Rio Ferdinand retirement: An England career that failed to deliver on its promise

The Manchester United defender was arguably the leading light of the 'golden generation'

It is almost two years since Rio Ferdinand last kicked a football for England, but there is still a sense of regret over the announcement today of his retirement from the international game.

Inevitably the questioning as to why a generation that included Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard achieved so little for their country will restart.

With Ferdinand the explanation lies in his particular circumstances and there is a genuine sense that the game here missed something during his career. His figures over 17 years are impressive: 81 caps, three goals and 10 World Cup finals appearances. During that time he cleaned up at club football with Manchester United: six Premier League titles, two League Cups and success in the Champions League in 2008. This is the context from which to assess any disappointment. Ferdinand, at 34, has won most of what the game could offer him. He also made the PFA team of the year this season, the first time has done so in four years.

Yet for English football there will be a sense of what Ferdinand was supposed to do — to pioneer the age of the imposing central defender who could also play. He had been an attacking midfielder in his youth, encouraged to move into the centre of defence by his towering frame.

At West Ham and Leeds he would carry the ball from the heart of his own defenders. It looked sophisticated, he had vision, it seemed a natural gift to carry into international football where he looked a natural. But it never quite worked out that way. It is said that Sir Alex Ferguson wanted the player to concentrate on his defensive duties and maybe England suffered as a result.

“After a great deal of thought, I have decided the time is right to retire from international football,” he said on Wednesday morning.

“I feel it is right for me to stand aside and let the younger players come through, which allows me to concentrate on my club career. The team looks in great shape and there is an influx of young, talented players coming through the ranks, which bodes well for the future.”

Even in that there is a question mark. Chris Smalling and Phil Jagielka have still to offer authority at international level. Phil Jones has made 16 Premier League appearance this season. Joleon Lescott has not been guaranteed a  game for Manchester City. Tottenham tried to sell Michael Dawson last summer and the main interest came from Queens Park Rangers, who start next season in the Championship. Then there is Ryan Shawcross (uncompromising), Gary Cahill (still developing) and of course, John Terry.

Ferdinand was overlooked by Roy Hodgson last summer for the European Championship. The England manager talked about the defender with members of the public on the tube. His absence from Euro 2012 avoided a possible conflict with Terry, as the Chelsea captain awaited trial over allegations he had racially abused Anton Ferdinand. Terry was cleared of the charge in court but later found guilty by the FA.

It has been a messy two years since that last appearance in June 2011 against Switzerland. He was recalled for England’s World Cup qualifying games with San Marino and Montenegro in March but pulled out because of concerns over a long-standing back injury. Instead he travelled to Qatar to appear on television, discussing the games he missed.

It seems a long time since Ferdinand became the youngest defender to play for England when he made his international debut against Cameroon in 1997. He was 19. There were three World Cups (98, 2002 and 2006).

“I regard it as a great honour and a privilege to have represented my country at every level from under-17s upwards,” Ferdinand added. “I have always been very proud to play for England. I would like to wish Roy and the team all the best for future tournaments. A big thank you to all the fans, managers, coaching staff and players that I have worked alongside – the journey has been incredible.”

Just never quite as spectacular as purists had hoped.

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