‘You can’t hide, it forces you to express yourself’ – How small-sided games helped Rio Ferdinand to the top


Playing football on the streets was a key component of the former Manchester United defender’s development

Rio Ferdinand honed his craft playing small-sided games as a youngster, with those experiences during his early years equipping him with the style and the substance for a career at the pinnacle of the game.

The Londoner, who won 81 caps for England, spent a glittering 12-year spell at Manchester United before returning to the capital to end his career with Queens Park Rangers in 2015.

Ferdinand broke into the game with West Ham United before signing for Leeds United for a British record £18 million fee in 2000. After two years with the Yorkshire club, he signed for United for a whopping £30 million, once again becoming his country’s most expensive player.

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It was at Old Trafford that Ferdinand enjoyed over a decade of remarkable success, claiming six Premier League titles, the 2008 Champions League and a swathe of further honours for the Red Devils.

The ex-centre-back is now recognised as one of the best defenders of his generation, and made the PFA Prem Team of the Year on an eye-watering six occasions.

And his remarkable achievements owe something to his upbringing on the streets of South London, where he honed many of the qualities that took him to the pinnacle of the game.

Rio Ferdinand | Man Utd's 20 greatest

“[I played on the streets] day in, day out,” he told For the Replay earlier this year. “The ball never goes out of play. Physically, it’s demanding; you’re forced almost to have a personality and show a personality in there.

“You can’t hide,” he added. “It’s physical and technical.

“We played with whoever was there, so you just play with the numbers you’ve got. If it was three vs three, fine, if it was five-a-side, it’s not a problem.”

Ferdinand was more than a defender, first earning national attention not for his ability to rob others of the ball, but to make use of it when in possession himself.

His qualities took him to three World Cups, and he was duly inducted into England football’s hall of fame in 2016.

Yet despite his success, he never forgot his roots, and the value that his experience in cage football brought to his professional career.

Rio Ferdinand England 11102008

“I grew up in [that] environment, and it enables you definitely to deal with people one-on-one, because in a game, in a stadium, in front of thousands and thousands of people, you have to [do this], just with bigger spaces.

“So, you get used to that in this type of environment. It’s key,” he added. “If you can express yourself, you see the best in everyone, individually [and as] a team.”

Even recently, in 2016, Ferdinand demonstrated his enduring love for pick-up games when he backed a campaign to save the Leyton Square adventure playground in Peckham, which had been one of the player’s favourite haunts growing up.

“A lot of people associate the skill and flair [with cage football] without the end product, but that’s what’s important about this game, the end product is always king.

“You want to look good, feel good, play good,” Ferdinand concluded. “Some of it is superstition, it’s like that all in one. If you can translate that into the cage, you’ve got it made.”

Ferdinand will now be casting his eye over others’ abilities as ambassador of Guinness Night Football, which is running in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria and Cameroon.

Find out everything you need to know about Guinness Night Football at https://www.goal.com/guinness

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