Ferdinand's fight to end England frustration fuelled by thought of 'smirking' Ferguson

Defender aims to upset United manager by helping team fulfil potential and reach Euro 2008, writes Jason Burt
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The Independent Online

Ten years of "frustration" sounds more like a supporter's lament about following England for the last decade but that's also how Rio Ferdinand sums up his England career and his 60 caps so far.

The 28-year-old is a curious mix – a frustration in itself – at once regarded as the epitome of national underachievement, apparently not making the most of his talent, while at the same time being among the country's frankest footballers.

"I've been frustrated ever since I've been in the England squad," he says ahead of tomorrow's European Championship qualifier against Israel, "because I don't think we've fulfilled our potential and brought our club form together as a unit."

It may not have been the most elegant of statements but the sentiment was clear. So, unfortunately, is the sense that Ferdinand, like his team-mates, simply doesn't have an answer to explain why, so often, they have fallen short. And so he recalls the night in July last year when England exited the World Cup and the players returned to their base, the Buhlerhohe Hotel in Germany's Black Forest.

They sat around, in groups, until the small hours. "It was a sense of numbness really, 'how are we out of this World Cup?' We talked about it, you ask yourself questions. A lot of the lads are very honest players and we were asking ourselves: 'Whose fault is it? Is it my fault? What can be done better?' We thought we were going to win the tournament," Ferdinand says.

Now the immediate task is simply to reach next summer's finals and the Manchester United defender speaks of the "devastation" he would feel to miss out. "I can't really envisage us not being there," Ferdinand says. "My mindset is all about qualifying. To even think about not qualifying would be devastating. Even walking into the training ground at United and seeing the manager would kill me, to be honest. I would see all the other players who would be going to the European Championship and it wouldn't be a good place to be, at all."

The prospect of Sir Alex Ferguson's "smirk", as Ferdinand puts it, is one spur to success. So is the fact that he missed out on the last Euros, as they took place while he was serving that eight-month suspension for missing a drugs test. Ferdinand watched the matches on holiday in Florida, surrounded by England fans singing "Wayne Rooney songs".

Maybe that's what has helped give him the fan's perspective although Ferdinand insists there is always a pride in appearing for his country – and dismisses the notion that club football is now more important to the players. "Fans are selfish in that respect, for sure especially if it's going to hinder their club's chances of success," he says. "But playing for England is a special thing. As a kid that first call up or when that first fax arrives to say you are involved, there are not many better feelings in football. For me that feeling is always there because when that call up doesn't come, the disappointment will be huge."

It was in November 1997 that Ferdinand made his debut and he made it into the following summer's World Cup squad. Big tournaments have been good for him and he has often produced accomplished performances. He bridles that the same cannot be said of his other appearances. "I've not let my country down," Ferdinand says.

Still he accepts the validity of some of the criticism. "The attention and pressure is on another level than when you are playing for your club, but that's something you have to deal with. You have to be able to go through the bad times and deal with the good times as well and that's something we need to do better. I have never come into an England squad thinking I'm not going to get criticised or the team is not going to get criticised and I think the more we are aware of that the better we will be. I think that is what the manager is installing in the team now."

Understandably Ferdinand is a defender of the Steve McClaren regime and says that Sven Goran Eriksson's successor is trying to loosen the shackles a little. "He wants to build an exciting team, a successful one first and foremost but an exciting one to watch. But the pressure is on to get results at the moment but with this manager, given time, you will see a team which plays very, very attractive football."

That may be so but it will be completely academic unless England haul themselves through Group E and as much as Ferdinand talks about the "fantastic games, the new Wembley" and so on he knows that England simply have to collect the points against Israel and Russia next week. So is it win or bust? "I think the players feel that way," Ferdinand says. "If we, God forbid, failed to qualify then it would be a catastrophe. A massive disappointment for the country and the fans." And further frustration.