Written by Paul Meadows.
Nemanja Vidic may have quickly established himself as a cult hero with the Stretford End, yet it is the Serb’s defensive partner who deserves much of the plaudits for Manchester United’s impressive start to the season.
Ahead of the visit of Wigan Athletic on Saturday afternoon, much of the attention centred on United’s apparent reluctance to score more than a single goal in any one game. Aside from the 2-0 win over Avram Grant’s Chelsea, you would have to go back to the end of April to find a convincing win for Sir Alex Ferguson’s men. That came in the 4-2 victory against Everton at Goodison Park, when the visitors came back from 2-0 down to all but seal a sixteenth title.
Anyone who witnessed that scintillating last half-hour on Merseyside would have found it hard to believe the same team could possibly then embark on a run that would see just eight goals returned from the following eleven league games. That this also brought a total of 24 points was down largely to a defence which conceded just three times, against West Ham United, Portsmouth and Manchester City.
With everyone fit and available for selection, the back four picks itself: Gary Neville – who has not played since March 17 due to persistent ankle problems — at right back, Patrice Evra at left back, and a central pairing of Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, playing in front of veteran Dutch goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar. On paper this reads as a formidable rearguard; in reality on grass, that assessment isn’t far wrong.
Of this famed back four, it seems to be Vidic who receives most plaudits by both press and fans alike. The £7million Sir Alex Ferguson spent to lure him to England in January 2006 seems like a shrewd bit of business, with the 26-year-old more often than not present in the tabloids team-of-the-week selections following a weekend of top-flight football. And a mooch around Old Trafford on a matchday will witness more ‘Vidic 15’ shirts on display than most established first team members.
Whilst the former Spartak Moscow defender deserves every bit of praise for his contribution over the past couple of seasons, it is worth noting that Ferdinand played more than any other member of the back four during last term’s successful championship winning campaign (he played more times than anyone in the whole squad). The fact he picked up just two yellow cards in The Premiership also acts as a testimony to his ability to make a clean challenge, something he does as well as any defender in the country.
Yet for many United fans, the £30million recruit from Leeds United in the summer of 2002 will never quite be regarded as a true club hero. Some think nothing can be done to repair the damage caused by his missed drugs test which resulted in him picking up a wage for sitting on his backside for eight months, although almost all of these fans would also argue that the punishment dished out by the Football Association was harsh in the extreme.
Then there was the stalled negotiations over a new contract, which even led to a handful of hooded fans turning up to his mansion to speak to him in person. That he actually came out to confront his uncalled-for visitors may have helped his cause, but this didn’t stop his name being briefly booed when announced over the PA system prior to some home games. Another flashpoint came when he was spotted with Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon. The defender has gone on record many a time to insist this meeting was totally innocent, yet the whole affair further tarnished his reputation.
Yet Ferdinand has gone about winning over his doubters in the best way possible — on the pitch. The most vocal of the back four, he provides the strings that keep the unit together. Vidic may provide the steel, yet without having the silk of his partner alongside him, his acclimatisation into English football would have been a whole lot rockier. Just last month, Vidic hailed Ferdinand and revealed playing alongside him is ‘telepathic,’ as he can concentrate on his own game in the knowledge his partner will always be fully aware of his movements.
Whereas in the past he may have played with the sort of relaxed attitude that suggested he would rather be somewhere else, Ferdinand has matured into a player who is still comfortable to bring the ball out of defence, yet with an intent and purpose rather than merely for show (see his contribution for the first goal in the 4-0 win over Wigan — this, incidentally, was another clean sheet, in a game when he played alongside three different central defenders at different times).
He may not have the same Mancunian heritage as Neville, Ryan Giggs or Paul Scholes, yet to say he cares less about the fortunes of his team would be incorrect, because nobody detests losing more than Ferdinand. For example, the tears he shed following the FA Cup final defeat to Arsenal in 2005 remain an enduring image of a dismal contest, and his fury at seeing a back-pass roll past van der Sar at Fratton Park last season was borne of genuine anger at the prospect of vital points slipping away.
Ferdinand remains one of the biggest talents in the country. And with Neville becoming increasingly injury-prone with each passing season and Giggs edging ever nearer retirement, who would back against him becoming the next United captain? Considering where his reputation lay just a few short seasons ago, that really would represent a stunning turnaround for a player who has never quite been given the credit his performances deserve.