Fifteen years ago Rio Ferdinand stepped onto the Old Trafford turf in a red shirt for the first time, making his debut for Manchester United against Hungarian side Zalaegerszeg. The BT Sport pundit would win six Premier League titles and one Champions League trophy during his career with the Red Devils, providing tempered steel to the backline of a side that was seemingly magnetic to silverware.
In recent years, however, the centre-back has become an influencer of a different kind, racking up 20 million followers on Twitter.
Speaking at the Edinburgh TV Festival, Ferdinand explained why he thinks players can get the upper hand by employing dirty tactics online – and why Sir Alex Ferguson would actually approve.
‘Twitter made me want to be a striker’
In the football world, Rio Ferdinand was one of the early adopters of social media, sending his first tweet in 2010.
The former defender says that he was driven by a conscious effort to clarify what he saw as distorted media reports.
“One of the main reasons I got involved with social media at the beginning was to really put straight [the] things that I thought were being reported wrong.
I felt ‘you know what, I can report this better than the people that are sitting behind the computer’. “Like yourself,” he adds cheekily. Ferdinand prides himself on having a big mouth.
“I’m the best talker, I can talk you out of a card game, I can talk you out of a table tennis match.” He explains that if he had been a striker he would have put this talent to use on social media, waging Twitter warfare against his opponents.
“It [Twitter] made me want to be a striker more because I would have been able to hammer defenders every week prior to a game and after.
“I would have been going into games and just hammering defenders so that when I did get to the game they knew they would be scared because I’ve talked so much. I don’t understand why there’s no strikers doing it now.”
Ferdinand lists some tactics that strikers could employ against defenders ahead of crucial games.
“Before a game if I’m going out and I’m up against [Gerard] Pique for Barcelona in the semi-final of the Champions League, that week leading up I’m all over him.
“I’m sending him funny pictures of me at the bottom of his bed looking up so he knows he’s going to see me, pictures of him in awkward positions where he looks weak, saying ‘I’m going to make you look like this’.
“I know for a fact if you do that, the guy you’re going up against is going to be negative, there are going to be doubts in his mind because you are talking and no one is used to it.
“If I came back now, that’s my wish – I would come back and I’d be a striker and I’d be devastating, I’d get 15 goals a season off the back of fear from my social media posts, easy.”
Asked if he would fear the repercussions of failing to live up to his trolling, Ferdinand is adamant.
“Nah, I don’t care, strikers always get a second chance. There’s always a way back for a striker and a striker of my ability would always get chances.”
Sir Alex would have embraced these digital mind games
In 2011 Sir Alex Ferguson threatened to ban Twitter use among his players after striker Wayne Rooney offered to fight a fan online.
Ferdinand describes how the legendary manager lived and breathed football.
“I think Sir Alex Ferguson never understood it [Twitter], he never wanted to understand it, he wanted you to play football and leave thinking about football.”
Despite the Scotsman’s initial opposition to the platform, Ferdinand believes Sir Alex would have embraced his tactics.
“The great thing about Sir Alex Ferguson is he understood change, he evolved, he was the best at evolving. He built three or four unbelievable squads and that tells you that he was someone who could evolve over time.
“If it meant winning I’m sure he would have been backing you.”
Twitter should be in a pundit’s armoury
Ferdinand has no qualms about giving honest criticism to footballers following his move into punditry.
The BT Sport analyst explains how he uses Twitter as a platform to expand on points made on air.
“It helps supplement what you do live on air, you speak live on air and you can go into a bit more detail on social media with some points as well because you only get a limited amount of time.
“I think it’s a great added tool that you can use as a pundit in your armoury.”
Social media is now being embraced by footballers, but not all are as Twitter-literate as Ferdinand.
Wayne Rooney’s debut tweet is living proof of this. With 140 characters at his disposal Rooney tweeted: “Hi rio do u want picking up in the morning pal”, neglecting to tag his teammate.
Ferdinand explains that despite the mix-up, the pair have car-shared since. “I had a couple of good lifts off him actually!”
‘Wayne Rooney is under-appreciated’
Making way for Lukaku was Ferdinand’s former teammate and Manchester United all-time top goalscorer Wayne Rooney.
Ferdinand speaks highly of the new Everton player, following his retirement from the international stage.
“He should be remembered as the greatest goalscorer this country has ever produced for England, and for Manchester United the greatest goalscorer that they’ve had.”
“I just hope the appreciation in this country grows as time goes on because I think he’s been undervalued and under-appreciated in this country.”
Ferdinand recalls his favourite moments from his time playing alongside Rooney.
“His overhead kick for Man United against Man City, his volley against Newcastle.
“He burst onto the scene for England as a fresh faced 18 year old… well he was never fresh faced, but as a youngster for England in the Euros.
“From the moment I saw him, I just knew that he was a special talent.”
‘Lukaku could carry strikers on his back on the way to goal and still score’
Ferdinand appeared in Sir Alex Ferguson’s final game, a 5-5 draw against West Bromwich Albion.
In that game the centre back came up against Manchester United’s new number nine Romelu Lukaku.
“I came on as a sub and I think he [Lukaku] got a hat trick in that game – not all against me, but he got a hat trick.” Ferdinand explains the difference that the Belgian striker could make to Manchester United’s current Premier League campaign.
“He has all the tools to be unplayable,” Ferdinand says.
“He could be carrying strikers on his back on the way to goal and still score it, he’s that strong, he’s that quick, he should use all these attributes to really punish teams.
“That will be the difference between Man United this season and last – he’s a bully, he can bully the average middle table teams and lower table teams.
“Man United last season failed to do that against a couple of teams and that’s where the pendulum will swing for them. That was a beautiful way I put that wasn’t it?”
Rio Ferdinand was speaking ahead of ‘BT Sport presents: How to win on digital with Rio Ferdinand’ at the Edinburgh International Television Festival
This interview first appeared on our sister site iNews.