The big interview: Rio Ferdinand – "On my first day at United I could hear Solskjaer saying: 'How much? Thirty million? What?!'"

Is it right you were so good at ballet as a kid that you won a scholarship to London’s School of Ballet? How did that go down with your mates on the estate in Peckham?!
Don Berry, via Facebook
That’s right. At first I didn’t tell my mates because they would have ripped me all day long. I just told them I was doing drama. I did it for two years, then in my third year I told my mates. I was one of the lads anyway and they were fine to be fair to them. It was a big commitment though because it used to take me two hours to get there and I had to go three times a week. Then I got to a point where my dad said, “Do you want to be a footballer or a ballet dancer? You have to make a decision because it’s taking up too much of your time.” Luckily I chose football! But the ballet had a good effect on my career because of the flexibility, strength and balance you learn.


Date of birth: November 7, 1978

Height: 6ft 2in

Place of birth: Peckham, London

How easily do you think you might have got into trouble as a youngster – and was it football that kept you away from mischief?
Lukas Sans, Oslo
My dad would have killed me as a kid so I kept my trouble to a minimum, but when I got to about 13 I knew I wanted to be a footballer so everything revolved around that. I’d only hang around on the estate until a certain time when my bus came to go to training, whereas some of my other mates who also had training would say, “No I’m gonna stay and have a few fags and drinks”. At the end of the day, because of my application and my desire to become a footballer I am where I am today.

Brother Anton, cousins Les and Kane, yourself – who makes up the Ferdinand five-a–side team? Can you think of another family from the history of football that could beat you lot?
Lisa Williamson, London
The Nevilles would have a good go – their sister is sporty as well. But there’s no one else coming through just yet for the Ferdinands. My kids [two sons and a daughter] are a bit young to really have an opinion on whether they’ll like football, but I don’t want to put any pressure on them. So we’re stuck on a four-a-side team for now.

After shining in West Ham's youth team you spent four years under Harry Redknapp. What’s your funniest memory of him as manager? And how does his hairdryer compare to Fergie’s?
Steven Ruffhead, via Facebook
Harry could never hide that he was upset or angry at you for anything. He’d walk out to training and we’d be like, “Oh god, he’s had a bad day on the horses or he’s had a bad phone call". So before he even started going bananas you knew what was coming because his face told you the picture straight away. Harry could lose it but Fergie is different – you don’t know it’s coming and he gets the last word in no matter what. It’s normally a strong, strong, strong word! Harry was brilliant for me, though, I’ve always felt indebted to him for giving me my debut.

Would you and your brother make a decent defensive pair? Has reuniting with him and Harry Redknapp at QPR crossed your mind?
Sam Greene, Oxford
No, I want to continue trying to win things and challenge for stuff. All those sentimental things go out of the window for me to be honest. I’ve never played with Anton. He’s seven years younger than me so I always just slapped him around the house or bullied him down the park but he’s a big fella now. People forget the age gap… it must be because I’m so young looking!


1995-2000 West Ham; 152 apps (2 goals)

1996-97 Bournemouth (loan); 10 (1)

2000-02 Leeds United; 73 (3)

2002-14 Manchester United; 405 (7)

1997-2011 England; 81 (3)

Glenn Hoddle said he intended to use you as a Matthias Sammer-style libero for England before he got sacked, coming out of defence in a 3-5-2. Is that a role you’d have enjoyed?
Tom Wales, via email
Yeah, one of my biggest regrets was that Glenn didn’t continue as England manager. I really felt the team would have gone on to better things if he’d stayed and the players loved playing for him. I think his ideas were too much before his time. Glenn encouraged me to take the ball and run out of defence with it, whereas managers like Sven didn’t like centre-halves running with the ball. I loved taking on players as I grew up, and I’ve always looked back and thought 'If only Glenn had continued'. Who knows how much my game could have changed?

Is it true you never wanted to leave West Ham?
Olly Adkins, via email
I never asked to leave. I love the club, it’s still the first result I look out for after a United match. It’s where I grew up and I learned my trade. The two summers before I did leave I remember going to the chairman [Terence Brown] and asking: “Are we going to spend some money?” We had some good young players and I wanted the club to bring in some top players but it never materialised. There’s loads of what-ifs but when the club accepted the bid from Leeds I knew my time was up.

I’ve heard John Moncur was the biggest nutcase at Upton Park during your time there. Surely he wasn’t worse than Di Canio?
Ant Gibson, South Shields
Yeah he was! Monks was the funniest man I’ve ever met in football. If we’d been out on an all-dayer, we’d be walking to a place and he’d be jumping in bins – seriously, he’d be there with his feet hanging out the top! We were in TGI Fridays once and he took a run up at the bar and flew over it headfirst. He was on the floor around the barman’s ankles. Monks would stay out with the lads till late afternoon and then say: “I don’t know what I’m capable of after this moment in time” and just go home. So fair play, he knew his limits.


Premier League 2003, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2013

Champions League 2008

League Cup 2006, 2009, 2010

PFA Team of the Year 2002, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2013

You became the world’s most expensive defender in 2000 when Leeds paid £18m for you, yet you had a nightmare debut – 3-0 down to Leicester after 29 minutes! What was going through your mind then?
Gary Bass, Staines
“What on Earth have I done?!” is what I was thinking. Honestly. “Have I made the right decision here or what?!” I think West Ham won that day as well and went above us, so I was in a bad way. The manager [David O’Leary] played me, Woody and Radebe as a three-man defence, but when he changed that we went on to do some really good things. I had a great time at Leeds. Great team, great fans, great bunch of players. I’ve been so lucky to be at three clubs where I haven’t got a bad word to say about any of them.

That Leeds team came desperately close to glory in the Premier League and Champions League. What have the victorious Man United teams you’ve since played in had that that Leeds team lacked?  
Kerry Simmons, Leeds
Experience. There was no real experience in that team of winning other than David Batty. No one else had the mentality. No one else had even been close to winning the title except maybe Gary McAllister, but he wasn’t really playing in the end. So we were all new to it, and to be honest we didn’t really lead the club forward because of the lifestyle we had. We were all young lads, 19 to 25, all living the high life. And because we were young we were getting away with it to some extent, but when it came to the crunch time and we needed to win certain games against certain teams, we didn’t have the mentality. I think if that team had played together for two more years and added to it, they would have challenged Manchester United, but it never materialised.

At what point during your time at Leeds did you realise all was not right with the finances? Was there any noticeable penny-pinching, like washing your own kit?
Brett Carpenter, Horsham
It was never that bad, but before I went to the [2002] World Cup someone told me a few things about the club and I remember thinking, “It can’t be that bad”. But then the rumours got stronger and then I heard talk in the papers about me going to Man United. The people in the know then told me the club was in a bad position and they’d have to sell some of their big assets.

I know footballers always say they pay no attention to the transfer fee, but surely becoming the world’s first £30m defender when you joined Man United must have put some pressure on you?
Scott Duncan, via Facebook
Not really. The most nerve-wracking time was the first training session. We’re playing a piggy-in-the-middle-type game and I could hear Ole Gunnar Solskjaer saying “How much? Thirty million? What?!” I would have expected that from Keano or Butty, but not him. These are your team-mates and you want to impress them. But when you step out onto the pitch it’s second nature. I’ve never spoken about the transfer fees, except with the media.

The TV show Rio’s World Cup Wind-Ups was brilliant – but did Rooney or Crouchie ever get their revenge on you? Do you still like a practical joke? Ever done one on Fergie?
Steve Marsh, via Twitter
I love a practical joke but none of the lads have got me back. I’m too smart! That was a great show and something I’ll probably do again in the future because a lot of people on Twitter and Facebook ask me about it, but I haven’t had the time. Fergie? No. Ronnie used to – he’d hide his shoes and stuff – but Ronnie was like his pet, so he’d get away with stuff.

How did your ban by the FA for missing a drugs test change you as a person? And was that the lowest point of your career?
Josh Hanson, via Twitter
If that sort of thing can’t make you more responsible then I don’t know what can. People assume I must have had something to hide but I did all the tests that were asked in the end and the judge said I proved beyond any doubt I had nothing in my system – those tests trace stuff from months back. So I never had any doubt in my mind, it was just irresponsible of me not to go to the test at the time and I got punished severely for it. Eight months of my career gone, just like that. It was easily the lowest point of my career, especially as I knew people were trying to tarnish my name by saying I was into drugs. That’s the most disappointing thing for me, that people assumed I was involved in drugs or had something to hide.

How did you feel when you first heard your England team-mates planned a strike to support you over your drugs ban?
Kerry Tia, via email
Uncomfortable. It was a nice gesture, don’t get me wrong, but it was my problem. I didn’t want them to sacrifice anything on behalf of me. There were some good lads in that squad.

It took you three years to score for us, Rio, but I’ll never forget that last-minute winner against Liverpool in front of the Stretford End. Most enjoyable goal of your career?
Jeff Hale, Swindon
Either that or the exquisite volley, also against Liverpool. I scored against them for Leeds at Anfield as well. But that moment when you score in the last minute against your rivals at the Stretford End is like a dream. It wasRoy of the Roversstuff.

Who’s the toughest centre-forward you’ve ever faced?
Warren Bedil, via Twitter
Raul, in the Champions League. I’ve always found it more difficult against players who play further away from you. You can’t really get a grab on them, you can’t give them a shove or a kick every now and again, or even get near to them and dictate to them where they have to go. Raul was always away from you and if you got too tight he’d pop it off with one touch; if you didn’t get tight enough he’d stick someone in behind you or something like that. Raul was really good for my education. [FFT: And in the Premier League?] Bergkamp. He’s another one who plays in that position where it’s hard to even get near them. Guys like him ghost about, and while they don’t necessarily hurt you, they hurt your team once they start dictating things.

Is it true that a hooded gang of United fans turned up on your doorstep after the tabloids ran a story about you meeting Chelsea chief exec Peter Kenyon?
Charles Davey, Bristol
Yeah. I was in my house on a summer’s evening when the door goes. But the security cameras are just black so I’m thinking it’s a wind-up. So I answer the door like “Who’s this?”. “Is Rio there?”. “Who wants to know?”. “Tell him to come outside”. I didn’t have a clue who it was but I didn’t think it would be any fans. So I go to the side door and grab a big bit of wood, jump on the side of the wall and I’m just about to scream “raaaah!” when I see there’s a massive group of people, with hoodies and caps covering their faces. I just thought, “I’m going to get served up in a moment, so go bananas and they’ll think you’re a nutter!” Then one of them was like, “We’re the United boys, f***ing sign your contract” and I was like “What you talking about? I’ve only just started negotiating two months ago, what you worrying about?” Basically I went to see my agent for half an hour and Kenyon was with him. Someone’s taken a picture and made out like we’re having a bloody meal together. So I’m saying to these guys: “If I’m going to do a deal with another club, do you think I’d be doing it in broad daylight?” One of the neighbours had called the police by then and they got off when they heard the sirens.

You captained United to the Champions League in Moscow in 2008. Is that your happiest moment on a football pitch? And what’s the lowest you’ve felt after a game?
Gene Moss, Weston Super Mare
One of them, yeah. I got to the semis with Leeds, the quarters with United and I was thinking I was never going to win it. So when we did the emotions got to me. When I saw my family and mates I welled up a bit then I looked around at the lads and thought, I can’t start crying in front of them. Sir Bobby Charlton came over and had a few great words to say and it was a real, real nice moment. Lowest moment? I couldn’t pick one... the Everton semi-final at Wembley, the Portsmouth quarter-final, the Chelsea FA Cup final. We destroyed Arsenal in the FA Cup final and lost, the two finals against Barcelona, Bayern Munich at home… losing is horrible. You know what, I don’t know if I actually enjoy winning more or it’s just that relief of not losing that drives me on. Because the feeling when you lose is a bad feeling man, it kills you inside.

Which hurt more: being stripped of the captaincy or left out of Euros squad? And why?
Dave Franks, via Twitter
The Euro squad. The captaincy was more inevitable, to be honest, as I hadn’t really been playing as I’d been injured after the World Cup. I almost felt that might have been something I might have done myself anyway, just based on the fact that to be the captain of England you’ve got to be available and I probably hadn’t been. But as a footballer you love going to a tournament no matter what happens. If you’re not disappointed you should probably hang your boots up.

In 2004 you told FFT that “you’d never turn your back on England”, despite the FA banning you. Considering how you’ve been treated of late, do you still feel that way?
T Hammet, Egham
Yes. Playing for England.. I make sure I never forget the feeling, that’s what I’ve always done. I think of that first time I played for my country after coming through the ranks. The adulation, the feeling I had of being able to go back to my mates on the estate and be like, “I’m going to play football with England under-18s”. And when later I was told I was in the squad and I went “What, the under-21s?” and they’re like, “No, the first team”. When I play for England, I try to give myself that same feeling of what it felt like the first time.

You’ve played under Hoddle, Keegan, Sven, McClaren and Capello for England. Which one have you enjoyed playing under the most?
Mark Aitken, via Facebook
Hoddle was best. He’d make you go out on the pitch with no fear. There was talk of him returning as manager after Capello, but I don’t know why he hasn’t got a job in the FA. Seriously, how has he not got a job there? He’s one of the best footballers we’ve ever had. Forward-thinking, continental-style approach, wants people to play football the right way but he ain’t got a job! What is that? I don’t understand it.

You’re a proud Londoner, Rio. What have you made of the backlash against football since the London Olympics? Is it something you and your team-mates have noticed?
Jim Weston, via Facebook
All these other sports have covered themselves in glory, but they don’t get the same attention as football the rest of the time. We’re in the public eye, not just on the back pages but also the front pages, and there are going to be times when footballers let themselves down. That’s unfortunate, but it becomes headline news and people start tarnishing all footballers with the same brush. I’m sure if you went out with a bunch of rugby players, hockey players or athletes you’d probably get the same end results, it’s just that they’re not hot news. So to say we’re the bad eggs among sportsmen is a bit far fetched. [FFT: But inevitably people will focus on the money footballers earn…] It’s weird, because people do focus on that, but you look at Rory McIlroy, who’s probably earning ridiculous amounts of money, but that never gets mentioned because he’s not a footballer. You look at our players that we’ve got over in the NBA, Luol Deng and that lot, they are earning unbelievable amounts of money but nothing gets said. We’re not without our faults, don’t get me wrong, but I think it’s an easy excuse for people to hit footballers with the money argument.

I have to ask you about Twitter, Rio. How wary are you before you press that ‘tweet’ button these days? And what does Fergie make of it?
James Shelton, Bedford
If the boss could shut it down, he would! There are situations where I’ve been punished for certain things that I find laughable but it’s happened and you’ve just got to get on with it. I enjoy Twitter and I think if I’d have had it back when I was a child I’d have been buzzing to have been involved with some of the players I looked up to. That’s why I’ve embraced it. Sometimes I run tweets past a couple of people I know but I think you’ve just got to be as honest as possible on there and try and not get into any trouble.

Pre-match handshakes – worthwhile or a total waste of time?
Joe Wong, Dubai
Waste of time. I don’t think handshakes are even needed before a game. After the game we shake hands anyway so what’s the point in doing it beforehand? It’s a load of rubbish, just a PR stunt that I think is not working.

Music and clothing labels, TV host, executive producer, magazine publisher, restaurateur… what’s next, Rio? Would you be up for being a movie star like Vinnie Jones? Sol Campbell’s mentioned acting too – maybe the two of you could reform your partnership as a pair of henchmen in Guy Ritchie’s next gangster film?
James Wilson, Nottingham
Henchman? You’re undervaluing my acting potential, man. I’d go for an emotional part, something off the wall, I’ve got too much for a henchman role. I’d need for it to be… I dunno, like Luther. Or if they’re looking for a new James Bond I wouldn’t say that’s out of my comfort zone at all! [laughs]

Portraits: Jill Jennings. This feature originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe! 

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