By Aidan Elder | Chief sports writer
Talking about t-shirts in football is nothing new. From Robbie Fowler’s support of Liverpool’s dockers to Mario Balotelli’s rhetorical question with a whole lot in between, they’ve regularly been a topic of discussion. On Saturday, the garments received attention once more. A handful of players refused to endorse the FA’s ‘Kick It Out’ campaign, but it was Rio Ferdinand who garnered the most attention for the choice.
Sir Alex Ferguson wasn’t happy, partially because he felt his player had misled him and partially for the embarrassment caused. “At the press conference I spoke about it, it is disappointing, It is embarrassing for me,” explained Fergie, seemingly squaring up for a fight he could have chosen to sidestep.
After coming across a bit Tony Soprano on Saturday evening by declaring his long-serving defender would ‘be dealt with’, the Sunday papers claimed Ferdinand would be docked two weeks worth of his massive wages. Trusting tabloid reports is as dangerous as trusting David de Gea to catch a ball cleanly, but the move seemed to be in step with his strong rhetoric from the previous day.
The problem is Ferguson’s response seems completely disproportionate to his crime – ‘Nigel-Reo Coker’s confidence in comparison to his talent’ disproportionate. A protest against the inefficacy of the ‘Kick It Out’ campaign is warranted by any player. Too often it feels like the FA’s annual lip-service to a serious subject worth far greater time and resources. Events in Serbia and beyond highlight the fact the FA are far from the worst performers in terms of stamping out racist behaviour, but it’s still legitimate to feel the association aren’t going far enough to deal with things on their own doorstep.
That’s why Ferguson’s fury is so perplexing and theories about his motives for picking the fight are worth exploring. Ferdinand turns 34 next month and with a recent history featuring a good deal of time spent in the physio’s room, the motivation to jettison one of the club’s big earners and egos is obvious. Could the United boss be deliberately inflating this molehill to the status of a mountain to suit his own agenda?
It’s an eerily familiar pattern, A large chunk of Fergie’s best players find their time at Old Trafford coming to an abrupt end thanks to a run-in with the manager. Some are more contrived than others, but all curiously at a time when the player’s use to the club was generally on the wane.
David Beckham, Roy Keane, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Jaap Stam were discarded only when the boss thought they were replaceable. Fergie has since said his decision to axe Stam was premature and based on an incorrect appraisal of the Dutchman’s long-term fitness, but he’s rarely too far wrong.
For all his experience and service to the club, Rio has been criticised for being a weakness in the United defence in the last few seasons. With Jonny Evans developing from adequate stop-gap solution to assured defensive presence, Ferguson may have decided the club are well-equipped for a change.
The odds suggest an exit in the short-term is unlikely. Ferdinand is a whopping 1/10 to be a Manchester United player when the next January transfer window closes. Beyond that however, things are a little less clear. Odds of 13/8 for him to leave the club before the start of the 2013/14 season are more indicative of a future elsewhere.