Ferdinand key to Ridsdale's ambition

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THE LAST Leeds United defender to be voted Player of the Year by his peers was a footballer for his time. Ruthless, feared and notorious, his tackling was regarded as emblematic of Don Revie's successful but unpopular team. Norman "Bites Your Legs" Hunter.

Three decades later the game has moved on. The brutal tactics of the Revie era have no place in a sport re-positioning itself as family entertainment. Any attempt to revive them is soon emasculated by modern refereeing with television cameras swift to expose any excesses missed by the whistlers.

Leeds, under Peter Ridsdale, their accessible chairman, and David O'Leary, their ambitious young manager, sit high among the wave-riders. While Ridsdale re-builds Leeds' image off the pitch (where their fans continued to besmirch the club's reputation long after Revie departed) O'Leary polishes their standing on it. Success with style is his aim. As he told The Independent in January: "I want the neutral to say 'Leeds are on the box on Sunday, they are worth watching. They are a good young footballing side'."

The purchase, nine months ago, of Rio Ferdinand is central to that philosophy. It also illustrated how much Leeds, and the game, have changed from Hunter's day. It is not just that Ferdinand cost Leeds £18m to acquire (Hunter joined Leeds from school), it is that on the pitch he is the antithesis of Hunter. An interceptor rather than a tackler he breaks hearts rather than bones. He then distributes the ball with the finesse and confidence of a midfield playmaker. He too, is a footballer for his time. And, this season, he has the platform and ability to emulate Hunter and become Player of the Year.

Ferdinand's story begins in Peckham, in the sort of area where you choose your friends carefully and your enemies more so. The home his father walked out of when Ferdinand was 12 was near the estate where Damilola Taylor bled to death from stab wounds last winter. It was, Ferdinand has said, the same when he was there: "Gang fights and robberies were all part of growing up where I lived. People were robbed and attacked, left, right and centre." He is acutely aware that, but for the influence of his parents (he has remained in touch with his father) and others, he could have been drawn into making the wrong choices.

Instead he has become something of a role model. After Damilola's murder he lent his name to police requests for information. He is involved with the Prince's Trust and the National Literacy Campaign. Never a keen reader as a schoolboy he discovered the printed word through reading autobiographies by the likes of Ian Wright, Dennis Rodman (the US basketball player) and Jimmy Greaves.

The latter struck a chord. He had not been aware that Greaves had been an alcoholic. Ferdinand does not have a drink problem but he has been banned for drink-driving, the result of an early morning breath-test after an alcopop too many. Like Greaves he realised he had let people down, like Greaves he has successfully drawn strength from the experience.

The drink-ban came at a bad time. It was September 1997 and Ferdinand had just been called into the England squad for the first time. Glenn Hoddle decided a salutary lesson was required and Ferdinand was not considered for selection.

He waited another two months to make his international bow and, though it was an impressive one coming off the bench against Cameroon, the delay proved crucial. Ferdinand survived the cut when Glenn Hoddle named his squad for the following summer's World Cup but he had not done enough to convince Hoddle to risk playing him in it. Instead another teenager, Michael Owen, took centre stage.

Ferdinand continued to play for West Ham where he had long been compared to Bobby Moore. He was also attracting comparisons with Alan Hansen, Paul McGrath and even Franz Beckenbauer. But a weakness had been noticed. Ferdinand had a tendency to switch off. Hoddle had been wedded to the concept of playing three at the back but even he did not feel comfortable risking Ferdinand. What chance, then, that Kevin Keegan would? Come Euro' 2000 Ferdinand, having started just once under Keegan, did not even make the squad.

His stock rose then fell that summer. England's feeble performances, highlighted by an inability to pass from the back, made Ferdinand fashionable again. But then he was involved in a tabloid sex-and-video tale which questioned his maturity anew. When West Ham began badly last season Ferdinand was caught up in the fall-out. "I had gone stale," he later realised. "Looking back I was as much to blame for missing out on Euro 2000 as anyone".

His rescue came last November in the shape of Peter Taylor and David O'Leary. Taylor, entrusting his chance to be England manager to youth, played Ferdinand at sweeper against Italy in Turin. Ferdinand, who had only started four of the last 34 internationals, put his first pass into the crowd. But then he played to the manner born. Eleven days later Leeds doubled their previous transfer record, and then some, and Ferdinand went north.

Another tricky start, when Leeds went three-down at Leicester within half-an-hour of his debut, was quickly forgotten as Ferdinand emerged as a rock during Leeds' Champions' League adventure. Ferdinand, now playing in a back four, began for the first time to impress as much for his defending as his ball-playing. O'Leary, a footballing defender who spent the bulk of his career in a back four, has been a major influence. So, Ferdinand himself admitted, was leaving the distractions of London.

"There were times when I thought I was relaxing but I wasn't. Now I go home, watch TV, sleep. The move matured me. It has brought me on as a person." And as a player. He added: "Moving to Leeds, where you are under scrutiny all the time, has added an edge to my game."

For this season O'Leary has made him club captain, a significant decision given the iconic status of his predecessor, Lucas Radebe. His international career also flourishes. Having started Sven Goran Eriksson's first five internationals his absence, with a minor injury, against the Netherlands only enhanced his reputation.

Hunter, whose own passing ability was overshadowed by his fearsome reputation, now works in radio and has watched Ferdinand regularly since the move to Leeds. He is impressed. "Rio could play for the best teams in Spain, Italy or Germany. He could also play in midfield," he said. Hunter played in midfield several times himself for England but usually understudied Bobby Moore. He added: "There are definite similarities in the way Rio brings the ball out. He's actually much faster than Bob but Bob could pass like a world-class midfielder."

But can he tackle? Ferdinand, said Hunter, will if he has to but he "reads the game so well he rarely has to make a last-ditch tackle. He intercepts rather than goes piling in." Hunter added that he was "a true modern defender".

Ferdinand still likes clothes, cars and girls, he is, after all, still only 22. But in other respects he is old before his time with 160 League appearances under his Prada belt already. This could be the year a long and glittering career takes off.