It shouldn’t have to end like this. Almost 15 years after Rio Ferdinand made his debut for England, his international career appears to be over, shut down without the opportunity of one final stand at the back for his country. Perhaps he should have been at the European Championships, perhaps he should have had his chance to bow out at the top. But Gary Neville is right. He didn’t say it in so many words, but Ferdinand’s time has passed.
This is no knee-jerk reaction to his failure to keep up with Gareth Bale on Saturday. There are big cats on the Serengeti that can’t keep up with Bale. Those who castigated Ferdinand last weekend had obviously forgotten his courageous display against Liverpool the previous week. But herein lies the problem. Ferdinand didn’t exactly roll back the years at Anfield, he just held them off for a bit. Wounded early in the first half, he limped his way to the break and then minimised his movement, drawing on his experience to canter around, frustrating his opponents.
Some players are so injury prone that they could pull a muscle changing direction. Ferdinand is so injury prone that he could pull a muscle changing his mind. With careful management, playing approximately four games a month, he racked up 38 appearances last season in all competitions. That was his highest total since 2008/09, which was in itself an injury-marred campaign. You have to go back to 2007/08 for the last time he made more than 30 Premier League appearances. He might be able to stay fit enough to play a part in England’s qualifying campaign, but if Roy Hodgson’s team manage to make it to Brazil in 2014, what state will he be in by then? He’ll be fast approaching his 36th birthday and he will, in all probability, move like a crushed Subbuteo player.
It’s never easy to drop a new player into position for a major tournament, but it’s even harder when he’s a defender. When doubts have been raised by his own club manager over his ability to cope with a game every three days, your decision becomes quite simple. Moments of individual genius can obscure an attacker’s unfamiliarity with his colleagues, but there’s no hiding place in a back four. There has to be communication, trust and cohesion. It takes time for the unit to take shape. Gary Cahill, Phil Jagielka, Joleon Lescott and the young centre-backs in their wake deserve that time, they deserve their chance. Ferdinand had his time. Shrugging off his injury record and just hoping that he’ll suddenly become more resilient with age would not be fair on them, or the team.
If it hadn’t have been for the John Terry debacle, perhaps Ferdinand would have had his swansong. Perhaps, though, Neville is right to point once again at his record of attendance. Ferdinand played just three times for Capello in the last 18 months of the Italian’s reign and his final competitive game was 12 months before Hodgson was installed. He is still dripping with class, but he’s just not solid enough to be counted on.
It is a great shame for such an excellent and proven performer to fade away. It would be a greater shame still for him to outstay his welcome and compromise his nation’s chances of qualification. It’s time for a dignified exit.