Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, has raised the prospect of Rio Ferdinand joining Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes in the bracket of players who represent United deep into their thirties, as the club prepare to offer him a new contract.
The 33-year-old, whose current contract expires next year, has had no contact from United about a new one but the club are understood to be ready to open discussions before the start of next season – a remarkable turnaround for a player who felt his United career was probably over last year after two injury-wrecked seasons.
Ferdinand (right) is likely to have to balance the security of an extended contract at Old Trafford, with the probable cut in pay from his current £115,000 a week, which would be inevitable for a player who will be 34 in November and has ongoing back problems which, as Ferguson admits, must be carefully managed. The likely level of reduction is unclear, though if asked to play for around £80,000 a week, Ferdinand may opt to persist under his current deal until next January. But despite the interest of Major League Soccer's Chicago Fire – who, to judge by Thierry Henry and Robbie Keane's MLS salaries, would probably pay him around £60,000 – the idea of becoming a player in the Giggs and Scholes bracket appeals to Ferdinand, who would welcome the opportunity to re-enter negotiations with the club who signed him 10 years ago.
Ferguson, who is without Nani and Michael Owen to face Fulham at Old Trafford tonight, offered his most gloomy prognosis on Ferdinand's injury problems one year ago last week, suggesting that 15 years of competitive action may be taking its toll. Ferguson publicly urged the defender then to "take the example of Gary Neville" in battling on against injury. In November, Ferguson said that he must change the complexion of his game as he "cannot rely on his pace any more, that is obvious".
But Ferdinand has done precisely that, proving a critical defensive asset as he has missed only four of United's games since the turn of the year. "It's not surprised me in the sense that he's still young for a centre-back," Ferguson said. "In normal terms you would expect a centre-back with his athleticism to play well into their thirties anyway. But he had the back problem which we all know about. So we've had to manage that and by managing it properly he has adapted really well to it. So if you look to last week – I didn't want to play him against [Athletic] Bilbao, but with [Phil] Jones calling off with the flu, I played him and he played on the Sunday [against Wolves] also. So he's adapting really well to the challenge of making sure he is fit and fresh to play in the games we need him.
"I think it's all down to how he feels physically himself and what he is doing at the moment is good."
Though Owen's latest setback with a thigh injury raises the prospect of him having played his last game for United – if he does not get a new contract – Ferguson has suggested he may feature next month. "He came back into our training a couple of weeks ago and then after one of the sessions he did some physical work with the sports science team and overdid it," the manager revealed. "So it knocked him back a few days. But he's back in synch again and he should be joining us next week. If you think about ever needing a player to score an important goal for you is there anyone better than Michael Owen? He will be a really welcome addition to our squad, even if it were to be for the last few games of the season."
Martin Jol has admitted Fulham may have to sell some of their key players in the summer. Clint Dempsey, Brede Hangeland and Moussa Dembélé could be among those he struggles to keep, although Dempsey and Hangeland are likely to be offered extensions to their deals, which will both soon enter their final year. Jol is also hopeful that he will sign the on-loan striker Pavel Pogrebnyak on a permanent deal.
"We are talking to players and we have got time on our side," said Jol.