Rio: I immersed myself in the Liverpool rivalry
“Before my first game for United against Liverpool, Sir Alex pulled me aside,” recalls Rio Ferdinand. “He said: ‘Listen, you will never have played in anything like this. The whole city gets consumed by it. It means everything to beat Liverpool, so you’d better make sure you’re ready and understand exactly what this means.’ That was a good taster, but there’s nothing, no words that can really get you ready.”
“Obviously I hadn’t grown up a Man United fan,” he admits, “so when I came here, I was quickly made aware of what the fixture meant. The manager and the lads who’d been here a long time, especially those who had come through the youth system, they all told me. They understood it as fans of the club but also as players. I remember Butty (Nicky Butt) was the first person, as a player, to say to me: ‘Listen, make sure you’re ready. No matter how bad you think that Liverpool team is, it will be a different team against Man United.’
“I think there is a mutual respect between both football clubs, but also a mutual sense of, ‘I respect what you’ve achieved and done, but I can’t stand you.’ I quickly immersed myself in that. As a football player you become a fan of the team you play for. I was at United for 12 years, so that dislike for Liverpool became stronger and stronger the longer I was in that shirt, because I immersed myself in everything that was Manchester United and became a fully-fledged supporter. I still am, my kids are and loads of members of my family are too. You quickly understand what it means to play, and to beat, Liverpool, to stop them winning anything or achieving anything. To keep them underneath you is something that was ingrained in you as a Manchester United footballer.”
“In that period I always felt confident we’d win,” he recalls. “We’d go up that motorway the night before a game confident that we’d be beating Liverpool. I don’t think they had a great team then, they relied heavily on Steven Gerrard and we just felt physically we could overpower them all the time. We would be able to outwork them, outrun them, outmuscle them. Obviously we had the quality to create chances and we just thought that if we could get the ball into our strikers as often as possible then we would win. They weren’t normally pretty games, but we found a way of playing against them and beating them.”
That outstanding run of victories included three away wins at Anfield, a stage which invariably brought out the best in the giant defender, who reserved some of his finest United performances for the most hostile of stages.
“I liked going into the lions’ den,” he smiles. “I’d been there before with West Ham and Leeds and it was always a tough place to go. The voltage goes up a few notches when you go there with Man United. Sometimes it’s mentally hard to get your head into a game; this game didn’t need any working yourself into it or working yourself up. If you didn’t go onto that pitch ready, you’d be quickly found out. You had to make sure you were on point.
“I enjoyed the hatred from the fans because I knew at the end of it, if I’d played well enough, if we were right, ready and we won the game, we’d all get that feeling. That feeling as you walk off the Anfield pitch, looking at the fans, I’d love to put that in a tin and sell it, because that feeling is unbelievable. You can’t put it into words, what it feels like when you walk off, having silenced the life out of fans who had veins in their necks popping, trying to get at you, screaming at you on the touchline. You take your time coming off that pitch when you’ve won.”
While Ferdinand’s contribution was principally concentrated into a Herculean defensive effort, he also mustered two moments of resounding class at the other end of the pitch, saving two of his eight United goals for successive Old Trafford meetings with the Merseysiders. Exactly nine months separated a last-minute headed winner and a sublime left-footed effort to clinch a 2-0 victory, providing two of the highlights of Ferdinand’s epic Reds career.
“Listen, if you score last minute then that’s great,” he grins, recalling his header. “But if you score last minute against Liverpool it’s just unbelievable. You can’t describe it. It’s at the Stretford End too, you know your family and mates are there in that corner, you just want to jump in and go bananas with them. The other one was also at the Stretford End, when Giggsy’s cross got deflected up.
"The touch to bring it down… Scholesy, Berbatov, people like that couldn’t bring it down as smooth as I did! Then the left foot into the top bin, keeper had no chance, and then I celebrated by running off to the family enclosure. It was my son Lorenz’s first game, actually. I’ve got a picture in my house of me scoring that goal with a news cutting saying it was Lorenz’s first game. I haven’t got pictures of any other match, so that’s what it meant. It was probably my favourite goal I ever scored.”
“You can feel the magnitude of the game through the interest and the comments you get in the street in the week leading up to it, and the week after,” he says. “When you win and if you score it becomes local news. I couldn’t go to the shop or go on the school run, without people thanking me and congratulating me. More than anything it’s a relief because the fans have got the bragging rights, and it’s the exact same with us players. You enjoy it, but more than anything it’s a relief because you’re not going to have so-and-so ringing you, leaving you a message, or someone on the school run asking you what happened here, what happened there. To avoid that is a great feeling and you see how much it means to the fans when you’re walking down the road and fans are beeping you and saying thanks a lot because you’ve helped their week.”
But banter, while a rich currency among supporters, carried no value among players on either side of the divide. “There wasn’t any. It was too serious for that,” says Rio. “Things like that can turn really sour and bitter. You win with a bit of class and you try to take defeat with as much class as you can. We’d go into England training camps if we’d just beaten Liverpool, or once in a blue moon they might have beaten us, but we’d never mention it. I’d never walk in there and go: ‘Oi, oi, what happened to you boys?’ You’re only a result away from getting that spun on you and turned back in your face, so you’ve got to be respectful.
"I speak to Stevie [Gerrard] now more than I’ve ever done in my life because we’re not rivals, so to speak. When I see him now it’s so much more relaxed. When I used to see him years ago we weren’t relaxed around each other. He was a top player. He had a couple of moments against us when he kissed the camera lens and you think: ‘you cheeky sod.’
"In our team talks it was always ‘make sure you nullify Stevie. If you nullify Stevie you probably win the game’, so that tells you how much he meant to Liverpool. When I spoke to him, I didn’t want to give him anything. I didn’t want to give him any insight into Old Trafford or United or what we do, and he was exactly the same. When you’re both winners, from those clubs, you don’t engage.”
This interview first appeared in a 2017 edition of United Review, the match programme at Old Trafford.