‘West Ham will always be much more than just a football club’

Former Hammer Rio Ferdinand on how he is going back to his London roots to try to help change lives for the better after his retirement

With violence in the stands and the feeling from fans around the country that West Ham got the Olympic Stadium on the cheap, many feel our identity as a football club has never been more under threat. But former Hammers star Rio Ferdinand doesn’t agree and feels that despite the move from Upton Park and the issues at London Stadium, our club, its history and tradition still resonates with people.

And it’s not just those living in east London and neighbouring counties but also those who support a wide-range of teams across the country and the globe. ‘West Ham is a club where people really have a connection – they look at the club and they see something of themselves there, and that’s why as well as having its own fans, so many supporters of other teams have West Ham as their second team,’ he told Blowing Bubbles Monthly in an exclusive interview. ‘It’s a club which is about tradition, family, history and friendships which last forever.’

Ferdinand, 38, quit football 18 months ago, following a hugely successful career at Bournemouth, the Irons, Leeds, Manchester United and England. But rather than just putting his feet up and enjoying the fruits of his playing days, he has teamed up with former West Ham teammates Bobby Zamora and Mark Noble to invest their time, money and eff ort in the Legacy Foundation, an organisation dedicated to providing aff ordable housing based around community involvement and communal facilities.

And for Ferdinand, the fact that all three of them came up through the West Ham system has had a big bearing on what they plan to do next. ‘Th e Legacy Foundation defi nitely started from our time at the club. West Ham is very much part of its DNA,’ Ferdinand said. Rather than going down the famed Robbie Fowler route of buying up properties, sitting back and letting the money do the work, Ferdinand, Zamora and Noble – all of whom grew up on council estates, in Peckham, Canning Town and Barking respectively – have stumped up their own cash to get involved in a project in partnership with Central Bedfordshire Council at Houghton Regis, near Luton.

The plan is for 600 of the 1300 houses being built to be social and affordable housing, and for the whole project to be designed in consultation with the people who will live there.

Speaking at the recent MIPIM UK property trade fair at London’s Olympia, Ferdinand gave some insight into what they hope to achieve with the Legacy Foundation – and what they hope to avoid. ‘We’re lucky to be in position we’re in because we’re footballers, and sometimes we’re asked to go back to an estate, pose for a few pictures and sign a few autographs and then off you go, but we know that’s not sustainable – you have no impact beyond that day,’ he said.

‘We wanted to be involved in creating something longer-lasting, and to be affordable, but what was just as important for us is that it will have sport and educational facilities and opportunities at the heart of it. That’s basically what the Legacy Foundation is all about.’ Although the majority of his career was played away from West Ham, Ferdinand’s short but successful career in claret and blue means that to this day, he remains a hugely popular figure amongst Irons fans, and is still regarded as one of their own.

Shortly after he made his first team debut at the age of 17, Manchester United made their first approach for Ferdinand, only to be rebuffed, and at the age of 19 he was named Hammer of the Year, as well as becoming at the time England’s youngest ever defender when he made his debut against Cameroon in November 1997.

In November 2000 he left West Ham for Leeds for a fee of £18.5m, becoming the world’s most expensive defender. Less than two years later, he was on the move again, to Old Trafford, for a British record £30m, and the start of his time as one of English football’s most decorated players. Not bad for someone from a south London estate – and it is the closeness that he has kept to his roots, despite having travelled so far, that motivates him to try and give others the chance to aspire and dream.

‘We grew up on estates so we know what it’s like – if you finish school at three o’clock, lots of parents are still at work, so you have a window of time and very often there’s nothing for kids to do,’ Ferdinand explained. ‘We want to come up with something that’ll be utilised round the clock, and we’ll be led by councils on the best way to do that. People in sport and education can become elders in their communities.

‘The estate I’m from in Peckham, the youth club has closed down now, but I remember when I was a kid, I aspired to be the boss of that youth club because he had a car, a regular job and was respected by young people. We want to help create those people in our communities.’

Their work with the Legacy Foundation means they are having to get used to the machinations of local government and planning – ‘we’re from an industry where things are agreed and next day there’s a contract on the table, but it’s not the case in this world, there are hurdles you have to go over,’ admits Ferdinand. He also admits to having a degree of slightly selfish motivation. ‘I’m from Southwark, so I’d be devastated if we couldn’t do something similar there, but Central Beds have been proactive.

‘The whole inspiration of what we’re doing comes from where we grew up before we made it to West Ham – we’ve got friends who still live there, so we’ve got a good up to date understanding of what makes these communities work, and we know what’s missing. It’s not a case of us turning up and saying “this is what you need”, as that happens too often and doesn’t work.

‘At the moment there’s only the three of us running it, and we know we can’t be at all of them all the time, but the ideal scenario is for there to be a pipeline of projects. We’ve got a platform and we also have the leverage to get other people involved who can also be inspirational.’ Ferdinand is a regular pundit on BT Sport, and is making the most of his connections with the company to strengthen the opportunities the Legacy Foundation’s properties will be able to offer.

‘Education is a big part of what we’re doing – we want to get in touch with local businesses, get local kids on board, find out what jobs are going to be coming and then put the right skills into these people so they can get those jobs. We want to get as many partners on board as we can. I’m having conversations with BT and other companies who I think can be part of what we’re doing. It’s not just us and the council, either – local people are at the heart of the discussion, every step of the way, we want to make it a holistic approach.’

Ferdinand also said future-proofing residents was a big part of their motivation. ‘There’s a digital world coming, so we want to know about the new jobs coming and the skills people will need, and to provide those opportunities,’ he explained.

‘There are sceptics out there dying to know what these footballers know about building – we’re not going to put on hard hats and build the estates ourselves, but we’re going to put together a team of professionals who do understand it, and have been the business for a long time, who we can trust to get it right.’ Ferdinand, Zamora and Noble’s careers all began many years ago on the training pitches of the West Ham youth team, and have taken them to places that, as eager youngsters, they could only have dreamt of.

Now is their chance to pay that back, giving opportunities to people to grow up in affordable, community-based neighbourhoods and to become athletes, teachers or whatever else they aspire to be. And whether they are from Houghton Regis or any of the other projects yet to come into being, thanks to the Legacy Foundation and its founders, each of those people will carry a little piece of West Ham in them wherever they go.

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