Ferguson hints at Ferdinand extension

Sir Alex Ferguson has hinted he could offer Rio Ferdinand a new deal after hailing his influence on the Manchester United dressing room.

Ferdinand has been written off many times during the past three and a half years, firstly after the extent of his back problems first became evident.

He was discarded by England boss Fabio Capello prior to the Italian’s surprise resignation and the sight of Ferdinand standing on plane journeys to European away games did not give the impression of a player who had plenty of time left at the highest level.

This season, though, Ferdinand has excelled.

Although the 33-year-old has missed games, the most he has sat out on the trot has been three and in a season where long-time central defensive partner Nemanja Vidic has been out since early December, his presence has been a huge benefit.

"I keep thinking I signed Rio three or four years ago," said Ferguson ahead of tomorrow night’s Premier League encounter with Fulham at Old Trafford.

"I forget he’s been here for almost 10 years now.

"He has taken on that role of the influential person in the dressing room. He is great with the players.

"If you can keep players long enough for their influence to spread – and in the modern game it’s difficult to keep players for five or six years – they can take over from the older players as they disappear."

It is why the loss of Gary Neville did not have the negative impact many imagined and why United should continue to challenge for top honors even when Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, again, eventually call it a day.

Should United retain the Premier League, it would be Ferdinand’s sixth, which would leave him only two behind Alan Hansen, who antagonized Ferguson earlier this season when he claimed this was the worst Red Devils outfit he could remember.

And for all his back issues – and recent reports he may be interested in a lucrative move to China – Ferguson is convinced Ferdinand will carry on for a while yet.

"He is still young for a center back," said the United boss.

"In normal terms you would expect a center back with his athleticism to play well into their thirties anyway.

"We all know about his back problem, so we’ve had to manage that.

"He has adapted really well to the challenge of making sure he is fit and fresh to play in the games when we need him.

"How long he goes on for is all down to how he feels physically, other than that he has no issues at all."

Ferdinand’s experienced will be needed when United encounter tough times, as they surely will over their remaining nine games.

Vidic, Darren Fletcher and, probably, Anderson have already been written out of the run-in and Dimitar Berbatov will play little, if any, part as he prepares to end his inconsistent four-year stay.

Nani and Michael Owen will also miss Monday night’s encounter with Fulham.

Both should be back soon, though, with Ferguson insisting Owen has a significant role to play in his capacity as arch penalty box predator, despite being out since the beginning of November with a thigh problem and making just four appearances all season.

"Michael is making good progress," said Ferguson.

"He came back into our training sessions a couple of weeks ago but then did some physical work with the sports science team and overdid it, which knocked him back a few days.

"But he’s back in sync again and he should be joining us next week.

"If you think about needing a player to score an important goal, is there anyone better than Michael Owen?"