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Dec 11, 2009

Les Ferdinand: Goal king

From the lower echelons of non-league football, Les Ferdinand powered his way to the top of the English game, plundering goals every step of the way and claiming a place in the Premier League history books for his goalscoring exploits. As both a gentleman and a prolific finisher, "Sir Les" won the acclaim of fellow players and fans alike during his 13 year tenure in the top-flight.

Ferdinand was a powerful centre forward who was imperious in the air and possessed a fantastic finishing instinct. He currently sits in fifth place in the Premier League's all-time scoring charts, with 150 goals to his name - a feat made all the more remarkable considering that at 21 years old he was still playing non-league football for Hayes FC, and that he only played his first Premier League game at the age of 25.

After playing out his formative years with Hayes, Ferdinand moved on to Queens Park Rangers but struggled to establish himself as a regular starter. Loan moves to Brentford and a successful spell at Turkish side Besiktas - where the striker netted 14 goals in 24 games in the Super Lig - followed, and Ferdinand returned to QPR where he began to turn in some eye-catching displays, netting an impressive twenty goals in the inaugural Premier League season.

The striker, quickly chiselling himself a reputation as a clinical finisher, made his England debut in February 1993 against San Marino, claiming the final goal of six with a cleverly improvised scissor kick. But, like so many strikers of his generation, Ferdinand struggled to break up the international partnership of Alan Shearer and Teddy Sheringham. He was part of England's Euro '96 and World Cup '98 squads but failed to make an appearance in either despite consistently finding the net domestically.

He hit 24 league goals in 37 QPR appearances during the 1994-95 season alerted Newcastle United to his talent and he was snapped up for £6 million in the summer of 1995 as part of Kevin Keegan's revolution at St James' Park. Former club Hayes received £600,000 of the fee as part of a sell-on clause agreed with QPR and this money was used to build a function suite at the club's ground, named 'The Ferdinand Suite' in his honour.

The Magpies had only played two seasons in the Premier League but were fast developing a reputation as one of the most exciting sides in the top flight. Led by veteran captain Peter Beardsley, Newcastle had a wealth of attacking talent at their disposal and Ferdinand soon flourished. Wingers David Ginola and Keith Gillespie provided the striker with the ammunition for him to fire home 29 goals as Newcastle mounted a title challenge.

Ferdinand's first season with Newcastle proved to be the most prolific of his entire career and he was crowned PFA Footballer of the Year by his peers for spearheading Newcastle's title charge. But the personal achievements were bittersweet as Keegan's cavalier side threw away a seemingly unassailable 12-point lead to surrender the title to Manchester United. In the season's defining game at St James' Park - a 1-0 victory for United courtesy of Eric Cantona - Ferdinand was consistently thwarted by goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel in one of the most frustrating nights of his career.

Whilst Ferdinand was enjoying huge success on Tyneside his former club QPR were struggling without their main talisman. His departure over the summer of 1995 had devastated the club fans, and with his formerly lethal partnership with Kevin Gallen broken-up they began to slip down the table. Just four years after finishing 5th in Premier League they were relegated to the second tier, and have not returned to the top flight since.

Keegan was desperate to avenge the disappointment of the title defeat and in the summer of 1996 Alan Shearer arrived on Tyneside. He and Ferdinand bedded in immediately - forming a formidable strike partnership and netting 52 goals between them, but Newcastle had to be happy with a second place finish again.

Though Shearer and Ferdinand were a prolific pairing, "Sir Les" found himself increasingly overshadowed by his Geordie partner for both club and country. He decided on a move back to his home city of London with boyhood club Tottenham Hotspur, who paid £6 million to pair Ferdinand with returning hero Jurgen Klinsmann in what appeared to be a mouth-watering strike partnership.

But injuries severely hampered Ferdinand's Spurs' career and he managed just five league goals in his first season. He was unable to re-create his previously prolific record whilst at White Hart Lane, never managing to net more than ten Premier League goals in a season during his six year spell with the club. Ferdinand did taste League Cup success in 1999 and began to adapt his game as injuries started to take their toll - using his imposing frame to become more important as a provider.

Teddy Sheringham's return to Spurs in 2001 meant the club's two 35-year-old strikers could claim to make up the oldest forward line in the Premier League. The pair's 19 goals between them in 2000-01 was far from breathtaking and Ferdinand's continuous injuries problems made it difficult for him to find any consistent form. But a major highlight for Ferdinand came in a December contest with Fulham as he netted the 10,000th goal of the Premier League era.

"Sir Les" hoped a loan move to West Ham in the 2002-03 season might re-invigorate him but it was a subsequent permanent switch to Leicester that helped him rediscover his scoring touch, as the 37-year-old netted 12 Premier League goals for the Foxes. But his success was again tinged with disappointment as Leicester were relegated, though Ferdinand was thrown a Premier league lifeline by Bolton.

Ferdinand's final Premier League goal was scored in 2004 against Manchester United - the club that had dramatically denied him championship winners' medal in 1996. Ironically he was again prevented from being a winner as his injury time goal, which had looked certain to hand Bolton all three points, was cancelled out by David Bellion's last gasp equaliser seconds later.

"Sir Les" played 12 times for Bolton in the 2004-05, but the strike against United was his sole effort that season. He moved on to Reading in the Championship where he again managed one goal in 12 games and finished his career at Watford - though he never made a first-team appearance - hanging up his boots at the ripe old age of 38.

Ferdinand's love of the game and links to top flight football (nephews Rio and Anton Ferdinand continue to ply their trade in the Premier League) meant it was always likely "Sir Les" would stay in football. Sure enough, in 2008 he followed former Spurs team-mate Tim Sherwood back to White Hart Lane as a coach for Tottenham's strikers, a role in which he has excelled, recently earning praise from star pupil Jermain Defoe.

Since his retirement, Ferdinand has regularly showcased his enduring prowess in charity matches and testimonials, netting as recently as July 2009 in the Sir Bobby Robson Trophy. Regular television appearances on Football Focus and as part of Setanta's ill-fated coverage team have also kept Ferdinand in the football spotlight but this has not stopped him from indulging in his other great passion - motorsport. Along with John Barnes and Luther Blisset, he has founded Team 48 Motorsport, aimed at enabling young Afro-Caribbean racing drivers into the sport.

Ferdinand's prolific career was characterised by an honest approach to playing, moulded by his non-league roots. "Sir Les" appreciated the opportunity he had been given to play top-flight football and he consistently repaid his clubs, proving throughout his 13 years in the Premier League to be both a goalscorer and a gentleman.

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