A canter through the book of management clichés will quickly tell us that competition breeds champions. The Ferdinands got their fair share of football DNA as brothers Rio and Anton soon entered the professional game.
The family gene pool had an embarrassment of riches – also producing cousin Les, who would go on to play centre forward for Queens Park Rangers, Newcastle and England. But the natural dynamic between brothers would always provide the more compelling tale.
Rio was born on 7 November 1978 and grew up in Peckham, south London, displaying early ability as a gymnast and once represented Southwark at the London Youth Games. However, football soon took precedence as Rio became an attacking midfielder, later being converted to centre-back.
Aged 13 he was scouted and taken to the West Ham academy. An exciting prospect quickly turned into the real deal as he led West Ham to the FA Youth Cup final in 1996. Even though the Hammers were beaten by Liverpool, Rio was on his way.
He was handed his first-team debut as a substitute against Sheffield Wednesday on the final day of the 1995/96 season. He spent part of the following season on loan at Bournemouth but returned to a regular spot, scoring his first goal away at Blackburn in February 1997.
His composure and preference for playing the ball out of defence inevitably led to the tag of the new Bobby Moore. Such comparisons seemed pointless, but they were cut from the same cloth. Both were perceptive readers of the game and led with quiet authority. But Rio was strong in the air and possessed terrific pace, so might just have just shaded the World Cup-winning captain in a head-to-head.
Meanwhile, younger brother Anton had joined West Ham as a nine-year-old. Forever in Rio’s shadow, he had to work much harder to prove himself. People doubted he was good enough to make the grade and invited comparison playing as a central defender.
The pressure cranked up still further when Rio moved seamlessly through the England junior sides. He made his full international debut in November 1997 as a substitute against Cameroon. The 19-year-old started his first senior game against Switzerland in March 1998, but still played for the under-21s. His star was in the ascendancy as Rio helped West Ham to their highest ever finish of fifth in 1998/99.
Original Series | Brothers in Arms
However, West Ham’s golden generation would not mature for the club’s benefit. Rio joined Leeds in November 2000 for £18m, then a world record for a defender. For 15-year-old Anton, it was the best thing that could have happened to him. He was now free of the shackles that hindered his progress; the classic affliction of a younger sibling had been banished. Anton was now the only Ferdinand at West Ham and could flourish in his own right.
In July 2002, Rio was on the move again, joining Manchester United in another record-busting £30m deal. He won the Premier League and League Cup in his first season, however the honeymoon was short-lived as Rio missed a drugs test in September 2003. The following January, an eight-month ban and £50,000 fine was imposed by the FA; he would miss the rest of the season and Euro 2004.
Making his debut against Preston in August 2003, this was Anton’s breakthrough at West Ham. He was capped twice for England under-18s and cemented his place in a promising team under Alan Pardew. He was instrumental in the club’s promotion to the Premier League in 2004/05 and became a regular starter for England under-21s.
He reached a career zenith in 2005/06 when West Ham finished ninth in the Premier League and made it all the way to the FA Cup final. He was named Premier League player of the month in January on the verge of selection for the World Cup in Germany. A hernia blighted his season, but Anton was in great form and thus delayed his operation. The squad was announced just after this operation was performed, and recovery time didn’t allow for his inclusion.
Anton’s omission scuppered the only realistic opportunity of the brothers lining up together. Playing them in the centre of defence was an intriguing prospect; Rio pushing up, dictating play while the more cautious Anton provided the necessary cover. Watching the team in Germany was the closest he got to playing in the tournament.
Rio began to collect medals as he won three consecutive Premier League titles and the Champions League in 2008. Anton’s career misfired via a combination of injuries, indifferent form, and miscreant behaviour. He left West Ham in 2008 for Sunderland and began to drift through a succession of clubs without success. Alongside foreign excursions in Turkey and Thailand, he also played for QPR, Reading, Southend and St Mirren.
For all Anton’s ability, he will be chiefly remembered as the victim of racist abuse whilst at QPR. Chelsea’s John Terry was fined by the FA for using abusive and insulting language. He was later cleared of criminal charges, but the experience left a bad taste in the mouth. Rio later regretted his failure to offer his brother more vocal support, but hindsight is a comfort blanket producing little warmth.
Rio enjoyed a glittering career and played at the very highest level, but he also had the luxury of being the oldest and possessing the ability to set his own bar of excellence. Anton had no such cushion, left to chase an impossibly high standard set by an older sibling.
By Brian Penn