Leeds United nostalgia: Beginning of the end signalled by Ferdinand’s move

Rio Ferdinand.
Rio Ferdinand.
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To many supporters, this week 14 years ago signalled the beginning of the end of Leeds United’s best period in their recent history, as captain Rio Ferdinand became the first of many players to leave the club.

After a hugely successful World Cup in Japan and South Korea, 23-year-old Ferdinand had his head turned by Sir Alex Ferguson and a move to Manchester United.

After only 18 months in West Yorkshire, in which Leeds challenged for the Premier League title and reached the Champions League semi-finals, Ferdinand was sold to the Red-Devils for £30m; the second time he had become the world’s most expensive defender after his £18m move to Elland Road from West Ham.

After narrowly missing out on Champions League qualification for the second successive season, crippling debts meant that the United were forced to sell many of their prized assets, as the £100m spending spree sanctioned by chairman Peter Ridsdale backfired.

Amid stormy seas, Ferdinand was the first to leave and despite the need to raise capital it looked as if he could be the only departure that summer.

But on transfer-deadline day Robbie Keane followed suit, joining Tottenham Hotspur for £7m, just over half the money Leeds had forked out to Inter Milan for his services less than 18 months previously. With United in the wrong half of the table by January and with European qualification in doubt, academy product and fans’ favourite Jonathan Woodgate was sold to Newcastle United for £9m, much to the disgust of manager Terry Venables who had been assured of his services.

It was not the first time Venables had been dealt broken promises that January, as the midfield duo of Olivier Dacourt – once the club’s record signing – and Lee Bowyer were moved on just weeks after the former England manager was assured that they would stay.

Thirteen days after the Woodgate departure, Robbie Fowler became the next to leave, as he joined Manchester City for £6m.

City were the latest club to bag themselves a bargain with the fee a snip compared to the £11m Leeds had paid Liverpool in 2001.

Feeling the pressure from the club’s dismal league position along with the humiliating early Uefa Cup exit at the hands of Malaga, the ex-England boss was sacked by Ridsdale in March as the pair’s relationship became irreparable.

And after incoming manager Peter Reid guided the club to a 15th-place finish as Leeds narrowly avoided the drop, the magical European nights that Rio Ferdinand enjoyed at Elland Road seemed a lifetime ago.

During the defender’s time at Elland Road, Ferdinand’s performances drew praise from Italian World Cup winner Franco Baresi who said: “He could become a better player than I was.”

The Champions League run to the semi-finals became famous across Europe, and Ferdinand’s stock began to rise after a magnificent performance in the quarter-final rout of Deportivo La Coruna that led to him becoming the first player to receive a 10 out of 10 match rating from the YEP.

If the Ridsdale gamble had have gone another way, perhaps Ferdinand would have gone on to cement his place in Leeds United folklore.

However, after making the move across the Pennines, Ferdinand felt the wrath of Leeds supporters when he returned to Elland Road for his fourth game at his new club.

Ferdinand was jeered with every touch as Harry Kewell’s second-half header dealt the final blow in what was a tortuous afternoon for Ferdinand.