Rio Ferdinand isn't in the habit of forgetting. This week has, football aside, been consumed with thoughts of one of his closest friends, whose 18-year-old brother has become the latest teenage victim of London gun crime.
It is one of those passing tragedies which has attracted minimal publicity because of the popular assumption that a teenager who dies in that way must also have lived that way. But Ferdinand knew the real Rio McFarlane, a sports science student who, much like himself, had tried to make his way in Peckham, and the defender did what he could yesterday to tell the real, unprejudiced story. "I knew Rio when he was a little kid, when he had his hair in plaits and he would come into his brother's room and cut our hair," Ferdinand said. "You don't know what to say when you hear news like this. There are so many different words to explain how you feel. You're puzzled. Is it really Rio? You don't expect it."
The Metropolitan Police's search for the assailant goes on. For Ferdinand, it is the quest for old footballing securities, about his own fitness to perform, which assumes priority again. The 31-year-old evidently finds it as hard to forget bad performances as to forget old friends and though a comfortable 90 minutes against Rangers at Old Trafford on Tuesday night renders a first League appearance of the season possible tomorrow, the visitors have been his nemesis over the past two years.
Ferdinand was around 35 per cent fit and trying both to shake off and hide a debilitating back injury when he played at Anfield on a cold October afternoon last year. The way Fernando Torres destroyed him – Ferdinand virtually bounced off the flying Spaniard as he hurtled down the inside-right channel and arrowed a shot past Edwin van der Sar into the roof of the net – is a memory too unpleasant for him to entertain any conversation about, even one which is softened by the questioner's acknowledgement that he wasn't fit that day. "I've been over this 100 times," Ferdinand says, frostily. "Hopefully, as I've said, I will have a sustained period of being injury free. I will be going into the game with no apprehension. But I've been over this 20 times or so. I'm sure it will be in the archives."
He hasn't and it isn't, though the full story of that afternoon does provide an insight into the fear a player feels when he finds injury constraining him for the first time in his career. So severe was Ferdinand's back pain at that time that he would "waddle into the club like a duck, bent over like an old hunchback," he has since said. He was unable to train for four or five days a week, missing 60-70 per cent of training, and the game was up in more ways than one that day at Anfield. Sir Alex Ferguson later called him into his office and said words to the effect of: "What's going on? Last season, Torres would not have scored that goal against you."
Ferdinand would not play again for three months after Anfield, his period of absence taking him on a journey into the unknown and an unusual medical remedy, not widely used on elite sportsmen, known as sclerosant therapy, which involved a six-week course of injections into the ligaments of his spine. He could not even train during the treatment in case the ligaments, which the injections seek to stiffen and strengthen, became set in the wrong position. The medic who treated him, Dr Simon Petrides of the Milton Keynes Blackberry clinic, has professed his greatest satisfaction to be "treating patients who perceive us as the last resort." Ferdinand certainly doesn't seem to have many more places left to take his ailments.
For now, he has to believe he is through that difficult period. "Hopefully," he says. "That's why I've been working so hard in the gym and on the training ground, to make sure that when I did come back this time it would not be for one or two games but for a sustained period." The enforced absence created since the pre-World Cup tackle on him in South Africa by Emile Heskey on 4 June, which severely damaged Ferdinand's knee, might actually have given the back additional rehabilitation time. "The habit of a footballer is to always go out and play regardless of little niggles and I probably didn't realise how serious the injury was, so it might have been a blessing in disguise," Ferdinand says.
Even so, Ferguson remains to be entirely convinced that his defender is back for good. He has now clarified that Nemanja Vidic, rather than Ferdinand, will be taking over from Gary Neville as team captain, having left that issue confused in midweek, and as of 10am yesterday was unsure whether Ferdinand had recovered from the rigours of 90 minutes against Rangers. "He acquitted himself well and he had a good appetite for it. He was very positive in his game, which is good, but we'll see how he recovers because it was his first game for quite a while."
Ferdinand will certainly need to have recovered, since last October at Anfield is not his only recent crushing encounter with Torres and Co. The Old Trafford League match seven months early was the occasion when Ferdinand and Vidic misjudged a ball which fell out of an azure blue sky, allowing the Spaniard to race through and score in Liverpool's 4-1 win.
Ferdinand is just as prickly about that Liverpool match. "You never look back," he says of it. "If you did, you would not be a top player. You look forward and just think about the game you are playing that day. It's pointless thinking 'I should have done this or that'. It's in the past." Jamie Redknapp's searing critique of Torres after his display at Birmingham City six days ago receives equally short shrift from a player who is perhaps feeling some empathy with that adversary. "People jump on the bandwagon," Ferdinand says. "Players get injuries. I heard the pundits the other night hammering him. He has been injured for a long period of time and is just on his way back. You can't expect him to be the same straight away. Two months ago everyone was saying what a world-class player he is and one of the best strikers in the world, so to become a bad player overnight just doesn't happen."
Ferdinand literally has the smell of the turf in his lungs again after midweek – "it felt good just to get a piece of the action and smell the atmosphere again," he says – and his manager believes his presence has already been felt. "There has not been a lot wrong between the partnership of Vidic and Jonny Evans, but it's good to have Rio back – and if I choose him on Sunday it is because he is an outstanding player," was the manager's verdict.
The uncertainties still persist. "I don't know how long it will take to get back to my peak," Ferdinand concludes. "I have never been out and doing nothing for this length of time. From what I gather it is normally up to six games before players see the best of themselves. Fingers crossed I can do it in two. And fingers crossed I will be in the team for Liverpool." But it was for the memory of Rio McFarlane – whose death puts footballing fears into their proper perspective – that he reserves his last public comments heading into this momentous Premier League weekend. "We need witnesses to come forward now," he says. "Fear is an element because of it being Peckham, but people should not be scared because this crime is not gang-related. Everybody who knows Rio knows he was a respectful young guy."
His Other Life: Ferdinand on Twitter
Rio Ferdinand can make a good claim on the title of football's most prolific and pre-eminent tweeter. From his thoughts on Wayne Rooney to his favourite bands, he also addressed the serious subject of the death of a close friend's brother. Below is a selection of his tweets from this week alone.
On the big fight: RT @jim_mills: @rioferdy5 Hi Rio, Harrison or Haye?... Haye by KO!!
Following a Twitter war with Robbie Savage: RT @MrRHutchinson: @rioferdy5 who would win in a cage fight between you and @RobbieSavage8?... I don't hit women bro!
On United's Champions League draw: U either respect wot rangers came 2do 2night which was not to concede or as some av said its not football... I respect their professionalism.
Two tweets on conversations with his son
Where does the rain come from? my lil man replied knowingly "its gods wee wee daddy...it iiiis"!... Haha kids minds crack me up!
So what is gods poo dad?... Stop asking silly questions +stop this colouring in at school and read your books then you will know! I'm stumped!
Wry reply to a music query: RT @ab_fabregas: @rioferdy5 what are your favourite bands?... I prefer Elastic bands!
On knife crime: why are kids carrying guns n knives like key rings nowadays?? It seems to be normal procedure... why tweeps?
On parking rage: Traffic wardens..I've been close 2going NUTS on them after getting a ticket when I've been 1min late2 my car!