in this part, Nemanja gives his insight on his move to UTD and a formidable partnership he had with Ferdinand. The best CB pairing in EPL history.
I have been asked before if it annoys me to be mentioned alongside Rio Ferdinand so much, rather than just as an individual.
For me, it’s the opposite; I’m proud to be talked about as half of our partnership. I played with a lot of great players and he is definitely the best defender I ever played with.
I was aware of Rio a long time before I came to play alongside him. When I was growing up as a young footballer, first as a striker, then a winger, eventually I started playing a defender when I was 13 years old. In Serbia we watched a lot of Italian football, and at that time Parma had Fabio Cannavaro and Lilian Thuram, while AC Milan had Paolo Maldini who was obviously an icon for a lot of generations that came through after him. Those were the players that I looked to at the time. After that, I looked more to the forwards. Football is played for the goals. After those three defenders in my early ages, I was watching more attackers, probably because I was a defender, thinking about what I would do against these players if I played against them. That was my way of thinking.
Then I watched Rio when he was at Leeds. When I was young I always watched the teams that didn’t always have a chance of winning the title, so I was attracted to new teams who were doing well. At that time Leeds had a great team with Kewell, Bowyer, Woodgate and this guy Ferdinand. He was only young then, but he was already recognisable, not just by myself but around the world, as one of the future defenders who was going to achieve greatness. Maldini had inspired the previous generation of defenders; Rio was the leader of a new generation who promised that defenders were still a big part of winning trophies.
When I came to United in January 2006, Rio was already at the club. At that time, you had two centre-back spots in the team and I think everyone knew that one of them belonged to Rio. He was the one player you knew would play. He already had a few years at the top level, he had great ability, I would say he was a leader at that time, the leader of the defence. Wes Brown, Mikael Silvestre and myself, we three were vying for that one position in defence. That was my feeling when I first arrived. We know in England that you play 60 games a season, so all three of us knew we would have a certain amount of games to prove our abilities.
When I signed, Ferguson didn’t say at that time that he wanted to partner me with Rio, but he was clear that he was counting on me, expecting me to adapt fast and do what I do the best. In the beginning it wasn’t like everything was going really smoothly for me, but after five or six months I started performing on a level that everyone at the club was expecting from me.
Mikael was a France international, Wes was a great player but as we all know he was so unlucky with injuries, especially earlier in his career. He could also play different positions, as we saw in 2007/08 when he was at right-back and played a big part in us winning the Champions League. I believe at the time I joined, the boss wasn’t thinking of me and Rio as a great combination, he just wanted to have four central defenders he could switch, and that would play a big part in developing a strong defence. It’s not just two players because as we know in the Premier League, there are so many injuries.
When I got to train with Rio, I could see all the attributes which made him so good. He was very fast, strong and technically one of the best defenders of the time. The main strengths for him are the speed, reading of the game and ability on the ball. I think those are his biggest abilities, but in general, he was just an all-round top player. He had everything. Maybe most important of all, maybe the main thing about him, was his love for football, and he showed that every day in training when he stayed doing extra work. He would do anything and everything that helped him to be better than he had been the previous day, and I liked that about him; I like that mentality.
He was also a really good guy, I quickly discovered. And a busy guy! He always has been, but in a good way. He was always interested in many things; music, investing… his mind is always working. I like that about him because I could talk with him about different things. I have to say also that he helped me when I came. He was the first one who gave me a hand, showing me around the place. Especially in the first few months, he helped me to settle and I think it was then that our partnership began because I could see straight away that this was a guy I could trust. At the end of the day we are different characters, if you look at us, but we got on well together. I think that difference we maybe had in our way of viewing things actually helped us complement each other.
We worked on our relationship on the pitch. We got on well together off the pitch as well, which was to our benefit, because that trust was nurtured and became rock solid. I think it’s important for defenders that you trust your team-mate playing next to you, especially when you’re a central defender because I think those two are the defenders who really depend on each other. I think we knew that from the beginning, we worked on our relationship and that’s maybe why we were successful.
I can’t name a specific point or a specific game when we played and both thought: ‘Right, now we are a partnership’, because it was more gradual than that. I think when we started realising that was actually in training when we found that we were talking all the time. It was when we started talking in training, about what he thinks in a certain situation, what I think in a certain situation. I remember one 11 v 11 training game in a small area, a certain situation happened which we didn’t deal with well, so straight afterwards I asked him: “What do you think about that?” Then I told him what I thought, and then I tried to understand what his view was, he looked at what my view was, what he thought I should do in that situation, whether to help him and cover him or the opposite: for him to cover my back.
When we started talking like that, then we started making changes and that’s when we started thinking: Okay, this will work.
That’s when we started to see improvements. We started defending each other, we knew what we had to do in certain situations and obviously in the beginning we had to talk all the time, but it became natural as we played so long together. That’s when we realised: this is the way to do it. Talk. Speak. Express ourselves. In situations, decide what we can do. It started in training, not from the games. Obviously in the games you see that working and you build on that.
Over time, people would say that we both had certain roles, like I was the tough guy and Rio was the silky player, and I don’t mind that. Definitely not. People see you how they see you. For me, it was most important that we were winning and playing well, so if somebody gives you a compliment that you are this way or that way, I don’t care. I’m not too bothered what people think, generally. Obviously if someone is booing you or saying bad things, I would not like that, but as long as people have a good opinion about me and what I did for United in my career, if they see it that way, I’m happy with that.
What I would say about Rio is that he could switch his game to do whatever was needed. As he might say, it wasn’t his cup of tea to take the ball on in the air and head it clear - maybe that was more my cup of tea! But he could do whatever the situation needed. I remember going to games like Stoke away, when we needed to head the ball for 90 minutes, needed to spend all day jumping and being physical and he would do it well.
So much is said about the partnership Rio and I had, but I have to mention the role that Edwin played in our relationship. He was a big part of it. He was experienced, really good on the ball and he was always there as well. He could see the whole pitch and he was there to help. If I didn’t see something or Rio didn’t see something, he was there to help. What’s important with Ed, he was 34 or 35 when he came to United, I think, so he already had so much experience. What’s important for us as defenders is to trust your goalkeeper, and we trusted Ed. It doesn’t matter where the player is shooting from. If he’s outside the box, you’re not worried that much. You let him shoot because you know Ed will cover that. We worked on that too and Ed was good at it, especially in the beginning when we started. Those experienced players give you that calmness that you need in certain situations and Ed was great at it.
Communication and calmness was a huge part of Ed’s game. He would always put himself in the position where he had to be. He really was great at that. With the size of him, if he put himself in a good position then it’s very difficult to score against him. He’s not a small goalkeeper who’s going to fly two metres to keep out shots in the corner – he did do that sometimes, in the Champions League especially – but almost all the time he’s the person who’s going to be in the right position at the right time. He was a big part. A lot of people forget how good he was and how important he was for our team at that time, and especially for me and Rio.
I still remember, actually, the run we had in 2008/09, where we didn’t concede a goal for 14 Premier League games in a row. I think me and Edwin were the only players who played every game of that run. People were talking about records, and I think maybe Fergie was sick of that, so when we had a game against Blackburn at Old Trafford, he said to me and Ed: “Guys, bench.” I still clearly remember sitting there when Blackburn scored and the run ended that day!
It was a great record to have, but it isn’t just about getting a record; it’s about giving belief to yourself and to the players you play with. When we started winning those matches, we had the five or six players at the back all defending more than the front players because you understand that if you keep the 0-0 for the first half, you know that the players you have upfront, with the ability of Wayne Rooney, Crisitano Ronaldo, Ryan Giggs, Robin Van Persie, Berba ,Tevez...you have great players upfront at that time, so you know that if you keep your part of the job, keep a clean sheet, you know you have a big chance of winning the game. That’s helping the forwards too, knowing that they can be relaxed. They can think: ‘If we score one or two goals then we win the match, because the defence does not concede.’ So it goes both directions: we know the attackers will score in every game; the attackers know we will probably keep a clean sheet. It keeps it all functioning well. That’s what this record gives you: belief. Winning the trophies gives you the belief that you can do it again. This record, these titles, they’re important. The first title we won after four years, 2006/07, we started to believe: now we can win it again. We won it the next season plus the Champions League, and it just went from there. That’s what you need, that belief. That’s what you get from winning trophies and breaking records.
Me and Rio played so many games together, but it’s the most important ones that you remember, like winning the Premier League at Wigan and Blackburn, and definitely the Champions League final against Chelsea in Moscow. Any game you secure a trophy is a special one, so the Champions League final stands out. A lot of great players didn’t get the chance to lift that trophy, so in terms of that I would say the Champions League is probably the most memorable game I had with Rio.
I had forgotten, actually, until he said recently, but I had to stop Rio crying after we won the trophy! We are different in many ways! Rio obviously puts so much hard work into everything he does, and he had this dream to win the Champions League. I remember beforehand he just kept saying: “We have to win, we have to win, we have to win.” It was something he dreamed of and pushed for. When we won it, of course he was emotional. Remember the penalty shootout, that could have gone either way as well… but I have a general feeling like if you won something you should be happy, not crying. I just think that way. I never cried when I’m happy. He’s an emotional guy. They were just small tears, nothing major. I’d forgotten about that reaction, but it was just a moment.
I was very fortunate to play with so many great players at United, with such fantastic team spirit and respect for each other, even though we were from so many different countries and even different generations. With Rio, I had a special bond. We are still in touch now, even though we are both retired from playing and living in different countries. Again, we are different because he likes to text, I like to talk on the phone, so that’s the issue there! It has to be a few messages and a bit of talking on the phone. We compromise for each other. Sometimes he’ll call, sometimes I’ll text him. That’s how it goes.
Obviously he has been through some major stuff in his personal life in recent years; not just him but the whole family too. After everything that happened to him, losing his wife and his mother so close together – and they were both great women – I’m just so proud for the way he has handled such a difficult period.
I am lucky to have known him for so long and to have shared so many memories with him. There would always be Rio, there would always be Vidic, but I think without Rio and Vidic together, we wouldn’t have achieved everything that we achieved in the game. The same went for Carvalho and Terry, a great partnership and, if you look at the other teams, Carragher had a great partnership with Sami Hyypia and he struggled to maybe find as good a partner after Hyypia left.
I think that kind of partnership is what allows defenders to give the best of themselves: when the two parts complement each other. Those are the partnerships that allow you to achieve great things in a team. In that sense, there’s no Rio without Vidic, no Vidic without Rio, so it doesn’t annoy me at all to be talked about as half of a partnership.
I’m only proud of what we achieved together.