Rio Ferdinand has revealed his 21-month spell at Leeds United was the most enjoyable of his playing career.

The Manchester United legend and BT Sport pundit departed Elland Road for Old Trafford in 2002 where he spent 12 years, making 455 appearances and winning a host of trophies including six Premier League titles.

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Speaking ahead of Sunday’s derby between Sheffield United and Leeds – a match you can watch exclusively live on BT Sport 1 HD, BT Sport Ultimate and online from 11.30am – Ferdinand said he relished playing free from the weight of expectation in West Yorkshire.

“As much as there was a lot of talk about me going to Man United and it was, emotionally for a lot of the fans, difficult to accept. But I think in the long term it was proven that the reason why I went was justified, but I probably had my most enjoyable football when I played here,” he said.

“I loved it at West Ham but we didn’t win that much. I loved it at Man United, we won a lot but with that came a lot of pressure so the enjoyment factor isn’t as free-spirited as it was when I was here at Leeds where we won a fair amount in terms of games, got to some good heights [Leeds reached the Champions League semi-final in 2001] and there wasn’t that added pressure or expectations with it.”

The former centre-back, who moved to Leeds from boyhood club West Ham, played an integral role in Leeds’s legendary run to the last four which ultimately ended with defeat at the hands of Valencia.

He rates his headed goal against Deportivo La Coruña in the last eight, which put Leeds 3-0 up on the night, as one of his fondest memories for the club and praised the intimidating atmosphere generated by the Elland Road faithful.

“[It was] amazing. The noise that used to be generated in there, the fans, the passion,” he reminisced.

“I was talking to Rodrigo [Leeds’s £26m summer signing] about the fans and whatnot. I’m sure they can’t wait to get involved when the fans are back in the place, but they were great.

“I scored a goal, the third goal I think it was against Deportivo at Elland Road, a header, that was one of my best memories here at the club probably.”

Ferdinand celebrates putting Leeds 3-0 up against Deportivo in the Champions League in April 2001
Ferdinand celebrates putting Leeds 3-0 up against Deportivo in the Champions League in April 2001

Today’s Leeds United are back in the Premier League after a 16-year period in exile that could never have been envisaged when Ferdinand was playing.

Marcelo Bielsa’s men won hearts and minds with a spirited performance that ended in a 4-3 defeat to Liverpool at Anfield before beating Fulham by the same scoreline last weekend.

Bielsa guided Leeds back to the big time and revolutionised their style of play and Ferdinand, who described his former club as a breath of fresh air under the Argentine, is fascinated by the idiosyncratic manager.

“It really interests me, really intriguing. I’d love to get a bit of time to speak to him, even through a translator just to understand how and why he’s got to this point,” he said.

What does he make of Bielsa’s high octane Leeds side? “Again, I think Leeds are a breath of fresh air for the league. I think last season Sheffield United took that mantle, they were the team that came up and surprised a few, a new system, but this has gone to another extreme.

“The way that Leeds are set up, the way they play, they’re going to outrun most teams physically, but tactically they seem like a team that’s set up very, very well.”

“We saw the first day of the season, against Liverpool, they could have won that game easily and they’re playing against the champions, so it tells you that they’re going to give a lot of teams a run for their money.

“Fulham, they went out there and got the three points. I think that’s the thing they need to do, get points on the board, draw confidence from that and the tactics, they’ll be able to fall back on that, especially later down the line in the season when things settle down a little bit.”

Ferdinand successfully crossed the well-trodden path to punditry after his illustrious career came to an end and for one of the most iconic names to grace the Premier League, it is the next best thing to playing.

“I love it," he added. "Working at BT, doing the games, being around it, being in places like here, being able to come back and still remain a part and have your foot in the door at football clubs to be able to see and breath and smell it still is great so I love it.”

Watch Ferdinand’s former club Leeds United take on Sheffield United at Bramall Lane from 11.30am on Sunday 27 September on BT Sport 1 HD, BT Sport Ultimate and online.