Once rated as good as Bobby Moore, Ferdinand is now a star on the wane

Manchester United defender has suddenly found himself no longer one of England's chosen ones, writes Sam Wallace

For England the story was much the same: he had missed just one game since returning from his infamous missed drugs-test ban and the comparisons with Bobby Moore, a peerless defender with the ball at his feet, were not unfounded. In training the Peckham-boy, Ferdinand's team-mates said, was as lethal as any of their strikers in front of goal and nothing seemed out of the reach of one of England's greatest talents.

When he joins training with England this morning, however, Ferdinand will have to suffer a severe revision of his once lofty status. The last session before tomorrow's World Cup qualifier against Austria will mean a run-through for the first XI against a team of reserves and - for the first time since Sven Goran Eriksson took control of the England team in January 2001 - Ferdinand will not take possession of the bibs given out to the chosen ones.

A humiliating blow to a man who has always made playing football look so effortless, a serious cause for examining his goals and ambitions just one month before his 27th birthday. Ferdinand is approaching the golden years for a centre-back when the experience and worldliness earned over nine years marking the best strikers in the world means that passes can be smoothly cut out, the runs of forwards anticipated. But if he wants to achieve the status of the great Moore and win a World Cup then Ferdinand will have to get back into the England team first.

He sat on the bench at the 1998 World Cup, a 19-year-old who had already made his full debut but was brought along to France for the experience. It was a move designed by the then England coach Glenn Hoddle to introduce this precocious young talent gradually into greatness, but for many it has simply made Ferdinand a little too over-familiar of that status.

His relationship with United's fans is in ruins. As the despair the club's supporters felt at the takeover by the Glazer family reached the inevitable on 12 May, Ferdinand was still refusing to sign a contract that even that enduring champion of the working mans' rights, Sir Alex Ferguson, was telling him was a generous deal. As the threat of steep ticket price rises hung over the club's supporters Ferdinand still held out for a £100,000-a-eek contract that would make him the club's best-paid player ever.

Although he still disputes that the final deal was anything like that, his obstinacy at such a sensitive stage of United's history, and his involvement with the so-called "super-agent" Pini Zahavi, caused the club's fans to ask serious questions about his judgement. On the bench at Old Trafford tomorrow, Ferdinand will have plenty of time to reflect on whether he has the best people around him offering advice.

After a start to the season in which he has been less than impressive, and a performance on Saturday against Fulham that he will want to forget quickly, Ferdinand must have realised too late that this week's training with England was a crucial time to impress. Eriksson, it turned out, was in a dropping mood, and Ferdinand was the man who ended up feeling the rare ruthlessness of the Swede.

As a player, Ferdinand can make it all look so easy although when his normally acute sense of timing is askew he can appear frivolous and non-committed - a disastrous Champions' League performance away in Stuttgart two years' ago springs to mind. His public image is caught between two extremes: the feckless footballer who has too much, too young and the mixed-race child of Peckham who still does much to help those from his south London roots.

His failure to remember he was supposed to take a drugs test at United's Carrington training ground on 23 September, 2003, is one of the most infamous stories in English football and led to an eight-month ban that put Ferdinand and his club at odds with the Football Association. Those whose anger rises when they recall that the player was shopping when he should have been producing a urine sample should also bear in mind that Ferdinand is one of the few owners of a limited-edition Bentley Continental who is also in possession of a social conscience.

Ferdinand was at school with Stephen Lawrence, the teenager murdered in a racist attack in Eltham, in 1993 and grew up near where 10-year-old Damilola Taylor was killed more than six years later. He has worked with the Damilola Taylor Trust and has helped local organisations on his regular visits back to the borough. In 2003 Southwark Council unveiled a blue plaque in honour of Ferdinand's contribution to the community. He has been involved in causes including child literacy and anti-racism campaigns and last summer his record label, White Chalk, held a Pop Idol-style talent show in Manchester with the aim of encouraging musically talented youngsters.

He took his time reaching that level of maturity with four driving bans to his name and a collection of scrapes on nights out which included an involvement in Jody Morris's stag party at a Watford hotel. It goes without saying that United officials would have preferred that Wayne Rooney had picked a different best friend at the club when he joined last summer but the two appear to have some kind of kindred spirit.

So much so that they were both invited on stage when they attended a concert by the American rapper 50 Cent at the MEN Arena in Manchester last month. The rewards of professional football, Ferdinand must have thought as he took his place alongside such a celebrated performer, are rich and varied indeed. Yesterday told him that they are also easily taken away.

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