There is an edict from Fabio Capello that says no player will be on the plane to the World Cup finals come May if they are not completely fit. For Rio Ferdinand over the last year, it has been impossible to make any such guarantees about his fitness.
Yesterday Ferdinand claimed that he does not have a long-term problem with his back, which has been the focus of many of his recent injuries and he is not on the way out. He should start against Ukraine this evening, only his third game for England since last October, and, at his best, there is still not another defender in the squad who merits selection ahead of him. Even so, the doubts persist.
Ferdinand will be 31 next month and he has played only 18 out of the last 40 matches for United and England. He had less match time in the record-breaking defensive run that United went on last season – 1,337 minutes without conceding – than Jonny Evans and against the Netherlands in August he gifted Dirk Kuyt the first goal in a 2-2 draw. His ability dictates, however that, a fit Ferdinand will always be picked alongside John Terry.
"I'd be foolish to think that no one would ask me a question about my fitness," Ferdinand said. "For the last 12 months, every now and again, I've had to miss games through injuries. There hadn't been a period before that, so it's going to stand out. Each injury's been different. I haven't had a problem with my back since last season. I pulled my thigh the day before the start of the season. My back's been fine since last season."
There will be no messing about from Capello when he names his 23 players next summer and none of the last-minute gambles that Sven Goran Eriksson made before England went to Germany four years ago, such was his determination to take the injured Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney. Asked again yesterday whether there would be a chance of him taking an injured player to the World Cup, Capello said "absolutely not".
"It's only right for him to do that," Ferdinand said. "We need everyone firing on all cylinders. This manager is very black and white in his opinions. We've been umming and ahhing on too many players in previous tournaments. This manager doesn't work like that. He doesn't take anything for granted. If you're carrying an injury, there's a doubt you'll get on the plane."
There is little doubt that Ferdinand will walk straight back into the team tonight no matter how much Capello seems to rate Matthew Upson who has been picked as his deputy more often than any other central defender. However, the choice of goalkeeper should be interesting. David James is back in the squad after missing the last five matches but his replacement Robert Green is still the favourite to start.
There is also a doubt over Aaron Lennon for tonight's game after he limped out of training at the Dnipro stadium last night. Under Capello's gaze you would not have guessed that the team training had already qualified for the World Cup finals, such was the intensity. After a few minutes Terry had to apologise for going through Shaun Wright-Phillips and then Ferdinand caught Rooney.
"No one's got enough credit in the bank [with Capello]," Ferdinand said. "This manager has said if you're good enough you'll play, whether you've got one cap or 80 caps. When you come out of the team, you don't want the person who replaces you to have an absolute stinker, but you don't want a player to come in and do better than you, either."
When England played last month against Slovenia and Croatia, Ferdinand was still suffering from his groin injury. Instead of taking his family away to the usual five-star resort he opted for a two-day caravan holiday in Prestatyn. Unlike the billboard in the Philip Larkin poem, he did not find it sunny but he said it was at least a change from the usual routine.
"It was something different," he added. "I got married in the summer and went on a really nice holiday, and this was a change. I used to go on caravan holidays but not since I was 17 or 18. We had two days off to do it. I went with my missus, the kids, and her brother and his family. My missus wanted to go more than anyone. She used to go on caravan holidays, before she met me. I wanted to give the kids a reality check."
The pictures that were taken as he drove around the go-kart track with his three-year-old son Lorenz found their way into the newspapers and the holiday itself was not quite the getaway he had hoped.
"After the go-karts all these people wanted to get an autograph," Ferdinand said. "My brother-in-law said, 'No wonder you guys don't come to places like this'. That's the difference for today's sportsmen from days gone by."
Still, it was, as Ferdinand said, "something different, in terms of expense" so the 50 per cent tax rate for high earners must already be having an effect. This could well be his last World Cup finals though and although his fitness is not what it once was Ferdinand would not answer the question about whether he would be entirely honest if he was carrying an injury next May. "I'd be doing everything I can to get on that plane."
Heart of the defence: How England have switched pairings
*Rio Ferdinand and John Terry line up together at the back for England today for only the third time in nine qualification matches under Fabio Capello. Various injuries over the last 13 months have seen Phil Jagielka, Joleon Lescott and Matthew Upson deputise for the first-choice pairing.
*Against Ukraine at Wembley in April, Terry played a key part in helping England maintain their 100 per cent group record. He set up Peter Crouch for the opener before scoring the 84th-minute winner from a Steven Gerrard knock down. Rio Ferdinand played 88 minutes.
*England centre-half pairings
6 Sep 08 Andorra (a) Lescott, Terry
10 Sep 08 Croatia (a) Terry (Upson, 88), Ferdinand
11 Oct 08 Kazakhstan (h) Upson, Ferdinand
15 Oct 08 Belarus (a) Upson, Ferdinand
1 Apr 09 Ukraine (h) Terry, Ferdinand (Jagielka, 88)
6 June 09 Kazakhstan (a) Terry, Upson
10 June 09 Andorra (h) Terry, Lescott
9 Sep 09 Croatia (h) Terry, Upson
6 Terry; 4 Ferdinand, Upson (+1 sub); 2 Joleon Lescott; 0 Phil Jagielka (1 sub)