By his own admission, a “perfect” loan spell at AFC Bournemouth laid the foundations for Rio Ferdinand to become one of England’s finest footballers.
Just two days after celebrating his 18th birthday, Ferdinand made his full league debut for the Cherries having been drafted in from West Ham by Mel Machin.
It was November 1996 and Machin’s team were struggling near the foot of Division Two and in the midst of a defensive crisis.
At the time, Ferdinand was going through an indifferent spell with West Ham’s reserves and had just 37 minutes of first-team football under his belt.
The teenager had not featured for Harry Redknapp’s Hammers for more than six weeks having made three brief substitute appearances in the Premier League and one in the League Cup.
As a result, he jumped at the chance to gain some valuable game time with the Cherries – and never looked back.
Ferdinand’s career took off after he had made ten appearances in Division Two and one in the Auto Windscreens Shield.
One of England’s most decorated players, his CV boasts 81 caps for his country, six Premier League titles and a Champions League winner’s medal together with a host of other honours.
In his capacity as a summariser for BT Sport, Ferdinand returned to Vitality Stadium to cover the Cherries’ FA Cup fourth-round clash with Arsenal last night.
And ahead of the game, he took to Twitter and posted a message which read: “The experience I had at AFC Bournemouth changed everything in my development.”
Expanding on his comment in an interview with afcb.co.uk following the final whistle, Ferdinand said: “I always look back with fond memories on my time here.
“Mel Machin was fantastic for me and gave me a ridiculous amount of confidence. He allowed me to flourish and to understand what it was like to play men’s football and what it meant to fans on a Saturday.
“It took everything back to reality and really stripped it back. I would wash my own kit on a Monday and we would train in the local park.
“Things like that really kept you grounded and made you think "I appreciate where I am but I know I don’t want to have to play at this level”.
“That wasn’t being disrespectful because it was hard. It made me realise where I was and I knew I was lucky. I knew I needed to work hard to remain there or go on to better things so it was perfect in all aspects for me.”
Ferdinand debuted in a 1-1 draw against Blackpool at Bloomfield Road where Ian Cox, who now works for the club’s Community Sports Trust, was on target for the visitors.
He helped the Cherries register three wins and five draws during his ten league games and returned to West Ham with Machin’s team six places higher than when he had arrived.
“Ian Cox, Jason Brissett and John Bailey were the three players who looked after me the most,” added Ferdinand. “And Russell Beardsmore as well.
“Coxy was a great fella and a great player. It was no surprise to see him go on to play higher, he was brilliant and as quick as you like.
“He really helped me through the Blackpool game. Udo Onwere was one of the Blackpool subs and is now my lawyer which is crazy!
“I remember that game for a number of different reasons. It was my first introduction to proper men’s football and I loved it. I loved every minute of my stay.
“The manager showed great confidence by putting me in straight away. At the time, I was low on confidence and wasn’t playing particularly well in the reserves for West Ham.
“He saw something in me and gave me the chance and it immediately instilled confidence in me.
“Fortunately, I played quite well in my first game and the manager started called me ‘Class’. It was quite embarrassing in front of the team. He didn’t call me Rio, he used to say “hey, Class, how you doing?” For a young player coming into senior football, that was amazing.”
Ferdinand, who returned to Dean Court to play in Machin’s testimonial, was asked for his thoughts on how the club had changed: “It’s completely different.
“The training ground is next to the stadium and we used to train on a park. We got a mini-bus to the beach to run between the piers.
“You wouldn’t see that happening now. It’s a really professional set-up with the people behind it. Good investment has gone into it and the infrastructure is worlds apart from when I was here. It’s great to see they’ve gone on to bigger and better things.”
Asked if he felt the Cherries could maintain their Premier League status, Ferdinand replied: “In the second half against Arsenal, you saw a team that showed a bit of fight. If they do that and approach most games like that, I’m sure they will stay up.
“They’ve got goals in them. Callum Wilson scores goals and Sam Surridge looks a good prospect and did well at Swansea.
“I think they need Joshua King back. I don’t know how far off he is so that will give them something else.
“They’ve got three big games coming up Aston Villa, Sheffield United and Burnley. If they could get six or more points, you’d like to think they won’t be looking over their shoulder so much.”
I would wash my own kit on a Monday and we would train in the local park