Thirty million quid is a lump today. That is the sum Sir Alex Ferguson paid Leeds United for his services a decade ago. Football folk thought he was mad. As usual, Fergie knew best.
The phrase ‘footballing centre-half’ gained currency because in the British football culture it was the exception to the rule. When long balls were de rigueur in our game, players with strong backs and long necks were traditionally handed the no.5 shirt.
If the ball was on the deck for any length of time, the requirement was to lump it long as quickly as possible. Bobby Moore, Alan Hansen, Mark Lawrenson, Paul Madeley Paul McGrath were honourable exceptions, Jack Charlton, Larry Lloyd, Ian Ure, Jim Holton, Dave Watson, Steve Bould, examples of the norm.
Thanks to the influence of foreign players since the advent of the Premier League and the shift in attitudes this has brought, it is not so easy to distinguish between styles in central defensive pairings in the modern era. The hard nut, John Terry, has acquired a refined skill set and the libero, Ferdinand, a tougher exterior.
As a pair they represented the high watermark of English defending. Ferdinand was, of course, part of a rich crop at West Ham United that included Frank Lampard, Joe Cole and Michael Carrick. He was a central figure in what became known as the golden generation of English footballers, a group thought capable of bringing the World Cup back to the mother country.
One by one they slipped off the international stage, Paul Scholes, Michael Owen, David Beckham, John Terry and now Ferdinand. Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Ashley Cole remain, but with no real hope of realising with England the promise of youth.
Ferdinand must be considered the best English centre back since Moore, the best at Manchester United since McGrath. In his prime before the back injury flared he was quick, athletic, two-footed and solid in the air. He is no slouch now.
Like McGrath he would have been comfortable further up the pitch and could perhaps have been encouraged more by Ferguson to attack from deep. He did this to devastating effect against Reading last month to set up Rooney’s goal. And he showed pure technique with the volleyed dispatch last weekend to seal the victory in Ferguson’s last home game.
It was a fitting moment, a refined piece of skill emblematic of the qualities Ferguson sought when rebuilding his treble-winning side in the early 2000s. Ferdinand netted one Holy Grail in Moscow in 2008. In Germany two years earlier and South Africa two years later his hopes were just as high for England but under foreign management that was supposed to improve our chances on the highest stage he never came close to replicating his Champions League success with United.
I am not a fan of the international retiree, even one with 81 caps. It is the coach who decides the availability of a player, but in Ferdinand’s case we permit an exception. Having been initially retired for ‘football reasons’ on the tube by Roy Hodgson, it is only right that the last word was his.