Rio Ferdinand exclusive: Manchester United WILL BE champions

Rio exclusive: Experience and fearless young guys will help us over the line

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UPDATED:

00:11 GMT, 22 April 2012

Rio Ferdinand may have played football at the highest level for 16 seasons, winning five Premier League titles, the Champions League and a host of other trophies with Manchester United but his search for a competitive edge remains as sharp as ever.

So, on a wet Wednesday afternoon in Sheffield last week, the 33-year-old central defender was every bit as gripped as the target audience of aspiring teenage athletes as he listened to Britain’s Olympic gold medal hopeful Jessica Ennis host a question and answer session.

At one point he even politely raised his hand, requested the microphone and asked Ennis a question of his own. ‘How do you block out emotion on the big occasions’ he said — to which Ennis replied that she blanks everyone out of her mind, ignores friends and family, and applies tunnel vision as soon as she enters the sporting arena.

Desire is key: Rio Ferdinand reflects what it takes keep winning at Manchester United

Desire is key: Rio Ferdinand reflects what it takes keep winning at Manchester United

Top of their game: Rio with Jessica Ennis, ambassadors for the Jaguar Academy of Sport

Top of their game: Rio with Jessica Ennis, ambassadors for the Jaguar Academy of Sport

‘I do the same,’ Ferdinand told me afterwards. ‘So on that occasion, asking Jess didn’t teach me anything new. But you never know what you might learn.

'There might just have been one little thing I could have taken away. I’m fascinated by how other sportsmen train and prepare. I’m always looking for that extra advantage.'

Rarely have Ferdinand and his United team-mates needed to be as tightly focused as they must be in the coming weeks, as the most absorbing Premier League title race in years comes to the boil.

United sit atop the table, five points ahead of their ‘noisy neighbours’, Manchester City, with four games each remaining, including a potentially decisive derby on April 30.

United host Everton at lunchtime on Sunday knowing victory will take them eight points clear again, at least until City play at Wolves at tea-time.

The race could be over as the final whistle sounds at the Etihad Stadium showdown a week on Monday — or it could go to the wire, to 4.50pm or thereabouts on Sunday, May 13.

‘I don’t look beyond Everton,’ said Ferdinand, softly spoken but assured, relaxed but maintaining eye contact because he means what he says. ‘The approach has to be that it’s like no other game, none has been this important and we have to win.

‘Having had the experience of winning the title in past seasons can help us, but then it can go the other way. City and the other teams who haven’t been there can go in with no fear. They’ve got no knowledge of what it’s like, and that can work in their favour.

‘We’ve just got to make sure that we keep our eyes on what we’re doing, and use the experience we’ve got, and the lack of fear that our young guys have got, to get ourselves over the line first.’

He says nothing about City’s title
charge has surprised him this season, that their challenge is an
inevitable result of the petrodollars flowing from Sheik Mansour.

‘They’ve
spent so much money, I don’t think their owners will be sitting there
saying, “Oh, they’re punching above their weight”,’ he said. ‘You spend
all that money, you’d expect to be top of the league.’

Still got it: Ferdinand is confident United will beat off the challenge of Manchester City in the title race

Still got it: Ferdinand is confident United will beat off the challenge of Manchester City in the title race

So what is it about serial winners United — looking for a 20th English title and their 13th of the Premier League era — that makes them such a winning machine Ferdinand pinpoints one factor above all.

‘When you come through the doors at Manchester United, you smell the desire for success. At United it all comes back to that same word — desire,’ he said. ‘That comes from the manager to a great extent.

'When young players come in at United, they don't get shouted at by me, Giggsy and Scholesy. They watch and they learn'

'How can he do one job at one club, Manchester United, for 20 years and maintain success throughout that period Because of his desire to win. How can you spend time in that environment without wanting the same It doesn’t happen. And if you don’t feel that desire then you’ll be out the door before you know it.

‘The manager doesn’t need to remind us
of this every week because everyone knows it. It’s ingrained in the
club. When young players and new players come in, it’s not about the
older players — me included now — shouting from the rooftops.

‘It’s
not me and Giggsy and Scholesy going, “Blah, blah, blah, blah, this is
what you’re meant to do”. New players do what I did when I first came
in. They watch and they learn — and they aspire to behave in the way
that the people already here behave.’

While
Ferdinand himself appears to be back towards his best after
two-and-a-half years of on-off injuries — and fellow veterans Ryan
Giggs, 38, and Paul Scholes, 37, have also been key influences this
season — three young United newcomers in David de Gea, 21, Phil Jones,
20 and Ashley Young, 26, have been amalgamated largely smoothly into a
winning unit.

Leading by example: Ferdinand says there is no 'bullying' of the new, younger team members, just lessons

Leading by example: Ferdinand says there is no 'bullying' of the new, younger team members, just lessons

‘You quickly learn to trust your team-mates, believe they’ll be doing the right thing, be dependable in the last minute of a game that matters,’ said Ferdinand of the squad mentality at Old Trafford.

‘You look at every other player and think, “I believe in him and believe he’s a good enough player to be there, to get us over whatever hurdle is there to be cleared”. /04/21/article-2133285-00542A2D00000258-276_634x473.jpg” width=”634″ height=”473″ alt=”Proud moment: Ferdinand was Britain's most expensive player when he joined United from Leeds in 2002″ class=”blkBorder” />

Proud moment: Ferdinand was Britain's most expensive player when he joined United from Leeds in 2002

'I was disappointed but if I want to play for England, I’ve got to do what the manager says. If Glenn Hoddle had been the England manager, I’d have been walking the ball out of defence every time I had it.’

Ferdinand, in fine form and with such immense experience, is a mustpick centre-half at this summer’s European Championship but he is reticent to enter the debate about who the next England manager should be.

‘I’m not going to talk about candidates because it’s not my place, and I wouldn’t talk about someone who’s already the manager of another team,’ he said, a reference to Tottenham’s Harry Redknapp, the favourite for the job.

Ferdinand does not go along with the populist belief that the England manager has to be English. His view is more pragmatic.

‘I understand the sentiment of those
who say the manager should be English,’ he said. ‘But then again if the
best man for the job does happen to be foreign, then so be it. As a
player I want to win. I couldn’t care less where the manager is from,
Timbuktu, wherever.

‘As
long as he makes me a winner, then I’ll be happy. It’s about the manager
making the players play as a team and not as individuals.’

Senior figure: Ferdinand is desperate to continue playing for England and playing an important role with the less experienced members of the squad

Senior figure: Ferdinand is desperate to continue playing for England and playing an important role with the less experienced members of the squad

Self-improvement is a recurring theme. Ferdinand’s sporting heroes include Roger Federer and he interviewed the tennis star for his own magazine in 2009, the day after the Swiss player had broken Pete Sampras’s Grand Slam record of 14 singles titles by winning a fifth Wimbledon crown.

‘It’s the most nervous I’ve been when interviewing anyone,’ said Ferdinand. ‘That guy has been at the top and he’s dominated his sport for so long, for years, certainly until the recent rise of Djokovic. To do that continually, year in, year out, is hard work. To motivate yourself in a one-man sport takes a lot of mental drive and desire.

‘I love Federer as a tennis player and as an athlete. I was interested in his training particularly and wanted to find out what he does.

‘Any time I speak to young players these days, the word “desire” cannot be undervalued. You need to have the desire for hard work and self-sacrifice, the desire to achieve things, to work and train hard.

'If you haven’t got all that then you’ll never achieve what you dream of.’