Manchester United legend Rio Ferdinand has admitted he once doubted he would make it as a professional footballer after another player took his starting place in West Ham’s academy.
Now widely viewed as one of the greatest central defenders England has ever produced, Ferdinand broke into West Ham’s senior team in 1996 at the age of just 17.
After five years with the Hammers, he moved to Leeds United in 2000 for £18m – then a world record fee for a defender, before later joining their bitter rivals Manchester United in 2002 for £30m – becoming the most expensive defender in history for the second time.
Ferdinand would go on to win numerous trophies with United including six Premier League titles and the Champions League once, before retiring in 2015 after a single season with QPR.
While Ferdinand was tipped for greatness from an early age, the former England international has now revealed it was far from a smooth journey to the top.
Speaking ahead of the release of a new three-part docuseries in which he confronts the issues that football faces around race, sexuality and mental health, Ferdinand admits he worried for his career after losing his starting place at West Ham.
“One of the lads we met in the episode, Lee Goodwin, was a midfielder and played in my position at the time. He came in and took my place. I was on the bench for about eight months,” Ferdinand told SPORTbible, ahead of the release of the Amazon Prime Video docuseries titled Rio Ferdinand’s Tipping Point.
“I was seriously sitting there saying ‘I don’t know what’s happened here, I’m gone.’ I had a bit of a growth spurt and lost my coordination; I just wasn’t the same player for a couple of months.
“I genuinely started to think that I might have to leave West Ham, that I might not make it. I was lucky that I had some good people around me that reassured me, telling me ‘keep working hard and you’ll get to where you need to get to’. So I stuck at it.
Ferdinand made his senior debut for West Ham in 1996 aged just 17 (Image: Alamy)”But not everyone is afforded those good people around them, those experienced people around them. I had those people at a vital point in my career. Without them, who knows what would have happened to me?”
The third episode of the series focuses on the academy system in English professional football, and the huge pressure and weight of expectation that players have to deal with from a young age.
It explores whether enough support is being given to youngsters, both during their time in academies and after they are released by clubs.
The episode highlights the tragic case of former Manchester City youth player Jeremy Wisten, who killed himself in 2020 at the age of 18 – two years after being let go by the Premier League club.
Just 0.012 per cent of academy players go on to play in the Premier League and Ferdinand says clubs have a responsibility to protect the mental health of their young players while also responsibly managing expectations.
Ferdinand enjoyed his best years of his career at Man United, winning numerous trophies under Sir Alex Ferguson (Image: Alamy)”There needs to be the motivation. We were fortunate enough to have a round table with a few football clubs during the series, some declined but many did come,” added Ferdinand.
“It was refreshing to see some of them trying to put things in place to help young players and their mental health, coming into the club and when they leave – and everything in between.”
Club football academies start from the under-nine age group and players can be brought out of school to attend training from around the age of 12.
Two of Ferdinand’s own sons are currently involved in academy football and the former defender says parents need to be completely confident that their child is ready for the pressures involved before allowing them to join an academy.
“You could look at it when they go on in and say ‘they’re too young’ but I think that it depends on the individual really,” added Ferdinand.
“As a parent, you have to gauge where your kid’s at. Are they equipped to handle all of the pressures of going into a professional club and the demands that are put on them?
Watch the new three-part docu-series ‘Rio Ferdinand: Tipping Point’ on Amazon Prime from November 11 (Image: Amazon Prime)”It is a lot to withstand. The travel, the intensity, how serious it is from a young age. Can your kid deal with that?
“I’ve got two boys who are in an academy at the moment and they came into it at a later age, mainly because I didn’t feel it was right for them at that time to go in so early.”
Ferdinand has also urged football’s governing bodies to do more to protect young players.
“There is still much work to be done, they know that,” he added.
“There needs to be something implemented by the authorities that demands that these processes are put in place for clubs, because we can’t have young players taking their own lives or falling into depression.”
Watch Rio Ferdinand’s Tipping Point on Amazon Prime from November 11.