Ferdinand struggles to live up to hype of £30m price tag

Once hailed among the best players in the world, the Manchester United defender is being found lacking on and off field
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The Independent Football

Maybe it was kiddology, maybe we have forgotten what a fine defender Rio Ferdinand was considered after the World Cup, but when he signed for Manchester United, an exasperated Arsène Wenger remarked that the title might just as well be sent to Old Trafford.

Ferdinand did indeed collect his championship medal, which was won more by the suspension suffered by his England colleague, Sol Campbell, at Arsenal and by Manchester United's irresistible attacking displays than by the most expensive footballer in the history of the English game.

The last seven days have seen his stock plummet on and off the field. On Wednesday night, Ferdinand was at the eye of Sir Alex Ferguson's storm of criticism after Stuttgart, a young, well drilled but, in European terms, novice side, had made him look inadequate for Champions' League football, let alone one of the best defenders in the world - a title he could aspire to after the World Cup.

This morning, he is accused of being, at best, reluctant to take a drugs test when inspectors arrived at Manchester United's training head- quarters at Carrington.

The uncertainty as to whether he had passed - he did - led to the FA delaying the announcement of the squad Sven Goran Eriksson will take to Istanbul and placed further embarrassment on the shoulders of a game which, after the squalid events in room 316 of the Grosvenor House Hotel, is already sagging under the weight of scandal.

Compared to the rape allegations directed towards certain Premiership footballers, or claims levelled at his idol, Diego Maradona, during his playing career, Ferdinand's offence is minor. However, like his hopelessly clumsy lunge at Kevin Kuranyi which presented Stuttgart with a penalty on Wednesday night, the timing is poor. Football is desperately in need of a more puritan image. Like his close friend, Kieron Dyer, Ferdinand is a young, intelligent, talented sportsman with an unerring ability to fall straight into a tabloid front page.

He claimed his move from London to Yorkshire to join the youthful, expensive but ultimately unsustainable side David O'Leary constructed at Elland Road allowed him time away from clubland. Time to reflect on the glittering shallowness of a Premiership footballer's life and time to build up his relationship with his girlfriend, Rebecca Ellison. Nevertheless, he may not ever quite live down the home-made sex video he, Dyer and Frank Lampard filmed in a Cyprus hotel room. The sex with the young woman was consensual but the headlines were cringe-making.

The fact that two clubs, Leeds and Manchester United, paid between them £48m for his services meant the intensity of expectation would be fierce. In an open letter to the player sold shortly after his sacking at Leeds, O'Leary predicted he would not take the months Jaap Stam required to settle in at Old Trafford. In this he was proved wrong. Ferdinand once admitted to periods of complacency on the field in which "I began to think I was invincible". Those times may have returned.

"I am still not convinced by Rio Ferdinand," United's former manager Tommy Docherty declared. "Sure, he is a good player, but as an experienced international, who cost United £30m, I expect better performances from him than the ones he is giving.

"He is not physical or strong enough and needs to learn when to play the ball out of defence and when to kick it into Row Z."

Beginnings have never been easy and sometimes his languid style has been brutally exposed. If his first start for West Ham in January 1997 was embarrassing, finishing as it did in a 1-0 FA Cup defeat by Wrexham, his debut for Leeds made O'Leary's judgement look risible.

At Filbert Street, Ferdinand and Jonathan Woodgate failed to achieve even a modicum of understanding as Leicester scored three times in the opening half-hour. In neither case were these reliable omens.

And yet, he is capable of great sensitivity off the field. In his first year at secondary school in the tough south London borough of Peckham, a fellow pupil, Stephen Lawrence, was stabbed to death by racists. "He had a purpose," Ferdinand recalled. "He wanted to do something with his life and for him to be taken away like that seemed so unreal."

He returns to Peckham frequently, most publicly in the wake of another, hugely emotive taking of a young black life, the killing of Damilola Taylor.

Ferdinand attempted both to rouse the community to name the murderers and to improve the district's miserable image. His mother, Janice, who insisted he did not leave Blackheath Bluecoat School until he had sat his GCSEs, has always been a central focus in Ferdinand's life. She insisted he enjoy studying, his favourite subject was, with some irony, drama, and his favourite role that of Bugsy Malone in a musical which finishes with the song "We could have been anything that we wanted to be".

It is high time Ferdinand chose whether he wants to be remembered as the best defender in Britain or merely the most expensive.