Footbal: Refined Rio has vision of future

A product of the West Ham youth system is hoping to sweep into England's World Cup plans; Andrew Longmore assesses the talents of a natural player who is going up in the world
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The Independent Online
"The kid was always going to be a player," said Harry Redknapp, for once nursing questions about a player born closer to Barking than Bucharest. "Never any doubt." The West Ham manager was talking about Frank Lampard Junior, who had just scored a hat-trick against Walsall in the fourth round of the Coca-Cola Cup, not Rio Ferdinand, whose impressive England debut had prompted a flood of extravagant comparisons the previous weekend and a dusting down of the old Duran Duran hit "Rio" at half-time on Wednesday night. Either way, the Academy has begun to enrol once again.

Redknapp has made no secret of his admiration for Rio Ferdinand. Anyone coming within hailing distance of him over the past year has been assailed by the boy's virtues, but not until the cleanly won tackle, the loping break forward and the neat pass which fed Robbie Fowler at Wembley was the extent of the talent truly absorbed. "He's deceptive," Tony Carr, youth manager at West Ham, said. "He's got such a long stride, he can be up to a man in a couple of strides and then a yard past him before he's at full pace."

Carr has just published a book on coaching youth football, which provides photographic evidence of Ferdinand's fine technique. Here is Rio on the right-foot volley, here is Rio with a near-post header... "He could do what I wanted better than most of the others," Carr said. "If you look, lots of the photos are in attacking areas because when he first came to the club Rio played in midfield and up front."

It was as an attacking midfielder that Ferdinand first advertised his claims to the coaching staff at West Ham and to Lampard, one of his team- mates. In the second leg of a Youth Cup final against Chelsea, playing just behind the main striker, Ferdinand scored one, made two and, though only a schoolboy in a fully fledged youth team, announced his coolness by successfully taking one of the penalties in the shoot-out. "That was when I first realised he was top class," Lampard said. "He was brilliant that night." From that moment, the question changed from "can he play?" to "where should he play?"

At the time, West Ham were rooted in the culture of 4-4-2. But the foreign influence was already being felt and, at youth level, Carr wanted to switch to a three-man central defence. How much of Ferdinand's route to the back was down to luck, how much to necessity or judgement is hard to assess. Either way, Carr looked at the gangling youth from Peckham and felt he had just the right athleticism and build for the role of central defender.

"I didn't really enjoy it at first," Rio recalled. "I wanted to be able to get forward more, score goals, take on people, do all the glamorous stuff. I wasn't getting involved enough, but then as I got used to it and began to play better, I thought 'I'm going to be a defender now'. So then I started to work at it more." Less easily anticipated was Ferdinand's tendency to drop off from the two marking defenders and act as a natural sweeper, a move which suited the forward's love of space and the midfielder's instinct to pass and move as well as bearing out Ruud Gullit's belief that successful sweepers in the mould of Beckenbauer or Koeman have to learn their trade in the more congested areas.

"When you're young and you've been playing in midfield and you get put back into defence or you're an attacker who moves back into midfield, you can bring other attributes to the position," Ferdinand said. "You can do more things, maybe have more vision. I think all players who want to be defenders should have a go playing in midfield just to be turned on about what happens there so that when you get the ball under pressure in defence, you're not fazed by it."

The Dutch have been practising that notion for a decade or two now, but the lines of demarcation are only just being broken down in the English game. Ferdinand might have been typecast too early at a less free-thinking club than West Ham. Had Tony Adams, for example, spent more of his early days perfecting his passing rather than his hand signals for the offside trap, he could have been the prototype of the player Ferdinand looks set to become. In fact, with his slightly knock-kneed walk and his languid manner, Ferdinand is a slimmer version of Paul McGrath. He makes the game come to him rather than the other way round, a magnetic skill once honed to near perfection by Bobby Moore.

"I look at the old videos and I'm thinking 'Hey, Mooro, what are you doing up there?'" Martin Peters said. "I'm amazed how far forward he got sometimes. The equalising goal in '66, Mooro was brought down by Overath well forward for the free-kick. I think Rio can do that once he's got the confidence. He's got the quickness of feet, he's just got to learn to pick and choose the moment and the passes. Bobby wasn't the quickest but he was very rarely found out because he read the game better than anyone I ever knew, but that took time. Rio's not the finished article and, at 19, he shouldn't be thrown in the deep end too early. He has pace and he's got time on the ball, especially at home. It's the same at Wembley because most teams don't play. In that sense, he fits the Wembley bill perfectly."

While Glenn Hoddle has limited time to impose a sweeper system on his England side, with so many sides playing three central defenders and Franck Leboeuf refining the defensive role at Chelsea, Ferdinand has arrived in an age of enlightenment. Don Revie once used Ray Wilkins in the role for a Football League side; Ron Greenwood and Bobby Robson both rejected the idea because it was incompatible with the club system, though Bryan Robson is regarded by many as the best potential sweeper England never used. Certainly, Mark Wright's sudden switch to sweeper to counter the Dutch attack in the 1990 World Cup would not be such a tactical shock today.

Now that the youthful indiscretion which consigns him to the passenger seat of a beaten-up old Peugeot diesel has been forgotten, Ferdinand's sights are set not only on today's televised Premiership match at Leeds United but on France next summer. Like Peters and Geoff Hurst, who made their debuts for England only months before collecting a World Cup winner's medal, his timing could be perfect. "It's a possibility," Peters said. "Glenn's flirted with a sweeper system, at Swindon. Rio gives him another option." His versatility is an attractive quality in a prolonged tournament.

"He's still young, remember, and he's still got a lot to learn; the timing of his jumping, of his breaks from the back," Carr said. "Sometimes he plays a shorter ball when a longer would be better. He's still finding out about himself. He wouldn't see it this way, but if he didn't make it to France it wouldn't be a disaster, he'll hopefully be there for the European Championships or the next World Cup. He's on the second rung of the ladder at the moment, but he's got all the ingredients to go to the very top." Never any doubt, as Harry Redknapp would say.

Youth Soccer Coaching by Tony Carr and Stuart Prossor (Ward Lock, pounds 12.99).