As the Leeds team bus rumbled through the grim, urban landscape of north London on its passage to Highbury on Tuesday night Rio Ferdinand could not resist indulging in some heavy sarcasm. "I told the boys 'hmm... smell that fresh air. You don't get much of that up in Yorkshire'." The response, he recalled, was predictable. "They all started coughing," he said, smiling broadly at the memory.
The Leeds captain was returning for the first time this season to "The Smoke". It is not an experience that he yearns for, neither does he harbour any regrets that he abandoned it for more verdant pastures. While he will never forget the mean, frequently violent, streets of his upbringing and birthplace, Peckham in south London, that moulded him as a character, he has swiftly found contentment amid his new adoptive footballing family in Yorkshire.
"When I first left West Ham I thought I'd be back in London every week to see my family and mates," he said when we met on Thursday at the club's Thorp Arch training centre. "But I really enjoy it up here; they're a wicked set of lads at the club. I'm comfortable with my home life. There are no distractions." Only golf, his new-found pastime, it must be added. He played a couple of rounds with another rookie, Alan Smith, at the England training camp at La Manga and was hooked.
The more cynical might submit that today's millionaire footballers should be comfortable in any habitat for the duration of their lucrative careers. But the reality is that Ferdinand would not have been the first young professional to discover that his game had deteriorated because of an alien culture and resultant homesickness.
In the England defender's case, the opposite has been the case since he flew the Upton Park nest. "I think everything about me has changed since I have been here," declared the 22-year-old who made a seamless transition from EastEnders to Emmerdale territory. "My lifestyle and the way I play football. These days, if I play badly in training my day is more or less f*****," he explained. "I sit there at home and say to myself 'What were you doing?'.
"In London, I used to finish training and my first thought was 'Right, what am I going to do now?' All I would think about was meeting up with my mates. Here, I have got time to concentrate on my football. Not that I dwell on it all the time. That would be silly. You don't want to make yourself morbid."
He added: "My concentration levels have definitely improved. Playing for a club who put so much pressure on you and have so much ambition it matches your own, that spurs you on. I think the more pressure on me the better I play. That's why it's been good for me to come to Leeds. To be honest, the West Ham defence was a comfort zone. I thought, 'no problem, I'm going to play every week', whereas here, if you have a bad game or two, you're going to be looking over your shoulder."
The same applies when England teams are selected – indeed more so – although his move 200 miles up the M1 could not have coincided more propitiously with England's appointment of Sven Goran Eriksson, a man who clearly appreciates the grace and cerebral qualities of Ferdinand's game, which have encouraged many to enthuse that he is endowed with the latent majesty of another Bobby Moore. Yet one can only offer conjecture on what might have occured if Kevin Keegan had not done the decent thing a year ago.
"When Kevin came along I obviously wasn't in his plans. That's fair enough. Everyone has got their own opinions. At the time, maybe I wasn't pulling my weight in the West Ham team, either. So, looking back maybe it was partly my own fault," Ferdinand admitted. "My mistakes were highlighted at West Ham, although I didn't agree with the criticism at the time. Maybe I was in denial. There were a lot of other distractions going on and it was true that I simply wasn't concentrating on my football. Harry [Redknapp] was always honest with me and told me that – and rightly so."
He added: "Here, the boss [David O'Leary] and the coaches don't let you sit back and rest on what you've got. They are constantly pushing us to win things. The club have spent a lot of money on players, including myself. We have to repay the fans, and the board who have had faith in us."
During international duty, Eriksson has been a revelation to him. "As a foreign manager, I was expecting him to come in with all these new ideas. But in fact they are what you grew up with. It's 4-4-2 and keep the ball, and work hard when you haven't. There's more to it than that, of course, but those are the basics. I was quite surprised. The only way he's different from coaches I've played under before is that he doesn't say much. But he's got an aura about him. He sees football as a simple game, and expects you do the simple things well."
Ferdinand witnessed England's defeat by Germany at Wembley from the substitutes' bench. "It left a sour taste in all our mouths, especially as the manager resigned immediately afterwards as well. It was a really bad day. The boys want to make up for that and go to Germany and beat them. We're not going there to draw or lose. If necessary, the performance goes out the window as long as we get the points in the bag."
The first England-Germany meeting he can recall was the 1990 World Cup meeting. "Waddle and Pearcey missing penalties. I remember them," he grimaces. "There's a spice about our rivalry. Even for players my age who were born long after the '66 World Cup, there's still something about these games. But we'll go out there without any fear of anyone."
Those words come as no surprise from the character who many forecast erroneously, could be handicapped by being branded "the world's costliest defender". Whether it's the tradition of German footballing might or the weight of £18m on his shoulders, his attitude is the same. "That's just the way I've been brought up. We don't dwell on the past," he declared. "The day I signed for Leeds, my brother said, 'Hey, £18m! Mad isn't it?' That was the last day my family have ever mentioned the price tag. The club paid the money. It wasn't my decision. My mum was right when she said 'just go out and enjoy it'."
Ferdinand readily acknowledges that life has treated him well. "When I was young I remember going up to Bond Street with my mates," he said. "I remember thinking I'd love to be able to go in there and walk out past the security guards with loads of bags – those security guards who looked at you as if to say, 'What are looking at our shop for? You haven't got any money. You can't come in'. In fact, I save most of my money. But you put the hard work in and you reap the rewards. You're entitled to spend them on who, or whatever, you want, and enjoy it. You can rest when you're dead."
Before that moment arrives, you suspect that this footballer with a genuine social conscience will have endeared himself to the nation with more than his sporting prowess. Already, he is involved with The Prince's Trust and the Damilola Taylor Trust. "When I was growing up, I always wanted to ask people questions, people like Mike Tyson, things like: 'How did you get to where you are?'. That's why today I like answering kids' questions. Even something simple, like 'What's your favourite colour?' If you can brighten up a kid's day, that's good. Eventually I want to be able to do something involved with young kids. Help them to realise their potential."
The way his career is progressing, there could be no more effective teacher.Reuse content