West Ham still hold a special place in Rio Ferdinand’s heart

The defender made his Hammers' debut 20 years ago this month

It seems like only yesterday that a teenage Rio Ferdinand was lighting up the youth setup and making his first team debut, but can you believe that was 20 years ago? Yes, twenty!

Academy graduate Rio made his first team debut for West Ham on May 5, 1996, coming on as a substitute in Harry Redknapp’s side starring Tony Cottee, Alvin Martin, a young Frank Lampard Jnr and current management team Julian Dicks and Slaven Bilic. His first full season was 96/97 and he immediately impressed. As a spritely 18-19 year old, he was a wise head on young shoulders.

Always the composed defender, he was talked about in terms of the England setup from a young age. Rio had spent his formative years in east London joining the Academy at 13, and made strides into the international setup at 16. In the eight years he spent with the Hammers, he won Hammer of the Year in 97/98 following an eighth place finish and a League Cup quarter final.

Th is was a season that saw much speculation about the Peckham-raised defender – Sir Alex Ferguson saw his potential and hoped to lure him to Manchester. But with the Hammers enjoying a good season with some great prospects, Rio wasn’t tempted away at this point.

He would, however, leave Upton Park a few years later in what was a record-breaking transfer. I think we all remember that day. As a fan, it was a peculiar mixed-bag of emotions. It was gutting to lose such an influential defender, but on the fl ip side, it was quite impressive to know that West Ham had nurtured someone who had become the most expensive defender in the world. D

Th e same can be said for his eventual move to Manchester United. Fergie finally got his man in 2002, making Rio the world’s most expensive defender once again and also Britain’s most expensive footballer. For a second time, we watched Ferdinand move to a club that we don’t have good feelings for, but as West Ham fans, there was a certain amount of pride to know that he’d made it this far because of his great start.

Th en, of course, it almost fell apart for him. He famously missed a scheduled drugs test in 2003, which would eventually see him banned from football for eight months. All signs pointed to this being a completely innocent mistake. It was a chance for the FA to make an example of a high-profile player and they took it. It was a tough lesson for Rio and a stark warning for his fellow professionals.

To his credit, he returned in late 2004 and looked sharp, even making it into the PFA Team of the Season in 06/07, proving there was plenty left in the tank for him at 27 years old. Rio departed Old Trafford in 2014 after 12 years — a time that saw him take home six Premier League medals, three League Cup medals and an all-important Champions League medal.

Despite record-breaking transfer fees and mountains of silverware since leaving West Ham, Ferdinand has always remained grounded and grateful to all those at West Ham. It’s clear to see that his heart never left east London, something that he has vocalised. Ahead of Mark Noble’s Testimonial, he told West Ham TV: ‘It was great to be back on the pitch again. This stadium holds great memories for me and this club will always be in my heart.’

We tend to know when such words are empty, but with Rio I think we realise they’re heartfelt. He also boasts a prolific, if medal lacking, England career. Ferdinand has 81 England caps to his name and, surprisingly, three goals. After impressing in the U17 squad, Rio became the youngest defender to play for the full England team in 1997 at the age of 19. It wasn’t all plain sailing for him on the international stage after being omitted from the squad for Euro 2000. Of course, he also missed Euro 2004 due to his missed drugs test ban.

Despite the setbacks, he will always be remembered as a fairly consistent performer, with his calm nature and physical presence something that spanned across his domestic and international careers. Rio Ferdinand retired from international football in 2013 and professional football in 2015, nineteen years after his West Ham debut. Now, of course, he’s part of the BT Sport team and still a regular visitor to the Boleyn Ground with that job. He’s a vocal but fair pundit and we can still see the twinkle in his eye when he talks all things West Ham.

Harry Redknapp had previously backed Rio to become a West Ham manager in the future — if that’s on the cards at the right time in his life, we’d surely welcome him back with open arms.

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