Sport Comment: Could Rio’s great career have been even better?

RIO FERDINAND appears to be about to bring down the curtain on a fine – if flawed – career by retiring at the end of this season.

He dropped the latest of a series of hints this week that the current campaign will be his swansong when he admitted that he “doesn’t have as much time” remaining in the game as he’d like. This followed a suggestion on The Jonathan Ross Show that he may quit next summer.

He will be rightly feted and eulogised. Six times a champion in the Premier League; his Champions League winners’ medal and 81 England caps are a measure of the man on the pitch.

And yet, and yet. Did we really see the very best of Ferdinand? Glenn Hoddle, the man who gave him the first handful of those England caps, believes Rio’s talent was not fully tapped. Perhaps typically, Hoddle also believes he was the man to draw it out of him.

Hoddle, in at close to the start of Ferdinand’s career and now coaching him again at QPR, told me: “With Rio, I think I could have made him an even better player than the super footballer he did become.”

The reason Hoddle gives is persuasive. He rates Ferdinand as a supreme footballing defender and believes his favoured three-man defence behind a fluid midfield and attack – back in favour now with Louis Van Gaal at Manchester United and Holland – would have given Rio both responsibility and freedom to play his best game.

Hoddle had taken Ferdinand to France ‘98 as part of the squad just to learn from the experience. “I was playing three at the back with five in midfield for England at the time,” Hoddle says. “And that system was absolutely perfect for Rio. He was a real footballer, a ball-playing defender. He could bring the ball out through midfield and beyond.”

Hoddle picked him at Wembley a few months later for the friendly against the Czech Republic. England won 2-0 with strikes from Darren Anderton and Paul Merson and Hoddle says the game showcased the shape of things to come for England – and Ferdinand.

“In that game, I asked Rio to come out with the ball. He did it absolutely superbly. I turned to my assistant John Gorman on the bench and said what a great player we had on our hands.”

But just weeks later Hoddle lost his grip on the England job in controversial circumstances. It left many observers believing the coach still has unfinished business with England. And it left Hoddle frustrated and Ferdinand’s international career on hold. Under new national coach Kevin Keegan, Ferdinand did not even make the 2000 Euro finals squad in Holland and Belgium.

“Frustration is the word,” Hoddle said. “I think I could have made Rio an even better player. Playing three at the back would have made him an even more progressive and expansive footballer because he could use the ball so intelligently.

“As the years unfolded for him – eventually with Manchester United and, of course, with England – he did not get to play that way so often. They did not tap so deeply into that ability.”