At £18million he became the club’s most expensive signing, British football’s most expensive player and world football’s most expensive defender.
Leeds pushed the boat out for Ferdinand, convincing West Ham to take the cash in November 2000, but the club’s admiration of him was never fully reciprocated.
When the time came for a firesale at Elland Road the England international was one of the first players to jump ship.
The board at Leeds made more than £12m profit on his transfer to Manchester United in 2002, underlining Harry Redknapp’s prediction when West Ham first sold him. “He’ll go on to be one of the best in Europe,” Redknapp said.
In Europe – albeit it briefly – Leeds discovered the full extent of his potential. United’s manager, David O’Leary, thought Ferdinand was raw and unfinished but he saw in him the poise, pace and class of a top-class centre-back; a centre-back who the great Franco Baresi said “could become a better player than I was.”
In his season-and-a-half at Elland Road, Ferdinand experienced the best of Leeds in the post-Wilkinson era. The club waded into the thick of the fight for the Premier League title and became the story of the Champions League in 2001.
Ferdinand was the first player to receive a 10 out of 10 match rating from the YEP on the brilliant night when United routed Deportivo La Coruna.
In different circumstances, Leeds would have built their team around him for years on end but long-term planning evaporated in the lead up to the summer of 2002 and Ferdinand sensed a change in the wind.
O’Leary was sacked and Terry Venables took charge. Ferdinand became aware of interest from Manchester United and, having travelled to the World Cup with England, decided to force the issue with a club and a chairman who were running out of money.
“I remember sitting in Peter Ridsdale’s office for a couple of hours,” Ferdinand wrote in his autobiography.
“I think he was playing hide-and-seek with me. He wouldn’t come and see me, he didn’t want to sell me but I said ‘listen, please man, I know what position you’re in, please just do the right thing’.”
At the time, Ferdinand’s agent stoked tempers in Leeds by saying: “He’s a loyal soldier but he would be very happy to join Manchester United.
“He wants to play in a bigger and better club. He wants to play in the Champions League.”
Leeds rejected a transfer request from Ferdinand and ordered him to travel for a pre-season tour of the Far East but amid the arguing, a deal was inevitable.
Ridsdale shook hands with Manchester United for a fee of £30.5m.
“The increase in Rio Ferdinand’s valuation since his £18m transfer from West Ham signals a significant return on our original investment,” said Ridsdale, summing up Leeds’ downward trajectory.
Sir Alex Ferguson talked about the “hard road” taken to sign Ferdinand and the defender’s time at Old Trafford proved to be trophy-laden.
He left behind a club in so much trouble that in January 2004, Leeds accepted a cut-price payment of £1.5m as an early settlement for the remaining £3.25m owed to them for Ferdinand.
The money was used to keep creditors from the door at Elland Road.
Thankfully, things have been looking up more recently with Andrea Radrizzani's takeover and a 2-1 win over Middlesbrough on Sunday.
On Tuesday, the Whites travel to Wolves for a crunch game. What difference would Ferdinand make if he was available via time machine tomorrow night?