There is a certain lack of tension concerning who will emerge as this season’s champions of England. Nevertheless, with other Premier League issues coming to the boil and the action across the football league building to a fascinating crescendo, the imminent international break feels like a distinctly unwelcome imposter.
It isn’t only supporters wrapped up in the fortunes of their clubs who don’t appreciate the fortnight’s hiatus. At the business end of their campaign, managers are loathed to release key performers into the trust of their respective national set-ups.
Particularly reluctant to cede microscopic control over each individual component in his unit is Manchester United’s boss, Sir Alex Ferguson. The Scot is renowned for his desire to retain as much influence as possible over the extent of his players’ involvement when they are on international duty.
It is for this reason that the headline stealing recall of Rio Ferdinand to Roy Hodgson’s England squad has rumbled on as back-page news for the subsequent three days.
That Ferdinand’s inclusion initially attracted such attention has its backdrop in the centre-back’s exclusion from all previous panels chosen by Hodgson – namely on the grounds of ‘footballing reasons’. That explanation has repeatedly been thrown back at the England manager – the accusation being that the 65 year-old was avoiding a potentially ruinous division in his camp that could result from selecting the feuding Ferdinand and John Terry in the same group.
It has been correctly pointed out in other quarters that, if avoidance of conflict among a set of players divided by split loyalties to separate team-mates was a principal factor in Hodgson’s thinking, then this was as valid a footballing reason as any other.
Casting aside that controversy, and the unnecessary brouhaha surrounding an off-guard Hodgson’s conversation with a fellow passenger on a tube train, the inclusion of Ferdinand in this latest squad has its roots in the fact that the 34 year-old is without question one of the best four English central defenders available. Indeed to many observers, Ferdinand in his present form is without peer among England’s defensive options.
When, two years after captaining his club to a Champions League Final win against Chelsea, Ferdinand was injured during England’s first training session ahead of the 2010 World Cup Finals and consequently ruled out of that tournament there was a widely held perception that a grand career might be nearing its end.
That the player’s knee-injury was merely the latest in a long line of fitness related problems only hardened that view. During the campaign prior to his aborted World Cup, Ferdinand featured in only 13 of his club’s Premier League matches. One season on, he appeared a mere 19 times.
Ferdinand’s return to his national team set-up (even if he did drop out), however, is firmly in keeping with the precedent set by a man who is especially apt at confounding his doubters. It was the London born player’s two recent displays in Manchester United’s titanic Champions League tussle against Real Madrid that made a definitive case to Hodgson.
Pitted against one of the world’s finest attacking units, and possibly Europe’s form team, Ferdinand was imperious, and a match for anything Cristiano Ronaldo, Mesut Ozil, Angel Di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain, Kaka, or Karim Benzema could throw at him.
Five days later, and with colleagues visibly wilting, Ferdinand at once repeated his colossal form and further authenticated claims that his injury travails are a matter of history with a towering F.A. Cup performance in the face of a progressively dynamic Chelsea.
That brings us to Old Trafford’s Knight at the helm. Ferguson is keenly aware that the player he paid Leeds United £30m to acquire in 2002 has been integral to his side’s recapturing of their Premier League title, and latterly to a welcome restoration of United’s defensive solidity.
A specific training programme, designed to manage Ferdinand’s long-term back problems, has been central to the player making a total of 26 appearances to date this term, having managed 38 outings last season. Ferguson’s understandable fear is that veering away from his trusted routine – not only in the coming weeks but right up until next summer’s World Cup in Brazil – will hinder Ferdinand and minimise the impact of a man who is once again a core figure in his plans.
Demonstrating a skill-set that led many respected football people, upon Ferdinand’s breakthrough at West Ham United, to believe that he could develop into one of England’s finest ball-playing centre-half’s, the United man was pivotal to his team’s weekend match-winning goal against Reading.
Carrying the ball out from the back before playing the pass from which Wayne Rooney scored, the man who remains the world’s costliest defender, showcased all the balance, poise, calmness, decision making ability, technique, and confidence, which blend to form such an impressive footballer.
Responding to Ferdinand’s potential rebirth as an England player Ferguson was typically cautious;
‘I was as surprised as anyone when I heard. I need to speak to the (United) doctor because we prepare Ferdinand in a certain way and there are treatments he has to go through.
‘He has to make sure he is going to be OK in terms of the number of games he plays.
‘We have been doing that for two years and it works.
‘We have to look at all these things before Rio decides (if he joins up)’.
With a Manchester United contract which runs its course at the climax of this season, there will have been a number of individuals who upon hearing or reading Ferguson’s comments might have expected Ferdinand to politely decline the opportunity to add to his 81 international caps for fear of jeopardising any future club deal.
That would have been under-estimating the mental strength of a man who earlier this season – whether intentionally or not – defied his fiercely disciplinarian manager by choosing not to wear a t-shirt in support of the anti-racism group, ‘Kick-It-Out’, during the warm up to his side’s home match against Stoke City. Ferdinand’s action was said to have ‘embarrassed’ Ferguson, who a day earlier had categorically stated that ‘all my players’ would don the top.