If you watched NBC Sports’ coverage of the Championship Sunday in the Premier League, then you couldn’t miss it. With the races for the title, Champions League, Europa League, and the relegation battle seemingly all wrapped up, the story that dominated the day was the Premier League bidding farewell to three legends: Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, and Steven Gerrard. The highlights were replayed over and over again as all three players led their teams out wearing the captain’s armband.
It was a story book ending for the three of them. Lampard and Gerrard, two players who had been fixtures in the center of the pitch for England for the better part of the past decade, scored goals (albeit Gerrard’s came as a consolation prize as Liverpool suffered one of their worst losses during his tenure) in their final club games in England before jetting off to the USA and MLS. For Drogba, it was another Premier League champions medal (becoming, along with John Terry and Petr Cech, the player with the most medals of any non Manchester United players), and being carried off the field by his Chelsea teammates.
But away from the cameras and out of the spotlight the Premier League lost another one of it’s legends this weekend when Rio Ferdinand, one of the greatest defenders to ever play in the Premier League, announced his retirement following his only season at QPR. His announcement came after a very difficult month that saw him lose his wife to cancer.
Ferdinand leaves the game as one of the most decorated and respected players to ever play in England, but his career still had it’s ups and downs.
Ferdinand’s career began with the youth team at West Ham, ironically having been discovered by the aforementioned Frank Lampard. After a spectacular debut season with the Hammers, Ferdinand became the most expensive defender in the world when he completed a £18 million move to Leeds United.
Ferdinand’s stay in Leeds was brief, it lasted just two years, but he helped lead the team to the semi-final of the UEFA Champions League. Ferdinand would become the first casualty of Leeds’ financial crisis, when he once again became the world’s most expensive defender after completing a £29.1 million move to Old Trafford.
While Ferdinand would grow to become a United fan favorite, it wasn’t all roses when he first arrived. A year into his United career, Ferdinand was banned eight months for missing a drug test. His relationship with United’s faithful reached a boiling point in 2005 when he refused to sign a contract extension.
Things would change the following season though. In January of 2006, United brought in Serbian defender Nemanja Vidic. Teaming up with Ferdinand, the two would go on to form one of, if not the, greatest central midfield pairing in the Premier League’s history.
The two defenders were an integral part of United winning their first title in three seasons during the 06-07 season, and the two were both included in the PFA Team of the Year that season. The 2007-08 season saw Vidic and Ferdinand anchor a defense that conceded just 22 league goals all season and was considered the best defense in all of Europe, culminating with Ferdinand captaining the side in their Champions League final victory over Chelsea.
With Ferdinand and Vidic at the back, the rest of United’s team, which included Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez, Paul Scholes, and a host of other attacking talent, was given the freedom to charge up the field with reckless abandon.
The following season, Ferdinand was again a focal point, as the great United defense set a new Premier League and world record for consecutive clean sheets, going 1,311 minutes without conceding a league goal. It cemented United’s place as one of the greatest defenses ever in world football, made all the more impressive by the fact that they did it in 2008 with Wes Brown playing right back.
But it didn’t matter who United had on the flanks when they had Rio Ferdinand in the middle. By the end of the decade, week after week, you’d be able to hear fans debating who was better, Ferdinand or Vidic. This wasn’t simply a debate over who was United’s best center back, this was a debate over which one was the best in the world.
Ultimately, that is what Ferdinand will be remembered for. He was one of the best English defenders during an era when defenders were actually good and the strikers were world class. When United fans think back on him, they won’t remember the missed drug test or the contract dispute, they’ll remember him teaming up with Vidic and winning five league titles (Ferdinand won an additional one before Vidic arrived), the Champions League, the FIFA Club World Cup, and making an additional two Champions League finals.
A while ago it looked as if a move to MLS to prolong his career would be on the cards. But things change and Ferdinand will be walking away. In all likelihood, he’ll join the media and if you follow him on twitter you already know he’ll be successful there.
When Ferdinand’s wife tragically passed away a month ago, Rio said he was shocked by the outpouring of support he received from so many Premier League players due to what he called the tribal nature of football.
But that’s who Rio Ferdinand was, a player who transcended tribal lines and earned the respect of everyone, both teammate and opponent. Out of the spotlight he walks away from the game, and the Premier League will certainly miss him.