Festive Footy Advent: Day 6 of 24 – Gary Neville’s Best Mate – Part One

I don’t think there’s a player who has become so intertwined with my life as a watcher of football.

Over the years, I’ve watched and critiqued players, favoured some, disliked others.  Beckham was somewhat special in that he was the first player I decided I rated with no real influence from elsewhere.

The process was pretty simple.  Alex Ferguson had been gradually affording the Manchester United youth players more and more playing time. Most prominent and controversial was his decision to use the League Cup largely as an experience builder for his youngsters.

This didn’t always yield great results as a painfully memorable elimination at the hands of York City early in the life of this policy taught us.  Nonetheless, it did get us glimpses of what the latest generation to be dubbed “Fergie’s fledglings” might have to offer. Somewhere along the line it occurred to me that this Beckham kid had scored a few good goals.

Then came the start of the 1995-96 season. Man United began the campaign with a 3-1 loss.  The headlines and stories went with the narrative that in allowing Mark Hughes, Paul Ince and Andrei Kanchelskis depart in the summer without major replacements, Ferguson had made a critical error.

Alan Hansen famously declared “you win nothing with kids”.

Aside from the disappointment of the loss however, I noted something else.  He’d done it again.  Beckham had scored the consolation goal; a deft chip over Mark Bosnich from just outside the area. Had this occurred on most other days, the quality of that goal would have been a talking point.  With United losing, it barely received a mention.

Chuffed with myself that I may have noticed the ability of a player before anybody else had started raving about them, I even went as far as making his surname my password for something. He had a very solid season, though at the time I seem to recall being a little disappointed with his progress.  I guess it was because he hadn’t become a superstar just yet, despite United doing the double.

That all changed on day one of the following season.  Being a 3pm kick off, United’s opening game of the season against Wimbledon was not shown live.  I was watching Sky’s in-studio coverage of the opening day.  I believe it was Rodney Marsh who was watching the game on a monitor.  He announced excitedly, as if BBC One and Match of the Day didn’t exist, that we had to see Goals on Sunday for this, because an incredible goal has been scored.  “David Beckham?” I thought.  “David Beckham” he confirmed.  He had of course, scored from the halfway line.

He would score a few more stunners that season, but never in his career would he match that goal.  Not that that’s a criticism.  He was now a clear sensation.  Then his floppy curtains and good looks turned him into a popular sex-symbol.  Then he started dating fellow exceedingly famous sex-symbol, Victoria “Posh Spice” Adams at her hottest.  I wonder if Karel Poborsky ever looks back and thinks that if only he’d signed for United a year earlier, that could have been him?

Sadly, United didn’t win the league that season and Beckham didn’t get goal of the year.  For reasons I will never understand, that went to Trevor Sinclair’s 18 yard, hit-and-hope, overhead kick for QPR.  In a few more weeks, that would be the least of his worries.

On France ’98, let me make one thing clear: Beckham deserved to be sent off against Argentina and what he did certainly was stupid.  If you look up the clip of his foul on Diego Simeone in the round of 16, the red card seems ridiculous.  He’s clattered from behind by Simeone and while laying face down on the turf, Diego leans down and says something to him.  Presumably it wasn’t “You’re hair actually looks even better in person” because Becks responded by flicking up a heel in irritation which lightly brushed the calf of the antagonist.  As we all know, Simeone detected this contact, covered his face and collapsed to the ground.

In most leagues on most days, this would have been a yellow card for both men: Becks for the petulant flick, Simeone for the initial foul.  But this was a World Cup and as usual, that meant a topical FIFA mandate.  In 1998, that was a firm clamping-down on anything even vaguely unsporting.  Failure to assist an opponent in relieving cramp was to be punished with a mandatory dirty look.  In the opening round, the major talking point was that this mandate was resulting in red cards for so much as coughing loudly as an opponent attempts to take a free kick.

Beckham’s action clearly crossed the line of severely enforced loveliness and he walked.  This meant that England, who had been giving a good account of themselves up to that point were only able to manage a 2-2 draw after extra time, which of course led to another round of the hellish lottery of penalties.  Could they win?  Yes, because penalties are a lottery and not a skill one can practice. Luck however, conspired to turn on David Batty, making his random kick fail to go into the goal, eliminating England from the tournament.

Becks deserved criticism.  He should have known better in the climate, what his action meant.  Then again, we’re talking about the lad who supposedly once accidentally invalidated a contract with Brylcreem by getting a crew cut.  However, what was not well outlined in the media was that Beckham had merely made a rash decision which put his team at a disadvantage, rather than murdering and then eating a baby in the center circle, while dressed as Hitler.  This caused the burning of effigies, rampant booing wherever he played, calls for him to be dropped from the England team forever, deported, hung, drawn, quartered, even forced to listen to secret unreleased Celine Dion tracks which were considered too overblown and cheesey for public consumption.

The reaction may have been partly related to the public attitude of non-Man United fans towards Man United.  I put this down to comments I received from people in the following few days along the lines of “I’d hate to be a Man U fan right now”, “Bloody Beckham – typical Man U!” and so on.

Of course, he responded by helping United to an unprecedented League, FA Cup and Champions League treble. So there.

On the field, things continued to go swimmingly. Titles in 2000 & 2001 completed a rare hat trick for the club, with Beckham a prominent figure.

The England fans finally forgave Beckham when his late free kick goal against Greece sent them to World Cup 2002.

There they gave a reasonable account of themselves, losing to eventual winners Brazil via David Seaman succumbing to his one weakness as a goalie and standing in the wrong place during a free kick. Lovely mustache though.

Off the field however, things weren’t so cozy. Ferguson clearly had reservations about DB’s now massive celebrity, fuelled largely by his marriage. He played for arguably the biggest sports team on the planet while his wife was a member of commercially the biggest pop group at the time. In case you didn’t know.

Several incidents suggested growing bad blood.

Beckham was punished for missing training to look after his infant son, when it was revealed Victoria had been available but was instead attending a celebrity bash.

Then there was the legend of the flying boot. Apparently during a lacklustre performance, during half-time Fergie kicked a lone cleat in anger. Said item reportedly struck Beckham in the forehead, requiring stitches.

Rangers fans who had watched Ferguson turn out as a striker for them in his playing days leapt to his defence: there was no way, they claimed, that Sir Alex could have struck anything that accurately. It had to be an accident.

Beckham however, turned up to his next training session, hair clipped back, wound on display.

In 2003, the club and Becks finally parted ways; something that just a few years earlier was unfathomable.

After Barcelona and Real Madrid battled for his signature, Beckham finally went to the Bernabeu. He made a fast impact, scoring in the Supercup and again three minutes into his La Liga debut.

It wasn’t to be the success story Real President Florentino Perez had hoped for however (then again, what do you expect from a pres who lets Claude Makalele go because he doesn’t dribble or scored goals?). While Beckham was hardly a failure, the club itself struggled to meet the high standards set for them. Coaching changes were a regular occurrence and while some favoured the now England captain, others felt he didn’t fit their system and relegated him to the bench.

In World Cup 2006, England were eliminated by Portugal, it’s supposed Golden era looking to have squandered their last chance to deliver.

Beckham decided it was the right age to give up the captaincy, though stressing that he still wanted to be selected. Steve McLaren decided to go with new blood altogether and dropped him.

By this point, Fabio Capello was once again annoying Madrid fans by successfully employing conservative tactics and didn’t favoured Beckham.

His England career looking to be over and Madrid showing little interest in renewing his contract, Beckham dropped a bombshell by signing for Los Angeles Galaxy, effective on expiration of his contract at the end of the La Liga season.

Madrid responded by disparaging the player and claiming he’d never play for them again. But then it happened: Beckham turned it around.

Training hard, DB forced his was into Real Madrid’s team as they pushed for the title. Steve McLaren was struggling with England and recalled him to good effect. By the time his contract with Madrid ended, he was back in England contention and had finally won a title with the club, being effective in the run-in.

This came at a price though: in the final game of the Spanish season, Beckham badly injured his ankle. MLS in the meantime, had been selling tickets at a premium across the nation, based on Beckham’s assumed presence.

This led to an awkward situation: his debut was arranged to be a red carpet event, with all manner of A-List celebrities present. Beckham was not sufficiently healed to really play a part. A compromise had to be reached.

The game itself was a friendly against Chelsea. Jose Mourinho agreed publically that for the sake of the occasion, they would allow Becks to come on late in the game and do his thing, safe in the knowledge he wouldn’t be challenged.

The event was a bit of a farce. A Beckham cam was trained on him throughout, even though he was mostly sitting on the bench.

Then the moment came: late in the second half Beckham took the field. The crowd went wild for him, as it would continue to do at the Home Depot Center until his loan controversy in 2009.

Beckham received the ball for the first time. A maelstrom of sound was whipped up.  Screams, whistles, cheers, euphoria… then Steve Sidwell ploughed through him feet-first, like an articulated lorry through a flan…

To be Continued…

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