Manchester United legend Rio Ferdinand captained the club to their 2008 Champions League final triumph over Chelsea, the last time the club lifted the famous trophy.
It was a moment that made the defender finally feel like he belonged alongside Old Trafford legends like Sir Bobby Charlton, but it also came with a significant regret in the way the club didn’t really celebrate.
United and Chelsea were the two strongest teams in Europe at the time and it was a fitting final.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s first-half header was cancelled out on the stroke of half-time by Frank Lampard to finish 1-1 in 90 minutes. Lampard hit the bar in extra-time, while Didier Drogba was also sent off in the additional period for slapping Nemanja Vidic.
Ronaldo, having scored 43 goals in all competitions, actually missed in the shootout. That presented John Terry with a chance to win it for Chelsea, but his infamous slip saw him strike the post instead. After Anderson, Salomon Kalou and Ryan Giggs all scored theirs, Edwin van der Sar’s save to deny Nicolas Anelka secured United a 6-5 win and their third European Cup.
Ferdinand was due to be next to take a penalty had Anelka scored. But he has admitted in the latest episode of James Richardson’s Kings of Europe podcast that his legs were ‘gone’ with nerves.
“We hadn’t had a set list of who was taking them and what numbers. We got to penalties and the manager asked who wants to take one. I vividly remember Patrice Evra saying, ‘I don’t want one’,” Ferdinand recalled of the rainy night in Moscow.
“I was after Giggsy. When Giggsy took his penalty and I thought Anelka would go up and score his, the closer it got to me, the more I lost my legs. I really don’t know how I would have got from the halfway line and down to the penalty spot without crawling. How am I going to kick the ball like this?
“I was gone, seriously. It was just crazy what it does to you because of the enormity of the occasion and I allowed it to get to me too much – God knows what would have happened to me if I’d had to go up and take a penalty.”
Ferdinand was the only United player to start more than 50 games in all competitions throughout the season, with the Champions League final his 51st. With club captain Gary Neville also sidelined with injury for most of the campaign, he wore the armband regularly.
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But even several years into his United career, having transferred from Leeds for a then British record £30m fee in 2002, it took a European title for Ferdinand to feel like he deserved to be in the company of club legends who had been of United’s storied past.
“Sir Bobby Charlton said a few nice words to me about lifting it, the importance of it to the club, but also as captain and what that means,” Ferdinand explained.
“People have to understand, when you’re at a club like Manchester United steeped in history and success, you walk around the corridors desperate to etch your name into that history as well. With legends like that, I felt inferior and wasn’t that level. I can’t have that conversation or sit at that table until I’ve won the Champions League and multiple Premier Leagues.
“I was always searching for those titles and that was one of the moments where I could shake Sir Bobby’s hand, look him in the eye and feel comfortable.”
Yet with a Champions League title in the bag, a first since 1999 and still their most recent triumph in the competition, despite returning to further finals in 2009 and 2011, Ferdinand strongly believes the club missed a golden opportunity because of a ‘complacent’ attitude to success.
In 1999, when victory over Bayern Munich at Camp Nou had sealed the third leg of an unprecedented treble, there had been an open-top bus parade through the centre of Manchester that finished with a celebration at the city’s arena. More than half a million people had packed the streets, hanging off lamp posts, bus stops and out of windows to be part of it. But in 2008, the Premier League and Champions League double winners had no such celebration.
“I couldn’t believe it myself,” a perplexed Ferdinand said.
“United were too accustomed to winning by that point – the 90s and 2000s were probably the most decorated years and we were in the midst of that. I just think the club became very complacent and used to winning, and thought, ‘We don’t need to, we’ll be here again soon’.
“I remember getting back from Moscow and there were a couple of hundred fans [at the airport]. I was thinking, ‘Where the hell is everyone?!’ We’d won the league and the [European] cup. I remember a lot of the foreign boys were like, ‘If we were in our country, we would not be able to get out of this airport’. The manager said, ‘Right, guys, well done. Thank you for everything. I’ll see you on the first day of pre-season, go and have a good summer’.
“Are we not doing an open top bus tour to the Manchester arena or something? I thought it was a wind-up, we’d won the double – Champions League and [Premier] league – and we’re not even going to celebrate it with our fans.”
Listen to the Rio Ferdinand interview in full in the latest episode of ‘James Richardson’s Kings of Europe’ – the latest podcast from BT Sport Pods out today across major podcast platforms.
Every Monday, journalist James Richardson interviews a Champions League winner from the past 30 years, providing unique insights into some of the biggest moments in European football history: btsport.com/pods