Football: Smooth running `River' heading for France

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The Independent Online
Rio Ferdinand made an assured England debut on Saturday that brought to mind another West Ham central defender but, as Mike Rowbottom hears, the teenager is not getting carried away with the plaudits

The seventh-youngest player in England history was standing in the Wembley tunnel and explaining something patiently to a group of reporters. "It was my Mum and Dad's idea," he said. "They wanted something different, so they called me Rio. It means `river'."

Rio Ferdinand may only be 19 years and 10 days old, but he is clearly a veteran in terms of explaining his name. Just as well, really, because he is likely to be asked about it by reporters all over the world in the next few years.

Ferdinand's career is flowing sweetly. His performance after coming on as a 39th-minute substitute for the injured Gareth Southgate was utterly composed. Fingers crossed, he is going to be one of those players who can make the transition from club to country without losing their heads or their form. Just what Glenn Hoddle was hoping for.

Ferdinand's assimilation into the team was helped by the fact that he was brought in to train with the squad during the Euro 96 campaign.

But his smooth progress has been disrupted by the drink-driving ban in September which delayed his England debut, and his part in last month's misbehaviour following England Under-21's match in Italy.

"I'm learning from my mistakes,", said Ferdinand. "If people want to keep on talking about them, then there is nothing I can do about it but I'm going to let my football do the talking.

"Glenn Hoddle said that if I did the right things on the football pitch then he wouldn't hold anything against me."

Ferdinand did all the right things on Saturday, and none of the wrong ones. He looked at ease on the ball, venturing forward with real purpose in the second half to create a chance for Robbie Fowler.

And his tackling took the form of carefully measured interventions which put one in mind of another West Ham defender who did a bit of good for England - and earned 108 caps in the process.

"I always wanted to play for England, but I didn't think the opportunity would come this quickly," he said.

Despite his obvious excitement at what had just happened, Ferdinand was trying hard not to get carried away. "It's only one game and I don't want to start jumping around and thinking that I've made it," he said. "There are five more games to go before the finals and first of all I've got to get into those squads.

"I know I've got to produce the goods but I want to stake my claim for the final 22 who will be going to France. That's everybody's dream no matter how young or old you are - that's a realistic target for me."

Hoddle's relative youth means he was the idol of several of the players now in his charge, such as David Beckham. But such is Ferdinand's youth that his own idols are now becoming his team-mates.

"Only an hour before the match I'd been sitting in the dressing-room alongside all the players I had looked up to since I've been a kid," he said.

"I've got videos of some of them and now all of a sudden I was out on the same pitch as the Paul Inces and the Paul Gascoignes. It was fantastic.

"You sometimes think `am I good enough to be there?' but that sort of experience can only give you confidence.

"Cameroon did not attack much but you have got to be really switched on for international football. You get punished for one mistake.When I get home I will watch the video of the game and will criticise and see things I could put right. You have to do that or you would not become a better player."

If Ferdinand can keep on turning theory into practice, his arrival on Saturday could turn out to be of huge significance for his country.

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