again, why Ferguson sees fit to stand by a player with such a suspect temperament when he got rid of Jaap Stam for far lesser offences is a question only the Scotsman can answer. After all, with Jaap at the back, the club won the treble; with Rio, they’ve gone backwards, thanks in the main to self-inflicted wounds.

Tabloid orthodoxy has it that Rio’s in­­f­­luence at United has been immense. His supporters in the press point to the number of goals conceded (34) during the 36 games he missed while serving his drugs-test-related ban and the few they’ve conceded (23) in the games he’s appeared in since his October comeback.

Sure enough, in his first appearance this term, against Liverpool, he reassured a defence that had conceded eight goals in eight games, including howlers against Bolton and Lyon. But you could also make the case that United player of the year Gabriel Heinze, who made his debut the week before, has been just as influential. To most supporters, Heinze’s determined approach shows up Rio’s “easy come, easy go” style for the luxury it is. And with Gary Neville somewhat surprisingly nominated for the PFA gong and Wes Brown and John O’Shea still developing, it’s possible to see that life after Rio need not be as pitiful as certain analysts make out.

Not that Rio’s latest shenanigans will have increased his transfer value, especially now that Chelsea have explicitly ruled out a transfer this summer. Perhaps his reputation as a hell-raiser has gone before him – after all, why would José risk reintroducing such an influence now that Terry has sorted himself out?

So if Chelsea don’t want him and Fergie sticks to his guns (when really he should be looking at a wage cut for all the aggravation), Rio will be forced to sign his new contract. Unfortunately, it also means that the club is stuck with the TVR-driving multi-millionaire and no extra cash for the players we really need. Keeping Rio would be a mixed blessing: sure he looks the part and still possesses great potential, but the money (and subsequent replacements) would be handier.

If Rio is to achieve the greatness he assumes is already his, then he not only needs to sign the lucrative contract on offer but take a leaf out of Terry’s book and listen to his peers rather than people intent on using him for their own ends. For if United are to meet the challenge of Chelsea, Arsenal and Europe in the coming seasons, they need to rediscover the club loyalty and teamwork that formed the blueprint of the club’s 1990s dominance. They can no longer afford the luxury of the uncommitted.

From WSC 220 June 2005. What was happening this month

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