Rio Ferdinand is and has been many things. An excellent centreback. One half of one of Manchester United's best defensive partnerships. And, of course, a man with many things going on beyond football: "The TV, the music, the fashion — it all goes to make up Rio Ferdinand." Any of you tBBers the proud owner of a #5 hat? Identify yourself in the comments so we can ban you immediately.
He was also exceptionally pricey. Ferdinand became the most expensive defender in the world not once but twice, first when he moved from West Ham to Leeds in 2000, for £18m, and then — having been dethroned by Lillian Thuram in the meantime — again when he joined United for around £30m. Though Eliaquim Mangala (anywhere between £32m and £42m, depending on who you believe) and David Luiz (£50m!) have since supplanted him at the top of the tree, that's not bad going.
Transfer fees are interesting things. They're fairly useless as points of cross-club comparison, thanks to the radically different financial situations, policies and business plans of everybody involved. They're also incomplete representations of club expenditure, as they fail to include wages, signing-on fees, agents fees, and all the other ancillary expenditure that football has somehow managed to attach to what should, at heart, be a person leaving one job for another job. And they suffer through time, as both ordinary inflation and the hyperinflation of football bloats fees beyond all reasonable comparison. Oh, and nobody ever really knows if they're being reported accurately.
But even with all that acknowledged, there are still odd little points of trivia buried here and there, and stories to be teased out. For instance, there's a symbolic value to being a club's record transfer, even allowing for inflation. And between October 1981 and June 2001, that's nearly 20 years, Manchester United broke their own transfer record eight times ... and every single time, they signed a belter. After the failed signing of Garry Birtles, the club picked up Bryan Robson, Mark Hughes, Gary Pallister, Roy Keane, Andy Cole, Jaap Stam, Dwight Yorke, and finally Ruud van Nistelrooy, an unbroken line of perfectly broken records that only ended when Juan Sebastian Veron turned up.
Ferdinand was the record-breaker immediately following Veron, and also arguably the last of the record signings to have been an uncaveated success (though there is, of course, still time for Juan Mata and Angel di Maria to bend United history to their will). He also — switching from relative records signings to crude amounts — sits at No. 4 in the list of United's all-time biggest signings, as this exceptionally well-presented table shows.
It's interesting to look at the timings of United's biggest signings. Of the ten most expensive players to arrive at United — we'll leave wages aside for the moment, and proceed on the basis that at this club, at this moment in time, nobody's getting underpaid — four arrived before or including summer 2014, while five arrived in summer 2012 or later. Now, that sentence doesn't contain all the constituent letters of the word "GLAZERS", yet nevertheless manages to spell it out nice and clearly. Magical.
All in all, United's Top Ten Adventures into Silly Money is a funny list. Actually caring about the amounts spent is slightly peculiar — this is, after all, largely money from Sky television and the profusion of exceptionally dignified sponsorship deals that the club has managed to conjure. But at the same time, of those names, it's hard not to feel that most have at least one question mark hanging around them somewhere. That there's a sense of being at least partially underwhelmed, if not actually ripped-off in any meaningful sense.
Some have only just arrived, of course, and so their question mark is necessarily premature. Ander Herrera has been pretty great and could well end up being fantastic, and it's far too early to say anything about Luke Shaw beyond "he does seem to get hurt a lot". Juan Mata has had his moments and will do so again, and we know Angel di Maria has the talent to be magnificent, even if we don't know if he has the arsedness.
The rest, though. Juan Sebastian Veron, the "fucking great player" who rarely looked it; Dimitar Berbatov, a crucial role in one title campaign but otherwise a beautiful oddity; Robin van Persie, one brilliant season and two heavily disrupted ones; Marouane Fellaini, who has just about achieved usefulness but will never go any further. And then, of course, Wayne Rooney, who is captain, who is destined to become United's top scorer, and who divides opinion like no other United player (save Carrick). That he's been exceptionally useful to United is beyond doubt; whether he's turned into the player that United thought they were buying is another question.
Drawing any kind of definitive "United are bad at spending silly money" conclusion is tempting, but as noted above, transfer fees make for flimsy foundations. And we live in a world where people spend £20m on Dejan Lovren, so clearly the market is fundamentally ruptured. But what that list can do, perhaps, is serve as evidence of quite how good Rio Ferdinand was. Silly money that doesn't, in hindsight, look even remotely silly. That takes some doing.