It’s been hard… but I’d like to think I’m more than just Rio’s brother, says St Mirren defender Anton Ferdinand
- The St Mirren defender is still striving to put his own mark on the game
- Ferdinand is focused on rescuing Saints from a woeful start to the season
- The 33-year-old is also conscious of the need to map out his long-term future
He’s not Rio, they’d say. Sure, he’d graduated from the same academy at West Ham, played in the same commanding centre-half style and made it at professional level.
Just by surviving the graveyard of English football’s youth system, he had achieved more than most could ever dream of. If things went his way, the talent was there for him to play for England.
Just like his brother. But at every turn, every landmark, came the comparison and the reminder. He wasn’t Rio.
Anton Ferdinand is focused on rescuing St Mirren from a woeful start to the season
The sporting achievements of an older sibling are a curious thing. In one sense, they are victories that excite, benchmarks to aspire to, vicarious successes lived through the joy of seeing one’s kin triumph.
But, should a sibling then choose to follow in their footsteps, those achievements become the context against which their entire career will inevitably be compared.
For Anton Ferdinand, this maxim played out in a decidedly more public setting than most will ever experience.
Rio is long-since retired, but Anton is still striving to put his own mark on the game
His heroes growing up were no different to those of many a young defender at the turn of the century.
Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Costacurta and Fernando Hierro are the first that spring to his mind. And, of course, Rio.
‘He was the best in the world in my position,’ says Anton. ‘And he was my brother.’
By the time Anton made his professional debut for West Ham, Rio — six-and-a-half years his senior — was already a title-winner with Manchester United.
He’d played 32 times for his country and was the world’s most expensive defender — twice. Fifteen years on, Rio is long-since retired, but Anton is still striving to put his own mark on the game. Six weeks ago, St Mirren became the eighth club of his career.
Ferdinand (right) graduated from the same academy at West Ham as his brother
‘It’s been hard,’ he says. ‘But I like to think I’m not Rio’s brother any more. I’m Anton Ferdinand, I’ve had a fantastic career in my own right.
‘People said: “Oh, he’s only in the Premier League because of his brother”. You don’t play 11 straight years in the Premier League if you’re just someone’s brother, you don’t get bought for £8million if you’re someone’s brother. You have to be good enough.’
It’s a hard sentiment to argue with. So much so, that, having fashioned his own career and having staked his claim in a family where cousin Les had already laid down a considerable marker, his next statement comes as a distinct surprise.
‘It was probably my downfall, coming out of Rio’s shadow,’ reflects Anton. ‘It was a big thing for me, I ended up relaxing far too much because it was such a big achievement.’
The cost? ‘I should have played for England,’ he says. ‘Coming through, I was a centre-back at the same time as Sol Campbell, Rio, John Terry, Jamie Carragher, Jonny Woodgate, Ledley King — that’s six of the best. It was hard.
The defender talks to Sportsmail’s George Bond in the dressing room at St Mirren Park
‘Coming out of Rio’s shell, I started to relax far too much and became inconsistent. That’s why I never played for England.
‘I just missed out on the (2006) World Cup. Sven Goran-Eriksson wanted me to meet up with the squad when someone got injured.
‘But I’d just had a double hernia operation after the FA Cup final. I couldn’t go. That would have changed my career in so many ways — I’ve never cried so much in my life.’
Ferdinand is now 33, and the end of his career is creeping ever closer. His dreams of winning that elusive England cap are reluctantly filed away under what might have been.
While his immediate focus is on rescuing Saints from a woeful start to the current Premiership season, he is conscious of the need to map out his long-term future.
Alongside training for his coaching badges, Ferdinand has ‘a number of things’ in the pipeline, including venturing into the world of financial literacy, a tool to help players conserve their money.
Few of us in the ‘normal’ world could comprehend the riches afforded to top-level footballers, let alone that a staggering 40 per cent of them contrive to end up in financial ruin.
‘I know first-hand,’ says Anton. ‘You get given all this money at a young age and don’t know what to do with it.
‘Sometimes the advice from someone you think you can trust isn’t the best, you don’t understand the language they’re using.
‘The game needs to take responsibility for it. The clubs are giving these boys a lot of money and saying: “Go and do what you want with it.”
‘You talk about depression and mental health — a lot of it stems from retiring and money problems. You can’t stop retirement, but you can stop money problems.’
The past few years have been among the hardest in Ferdinand’s life, losing his mother Janice to cancer last year just two years on from the tragic death of his brother’s wife Rebecca. Rio has detailed his own struggle at length, and attempted a new career in boxing to escape the pain he experienced.
Given professional football’s inherently public, tribal nature, there are perhaps few lines of work where mental health has proved a more difficult topic to tackle.
After Aaron Lennon — a former England Under-21s team-mate of Anton’s — was detained under the Mental Health Act last year, Ferdinand believes the subject must become part of the dressing room parlance.
‘It’s hard to talk about,’ he says. ‘And this is why people get mental problems, because they don’t want to talk. ‘Because of the persona that comes with being a footballer, we’re built not to talk or show our emotions, because you look weak. Especially as a defender, a hard man, all that comes with it. You showed your emotion? You’re weak.’
Changing attitudes in football’s often hostile atmosphere requires action from fans and players alike, however. In the aftermath of what is, sadly, still the most high-profile moment of Anton’s career, he was targeted online by vitriolic fans.
The victim of alleged racial abuse from Terry — Rio’s long-time England centre-back partner — Anton was hounded when the incident saw Terry stripped of the England captaincy.
‘No one deserves death threats,’ he says. ‘No matter what the situation. I’ve had them. You do have to take the rough with the smooth. If you’re going to be a professional footballer in the public eye, posting on social media, that’s life. Death threats are beyond what you should have to tolerate.
‘When I was young, my icons were (Brazilian) Ronaldo, Paul Ince, Rio. Now, every player’s an icon because of social media. On social media you’re easy to get at.
‘People say it’s fantastic, you can interact with your fans — but not every fan likes you.
‘As role models we have to show people how to deal with it, when to retaliate and when not to. It’s hard. But sometimes silence speaks louder than words.’
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