It is Tuesday July 1996 and all eyes of the footballing world are firmly affixed on Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The city’s football club have just invested a world record £15m to convince Blackburn to part with Alan Shearer in order to bring him back to the city of his birth. The Premier League’s top scorer in the previous season, it is widely hoped he will be the goalscorer capable of delivering the league title his fellow Geordies. This is certainly the feeling for the thousands who turn up to greet the returning hero, standing on a stage in his boyhood strip, adorned by his now-famous number nine.
Fans of Newcastle’s entertainers felt they finally had the prolific centre forward they’d long since desired but, in Les Ferdinand, they arguably already had one. Signed some 12 months before, he had just scored 25 goals to be crowned as the PFA Players’ Player of the Year for the 1995/96 season. Nevertheless, manager Kevin Keegan still sought to ask Ferdinand if he would mind vacating his shirt number to make way for Shearer. A trivial matter, perhaps, but the implication was Ferdinand would be seen very much as the accomplice rather than the main perpetrator up top.
A strong, intelligent striker, Ferdinand started his career in non-league, balancing playing in the Isthmian League with his day job as a painter and decorator. In 1987, he was spotted at Hayes by Queens Park Rangers manager Jim Smith, who personally requested the club sign him for around £50,000. After an indifferent start, and a short loan to Brentford, it was to be in Turkey where Ferdinand would flourish, as he hit 14 goals in a highly productive loan spell at Beşiktaş.
Ferdinand was extremely open to remaining in Turkey, however new QPR manager Trevor Francis insisted the striker’s future lay in London. Again, Ferdinand initially struggled, as his first season back saw him used as a bit-part player, toward the back of the queue behind the likes of Colin Clarke, Mark Falco and Roy Wegerle. The following two seasons saw him play a more prominent role, though, scoring 18 goals across 41 appearances. It was to be the 1992/93 season that would see Ferdinand become a household name.
In the Premier League’s maiden season he would hit 20 goals, second only to Teddy Sheringham in the scoring charts, and ahead of the likes of Shearer, Brian Deane and Eric Cantona. Such prolific form was a huge part of QPR ending the season in a remarkable fifth place, the highest of all six London-based clubs.
As if to prove this was no fluke, the following season would see Ferdinand score a further 16 goals, perpetuating links with Arsenal, Aston Villa and Manchester United. He would start on the opening day of the 1994/95 season at Old Trafford, although for the visitors whom he had signed a new two-year contract.
Ferdinand was helpless as United won 2-0, but he would shrug off the early disappointment by scoring an impressive 24 goals in the remaining 36 starts. One memorable strike came in the form of a long-range drive in the 3-2 home loss to United, in December 1994, as he performed a Cruyff turn to deceive Paul Ince before unleashing a thunderbolt into the top corner.
Indeed, Sir Alex Ferguson was very keen on the striker, ringing up Ray Wilkins to ask about the character of Ferdinand. Despite Wilkins singing his praises, dispelling the myth he couldn’t live outside London, and Ferdinand’s own keenness on a transfer, it was blocked as QPR refused to release him before the end of the season. Desperate for a new striker for the latter stages of the Champions League, Ferguson would plump for Newcastle’s Andy Cole, a transfer that paved the way for Ferdinand’s next move elsewhere.
One of the most exciting sides in the land at the time, boasting such talent as David Ginola and Peter Beardsley, Ferdinand would join Newcastle in the summer of 1995. He would live up to the hype as the Magpies’ main man, scoring 29 goals as they challenged for the Premier League. At one point leading the table by 12 points, it would all fall apart from the end of February 1996, with a run of one win and four defeats in six, seeing Ferguson’s rampant United overtake them on the home straight.
Nevertheless, it was a season of immense personal triumph for Ferdinand. Alongside being crowned Player of the Season came a place in the Team of the Season, with his partner in that fantasy team very soon becoming reality. Shearer returned home from Blackburn to form a strong partnership with Ferdinand, as the duo spearheaded another promising season that was to yet again end in a runners-up position.
Midway through this season, however, came a change, Keegan surprisingly departing to be replaced by Kenny Dalglish. Despite the Scot being regretful to lose such a talented striker, it quickly became apparent Ferdinand would be dispensed to free up funds for further signings. In the end, he was to be granted a Shearer-esque move of his own, signing on at Tottenham, the club he supported as a boy, for £6m.
His first three seasons at White Hart Lane were unfortunately routinely plagued by injuries, with a total of just 12 goals spread thinly across them. Problems existed on and off the pitch, with Spurs narrowly avoiding relegation in 1998 and in financial turmoil under the ownership of Alan Sugar. Despite having regained his favourite number nine shirt, for Ferdinand, this homecoming was to prove wholly unsuccessful compared to Shearer’s.
He would go on to regain some fitness in later years, scoring the Premier League’s 10,000th goal in December 2001 against Fulham, before leaving Spurs in January 2003. Ferdinand would then endure a slew of short and largely indifferent spells with West Ham, Leicester, Bolton and Reading, before retiring in 2006 while on the books at Watford at the ripe old age of 39.
With hindsight he concedes he left Newcastle too early, letting heart overrule head as he felt left unduly in the shade by the club’s treatment of him compared to Shearer. Placing Les Ferdinand in the also-ran bracket, however, is to do a massive disservice to someone who, on his day, was as good as any striker the Premier League has ever seen and whose talents perhaps deserve a far greater legacy than the one his holds today.
By James Kelly @jkell403