The mind is more than willing, even if the body isn't. When Alan Hansen suggested a few weeks ago that Rio Ferdinand should consider relinquishing his England place to focus on resuming a Manchester United career beset by injuries, the defender was rather less than happy.
Sir Alex Ferguson's relationship with Hansen has not always been the cosiest, though the United manager's disclosure yesterday that Ferdinand may have kicked his last football of the season reveals that a former centre-half's perception of a present one is correct: Ferdinand's international aspirations belong in his past. While his unheralded succession as England captain in February last year was the ultimate recognition of the way Ferdinand had grown into one of the most thoughtful and intelligent United players, it demonstrated Fabio Capello's lack of appreciation that the central defender was deep in the throes of a run of injury problems that show no sign of receding.
There is a grim irony, now, about the fact that Ferdinand remarked before the 2009-10 season on his own good fortune in evading injury, despite the physical toll of so many battles that he had endured for nearly 15 years. His debut as a 17-year-old for West Ham in May 1996 almost puts him in a distant generation: he first appeared as a substitute for Tony Cottee.
It is in the past 18 months that the effort has taken its toll, first with the beginnings of the back pain which was to prove so debilitating. At first, Ferdinand thought the solution to that resided in extra gymnasium time, which he knew meant he had to be at Carrington earlier than any other United player for the rest of his career. Ferguson was evasive about the back complaint at first, then crotchety. He kept insisting the problem was resolved, though Ferdinand eventually sought a treatment whose very practitioners acknowledge is perceived as a last resort – sclerosant therapy, which involves injecting a solution into the ligaments to stiffen and strengthen tissues.
It sounded like a desperately precarious process, when he finally talked about it. Since it can result in the ligaments becoming set in the wrong position, Ferdinand had to train during the course of injections. "You have to do your training to make sure that your spine heals the right way," the player explained last summer.
There are grounds to believe it worked. Ferguson insisted yesterday that Ferdinand's back was "no longer the problem", despite Capello's suggestion earlier in the week that it was. But as one problem was solved, others have followed. It wasn't Emile Heskey's fault that he went in hard on Ferdinand during one of the first training sessions in England's World Cup acclimatisation in South Africa, but the recipient of the tackle was the one who could least afford another period of absence.
Ferdinand's knee was shot, he returned to England and watched Nemanja Vidic appointed club captain instead of him. His absence dragged into this season, with the sight of Ferdinand spending most of a two-hour flight to Valencia in September on his feet before emerging clutching what seemed to a booster cushion contributing to the sense that his back was not all that robust.
"A few games more and he'll be ready, a few games more..." Ferguson kept telling us – before Ferdinand finally returned and United remembered what they had been missing. His performances in the home games against Arsenal in the league and Liverpool in the FA Cup were excellent, and football was marvelling at his acclimatisation until that most innocuous moment in the warm-up at Wolverhampton on 5 February when he tweaked his calf and withdrew, never seen since. The public persona remains cheerful enough, with Ferdinand an assiduous tweeter willing to opine on everything from his children's choice of music on the school run to conflict resolution in northern Africa. But you imagine the private frustrations must have been a torment. On Saturday morning, as Ferdinand prepared for his first tentative training session in six weeks, he discovered through the newspapers that Capello was preparing to make John Terry England captain again. And Capello was surprised that Ferdinand did not show up to meet him in the directors' box at Old Trafford on Tuesday?
When United headed out on that Valencia trip Ferdinand had played no part in 61 out of United's last 103 games in all competitions dating back to December 2008 and he has been a part-timer since, participating in 18 out of 36 fixtures. Ferguson refused to involve himself in the England captaincy issue yesterday. "That's a different department for me, to be honest with you," he said. His decision not to fight his player's corner, as he tends to do on such occasions, may have had much to do with the observation that was about to follow. "My concern is getting Rio back for some part of the season," he concluded. "Hopefully we can do that."
2008/09 14 of 38 league games (plus six of 11 internationals)
2009/10 25 of 38 league games (plus eight of 13 internationals)
2010/11 14 of 29 league games (plus four of six internationals)
Total 53 from 105 league games
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