Anton Ferdinand does not get nervous. Well, only sometimes. "It was the first time I was on the bench," Ferdinand says of the Saturday afternoon, three years ago, that he was named among the substitutes when West Ham United played Manchester United. It was also the last occasion, before tomorrow, that the two clubs met in the Premiership.
Ferdinand's voice, usually quiet and studious, begins to quicken. A smile spreads. "And it was Old Trafford," he says. "It's a day I'll never forget. I walked out on to the pitch. It was the first time I had ever been up there. I walked out of the tunnel and saw this big stand in front of me. Whoa! This is Manchester United. The Theatre of Dreams. I just thought, 'What's going on here?'"
Ferdinand becomes even more animated, his eyes alive with a mix of excitement and fun. "I was looking at my programme and Sebastian Schemmel, who used to play for us, came up to me and said, 'You're on the bench'," Ferdinand recalls. "I just said, 'Shut up, you're lying to me'."
The French defender, always known as a fairly unique character, went further. "He said, 'And if we are winning, and winning 2-0, 3-0 and there's 10 minutes to go, then I'm going to say I'm injured so you can come on'," Ferdinand adds, almost incredulous at his own anecdote.
"That's what he said. Seriously. I just replied, 'You're talking rubbish'. But I went into the changing-room and saw my name pinned up on the board as a sub. It was the best feeling I'd ever had. I felt like a school kid. I went outside, into the corridor, with a big smile on my face, and Rio was there. I just said, 'I'm on the bench bruv, I'm on the bench'. I didn't get to come on, but I would have loved to."
Rio did not play either that day. He was injured. But both Ferdinands will take the field at Upton Park tomorrow. It will be the first time they have ever faced each other in a competitive match.
They will not be alone. Thirty-five family members will be in attendance - "and it's increasing," says Anton, thinking of the tickets he still needs somehow to acquire. "A few of the family, the younger kids [including his six-year-old brother Jeremiah] are going to be wearing shirts that are split down the middle," Ferdinand explains. "One West Ham, one Man Utd with 5 Ferdinand on the back." Anton says it will be a day of "mixed emotions" also.
Before the game he and his older brother, seven years his senior, will simply wish each other "good luck". During the 90 minutes they will be "professionals" with "a job to do", but afterwards shirts will be swapped. "Definitely," says Anton. "What a piece of history for me." He laughs that he'd "love to" be detailed to mark Rio at set-pieces - although, following his last-minute headed goal at Tottenham Hotspur last Sunday, earning a point, he may be regarded as the bigger threat. "He's a dominant figure," says the West Ham manager Alan Pardew of the 20-year-old, "our most assertive player".
He has come a long way in just over 12 months has Anton Ferdinand. When I talked to him in August last year he spoke of the need to convince Pardew of his worth as a central defender, establish himself as a first-team regular - and concentrate more. "I've got time on my side," he said then. "But I want to get there as quickly as I can." He has done that. But there was caution also, the knowledge that he needed to "gain confidence". Ferdinand nods his head when reminded of that, too. "But I always said that if I got the chance to play, and have a run in the team then it would happen for me," he says.
Ferdinand has also caught up with his body. Just over a year before that visit to Old Trafford, it looked like, aged 16, he was going to give up football. Ferdinand suffered from Osgood Slatters Disease, a common enough, if painful, knee complaint with young men - and one which they simply have to grow out of. He also had a "bad spell" in which, basically, "my muscles were not big enough for my bones", suffering problems with his joints and hamstrings. Rio had been similarly affected.
"I was all over the place," Ferdinand explains. "And I wasn't really enjoying my football because I wasn't doing so well." He did not think West Ham, where he had been since he was eight, were going to keep him on and told his father, Julian, that he wanted to pursue a career in music. Along with an interest in horse-riding, it is a passion which makes Ferdinand one of the more rounded of footballers.
"I wanted to take up the singing seriously," says the defender who has, by all accounts, a genuinely talented voice and who still spends afternoons with his friends writing lyrics, improvising, playing around with their R&B. Ferdinand talked to his father. "He said, 'Have a go at football first. You can't do football after singing but you can do singing after football'," Ferdinand recalls. "That just made sense."
As does much of what Julian and Janice, Anton and Rio's mother, did for the boys as they grew up in Peckham, south-east London. "Growing up in Peckham isn't easy," Ferdinand says. "But they were probably the best days of my life."
He returns to the area "regularly" - as does Rio, who led the appeal to catch the killers of Damilola Taylor - and recently promoted a new tourist map of Peckham. "It's a positive thing," Ferdinand says. "I like to do that, especially with young kids. I like them to know that I come from the same background as them and if I can do it then so can they."
His friends, he says proudly, reeling off a list of names, "Carl Beckford, Raphael, Benjy", have all done well. Ground rules - and curfews - were set by parents who also made sure their children had outside interests. For Rio it was dance - he toyed with the idea of going into ballet - and for Anton it was horses . One of his most vivid recollections is being taken to the Southborough Lane Stables, in Beckenham, for his ninth birthday to ride for the first time. Now he is a Premiership footballer, and could own his own stables, an ambition he might eventually fulfil, he is not allowed to ride. The club's insurance prevents him.
In those days growing up in Peckham, if school work was not done the Ferdinand boys were "not allowed to go and play football". That was non-negotiable. It was also instilled into Anton that, although Rio had succeeded, it did not mean he would also.
"I'm not Rio," Ferdinand says. "It wasn't a guarantee that I was going to make it so my football was always second to school. And then when I finished with school, football was the main thing."
Sometimes the boys got away with kicking a ball about inside their flat on the Friary Estate. "Rio made me the goalie all the time and used to blast the ball at me," Ferdinand says. Did anything get broken? "I can't remember," he says. "It was that long ago."
The memories of playing on the patch of grass outside Gisburne House, an area they christened Wembley, are more vivid, as are Anton's afternoons spent eating Turkish food and watching videos of Diego Maradona and Roberto Baggio with his friend, Osman, who lived below. The Ferdinands then progressed to the Leyton Square Adventure Playground, in nearby Peckham Park Road where they were spotted by the same scout, Dave Goodwin. Soon Anton was at West Ham's school of excellence in Beckenham, along with Kieran Richardson, now of Manchester United. Like Richardson, Anton started as a midfielder - ironically, where many believe Rio's future lies - but is adamant his "true" position is where he now plays. The heart of defence.
"My dad took me everywhere I needed to go for my football and when he couldn't do it, my mum did," Ferdinand says. His parents eventually split up but, he adds, both remain "equal parts of my life, equally strong" and will be there today.
What his mum, Janice, who owns a nursery, says, "goes" while Julian, a tailor by trade, also made clothes for his boys. Although not a football fan, he was gradually converted to the sport. He is also a blunt observer. "He's my best critic," Ferdinand says. "Maybe when you are younger and the coaches say to you, 'Oh, you've done all right, you've done well', then it's my dad who tells me how it is," Ferdinand says. "I'm used to that criticism."
Criticism is something his older sibling has endured this season, stemming from his contract negotiations at United and running through to his much-scrutinised form. The family have dealt with it. "Obviously, it's not nice to read things in the papers but we are a tight family and things like that don't get to us," Ferdinand says. "If you see how Rio is playing now, he's back playing well."
The criticism, he felt, got out of hand. "I thought it was unfair because everyone's human and everyone will go through a bad patch in their career," Ferdinand says. "But what people like to do is highlight the bad parts and when they do that they don't like to bring in the fact that he was the best player in the World Cup in 2002. That's the thing I don't understand. If he was to go and score a wonder goal, then he'd be praised like nothing else. I don't understand that." He pauses, then adds: "I heard a saying today: When you are at the top and created such a high standard for yourself then the more consequences you have to face."
His brother has, he believes, been able to turn those consequences, which culminated in the "shock" of being dropped by England, into a positive. "Anyone who knows Rio knows that the more criticism he gets the better he becomes," Ferdinand says. "That's what he says. People just keep criticising him because in the end he'll be the one coming out of it laughing. He's set the standard - a very high standard and that's the way it is."
There is also an illuminating insight into what drives the brothers, who have playful little bets with each other over who will score the most goals - or get their hair cut first. But, above all they would love, one day, to line up together, especially for their country. "It's always been a dream of not just mine but of him and of my mum and dad," Ferdinand, who has 10 caps for the Under-21s, says. "If we were to play together for England that would be the dream come true for him [my dad]. That's when he'd be able to sit down and relax properly and think, 'Yeah, they've done it'. Even after that he'd still push me, because that's just the way he is inclined."
And the way his boys are inclined, too, even if it is an incredibly high standard to aspire to. Sessions with West Ham's sports scientists, in the ProZone Room, analysing his game , and on the training ground being cajoled and encouraged by Pardew and assistant Peter Grant - "he keeps preaching to me: stay alert" - have all helped Ferdinand's rapid development.
As has working, and playing, with Teddy Sheringham. "When we train against each other he will say sometimes, 'You should have done this or that'," Ferdinand says of the 39-year-old striker. "It's good. He will tell me whether I should have gone tight to him or not. There's no one better to learn from." There is also a debt that Ferdinand will "never, ever" forget to the former West Ham manager, Glenn Roeder. "He gave me the chance," he says emphatically.
Ferdinand has noticed a difference, a step-up from last season in the Championship. "It's more of a thinking game," he says of the Premiership. "The movement of players is much better and you have to know what's going on around you. Teams allow you to play football, it's not a fighting game." His most difficult opponent so far? "Steven Gerrard. The passes that he sees are unbelievable," Ferdinand replies. "And Andy Cole and Darius Vassell. They are very good as a pair, a good partnership, and they gave me the hardest game I've had."
Ferdinand is just 11 months into establishing himself in the first team, breaking through with Elliott Ward. The two young men were born less than a month apart in 1985, came through the youth teams together, signed a trainee contract on the same day in July 2001 - and both have older brothers who are footballers (Elliott's is Darren Ward of Crystal Palace). Ward has lost his place of late, following the signing of Danny Gabbidon, but Ferdinand's Premiership career is burgeoning. It should not be forgotten, however, that it is just 11 matches old.
But he is already being touted as the favourite for the PFA young player of the year. Other clubs are taking notice but, Pardew maintains, the ethos has changed at West Ham. Ferdinand - along with the cadre of exciting young talent emerging again from the self-styled Academy of Football, such as Nigel Reo-Coker and Mark Noble - is not for sale. Not in the way that Rio was allowed to go to Leeds United for £18m when Anton had just signed those YTS forms.
Ferdinand, who maintains that he and his team-mates are feeding off the "doubters" who surrounded them at the start of the season, likes it that way. "It shows the club is ambitious and I'm a very ambitious person," he says. "If those two things are together then it bodes well." Don't forget, he adds, "that I grew up at this club. That drives me, too."
Sibling rivalry How the brothers compare
* RIO FERDINAND Rio, 27, made his West Ham debut on 5 May 1996, aged 17 years and six months. By the age of 20 years and nine months old (Anton's age now) Rio had made 97 appearances for the Hammers, scoring two goals. Rio made his England Under-21 debut aged 18 years and five months, and went on to make five appearances for the Under-21s. Rio made his full international debut at 19 and had made nine appearances for the England team by the time he had reached Anton's current age.
* ANTON FERDINAND Anton, 20, who is six years and three months younger than Rio, made his West Ham debut against Preston North End on 9 August 2003, aged 18 years and five months. To date he has made 74 appearances and scored two goals. He made his England Under-21 debut aged 19 years and six months, and has made eight appearances. He has no full England caps.Reuse content