When asked how Rio Ferdinand was coping with his ban, Sir Alex Ferguson retorted: "When you take a Saturday afternoon from a footballer, you take away his life". Perhaps in the age of Sky television the Manchester United manager should have added Sundays and Monday evenings but, for eight months after his conviction for failing to attend a drugs test, Ferdinand's life was played out in a vacuum.
"Saturdays were empty; the lads were having pre-match games, getting prepared, and you're just doing things around your house," Ferdinand reflected. "I went to Old Trafford for most home games and some of the away ones as well. It was good to travel with the lads, be in tune with the team and that goes a long way to getting over it. But every day in training, when the team was doing functional stuff and you weren't involved, it hit home."
In many ways Ferdinand was fortunate in the club he played for. United are very skilled at keeping unwanted media attention away from their players and Ferguson had been through this script before during Eric Cantona's nine-month suspension for assaulting a Crystal Palace fan in 1995.
"Alex Ferguson was brilliant with me in terms of keeping my spirits up and keeping me involved in training. He spoke up for me publicly, he came to the hearing itself - for a manager to do that goes a long way. The boss definitely says the Cantona thing helped. I also spoke to Roy Keane, the Nevilles and Ryan Giggs and they told me not so much what he used to do but the way it was and the atmosphere around the club during his ban."
Like Cantona, Ferdinand returned against Liverpool, but unlike the Frenchman his international career was not dead when his suspension expired. When he runs out at Old Trafford to face Wales tomorrow it will be his first competitive international since April 2003 when Turkey were beaten 2-0 at Sunderland.
His partnership with Sol Campbell has not been unduly missed; these days England have high-class centre-halves like they used to have goalkeepers. However, as they proved in Japan during the World Cup, Ferdinand and Campbell are an instinctive combination.
"Sometimes you are paired with someone and you don't need to work on it, it just clicks," Ferdinand said. "You know where they're going to run; it's like the partnership Teddy Sheringham had with Alan Shearer."
The European Championship was spent in Miami, where he watched England's matches from a bar. "Cheering the team on, getting involved in all the songs. It was nice to be a fan again." After the ban came into force in January, the temptation was to slip away on holiday, although the day after his final match of the season at Wolverhampton, he trained. Training was something that sustained him through the empty frustrations that were to follow and contributed to the smoothness of Ferdinand's comeback against Liverpool. "I was surprised how quickly I found my touch. To come in and be as comfortable as I have done is quite surprising.
"The letters I've had from Manchester United fans across the country have all wished me well and there have been thousands. The little comments the United fans made helped and the way they reacted to me on that Monday night against Liverpool was touching."
Ferdinand claims he does not often think about the circumstances of the missed test: "I don't feel upset until I start talking about it. It's not in my mind when I'm with family or friends, it doesn't come up in conversation, but when I do talk about it, it becomes a bit of a needle," he said. "I wouldn't say it was remorse I feel, but I've never said it was anyone else's fault but my own. From the day it happened I held my hand up and said: 'I'm at fault'. I knew I was going to be punished in one shape or form. I have changed in terms of how I look at my game because watching from the stands you can see the bigger picture."
Ferguson is famously clever at psychology and it may be no coincidence that eight days after his return, Ferdinand was asked to captain United in the Champions' League against Fenerbahce, a gesture lost amid Wayne Rooney's astonishing debut. Afterwards, Ferguson talked of him as a long-term replacement for Keane as captain, something Ferdinand will believe when it happens. "To walk out as skipper so early in my comeback was brilliant. To have captained the club even once is a great achievement."
And as for captaining England? "Oh no, mate, Becks ain't going to be finished for a long time."Reuse content