Rio Ferdinand: The fabric of West Ham United is family
In the dying embers of West Ham United’s 1995/96 Premier League season, a spark at Upton Park.
With 20 minutes remaining against Sheffield Wednesday, a mid-table finish well and truly secured, and the final match of the campaign locked in a 0-0 stalemate, then-manager Harry Redknapp readied two substitutes to come on.
One was his nephew, Frank Lampard Jnr, the midfielder set to make his second senior appearance in a Claret and Blue shirt having debuted against Coventry City earlier that year. His achievements in the game would go on to be well documented, his impact at West Ham and in English football difficult to understate.
The same could be said of the other: six Premier League titles, a UEFA Champions League, a FIFA Club World Cup, two League Cups, inclusions in three FIFA World Cups squads for England, six selections for the PFA Premier League Team of the Year, and an induction into the English Football Hall of Fame.
It figures – at the time, Rio Ferdinand was only two seasons away from his first Hammer of the Year award, after all.
I think what’s important at West Ham is that they retain their values
“It’s always nice to come back, see a few old faces,” he smiled, speaking to whufc.com prior to the Hammers’ 2-0 victory over Manchester United.
Ferdinand was a boy in demand as a youth player, his mentality to graft, his composure on the ball, and his reading of the game all attracting scouts from numerous English clubs.
Yet once West Ham and their Academy team became involved, the Camberwell-born player knew he wanted to remain in London.
“Frank Lampard Senior came and watched me first from West Ham. I came down because of him and then I got under the coaches here like Paul Heffer and Tony Carr… then Billy Bonds said he wanted me to sign.
“They made a big effort really… I could’ve gone to quite a few other clubs, but once I heard they wanted to create a pathway to the first team at this club, I wanted to be a part of it.
“West Ham were true to their word… you had Frank [Lampard], [Jermain] Defoe, [Michael] Carrick, Joe Cole, Anton [Ferdinand], Glen Johnson. The names, you can reel them off: they had a plan and they executed it perfectly.”
While the name ‘Rio Ferdinand’ would come to be synonymous with phrases surrounding a natural-born defender, the player actually began life elsewhere on the pitch, before eventually finding his calling at the Academy of Football.
“I played in midfield and up front most of the time,” Ferdinand admitted. “Then I got to about 14 or 15 and a centre-half didn’t turn up, so they threw me in at centre-back and said I looked better there!
“I ended up staying there. Then when we needed a goal or something, they put me up front, but it was just by chance really that I went to centre-back, and it stuck.”
Ferdinand's status as a Club legend was cemented across 158 appearances for West Ham over four years, during which time he became the youngest defender to play for England at the time, aged just 19.
His calming presence at the back helped the Hammers secure their best-ever Premier League finish – fifth, in 1998/99 – and a UEFA Intertoto Cup triumph the following summer, before he departed for Leeds United in 2000 for a then-British transfer record fee of £18 million.
While the modern-day West Ham might have a new focus, a new stadium and new personnel at the helm, Ferdinand recognised one particular quality on his return which he believes will always form part of the Club’s identity.
“I think what’s important at West Ham is that they retain their values,” Ferdinand observed. “When I was growing up, what made me feel a part of it was it was like a family club, so there were people who had been here ten, 15, 20, 30 years. They’re the fabric of the club.
“When people come to the club… they know that it runs through the veins of the people who work here, and you’ve got the be the same as a player.
“With young players coming through I think it’s vitally important, with the likes of Declan Rice, that they see a pathway into the first team. Mark Noble has been here for years, but they need to see those kids coming through.”
Whenever anyone’s asked me... what West Ham meant to me, I've been truthful: I loved it here and I’ll never forget what the Club did for me as a young player.
As for Noble, Ferdinand’s last appearance in a Claret and Blue shirt came in March 2016 when he turned out for the current captain’s Testimonial fixture.
He received a warm welcome from fans at Boleyn Ground that day, and continues to speak of his huge appreciation for their consistent support throughout his career.
“I think the fans know that I loved it here,” he smiled. “I’ve always appreciated that and I’ve always, whenever anyone’s asked me throughout my career, wherever I was, what West Ham meant to me, been truthful: I loved it here and I’ll never forget what the Club did for me as a young player.
“They gave me the opportunity to become what I was, so without West Ham I wouldn’t have been where I got to.”
So with Ferdinand backing the Club’s ambitious direction, where does he think they could finish this season?
“I think Europe would be a great realistic aim,” he suggested. “I think the investment with Haller has been good, Lanzini looks good again and fit, Anderson when he’s flying I think is a great player, so the consistency they could get with those players hopefully will put them in a position to go up the table.”