Festive Footy Advent: Day 8? – Gary Neville’s Best Mate – Part 2

When we left this story, our hero – Mr David Beckham, OBE – had just taken the field for the Los Angeles Galaxy at the Home Depot Center for the first time, dodgy ankle and all.

As the home crowd wailed and shrieked, Beckham in front of a star-studded attendance, had been taken out with a rash tackle by Steve Sidwell, completely ignoring the pre-match agreement that the injured Beckham would be allowed to put on an exhibition unhindered.

I have to confess, I did let out a reluctant chuckle.  All that build-up, all that anticipation, a special camera trained on him as he alternated between sitting on the bench and doing warm-ups, only for him to be poleaxed the moment he got the ball.

Beckham stayed on, as did Sidwell – that foul was probably the most memorable thing he did in a Chelsea shirt – and hobbled around, hoofing the ball hither and yon for the remainder of the game, the slightest whisp of trepidation on his face whenever he received the ball thereafter.  Fortunately, no other journeyman midfielders transfered beyond their capabilities came to scythe him down that day.

As he had with Real Madrid four years earlier, Beckham started off pretty well.  His first competitive game was as a late sub away to DC United.  Despite the Galaxy losing 1-0, he could have had an assist had his lofted through pass been received by almost any forward other than Carlos Pavon.

His first start came in the now-defunct “Superliga”; an MLS vs Liga MX tournament that outdid even Chivas USA in its failure to cross the US/Mexico soccer divide.

Predictably, Beckam scored with a curling freekick and repayed Landon Donovan for eagerly agreeing to hand over his captaincy by setting up a goal for him.

It looked like it was all coming together.  Except he was still injured.

Normally in sports, when a player is injured seriously enough that he’s hobbling around on a dodgy foot, usual practice is to just not play him.

The trouble was, MLS had understandably been hyping the arrival of Beckham since he agreed to sign six months earlier.  To maximise the commercial potential of the player’s arrival they had gone so far as to arrange the schedule so that the bulk of LA Galaxy’s away fixtures took place after that date.

A David Beckham MLS Tour, if you will.

Having already missed a number of games despite making appearances as and when he could, things went from bad to worse when he picked up a knee injury in the Superliga final.  It was probably the most memorable thing Pachuca would ever do in the tournament, including winning the thing a little later that evening.

He was now out for six weeks.

The fans were livid.  By that, I don’t necessarily mean the Galaxy fans.  The opposing fans were the really unhappy ones.  Many New York and New Jersey locals for example, had made the effort to not only go to Giants Stadium, but did so with the knowledge they’d have to endure watching soccer, the 2007 NY Red Bulls and MLS all at once.  Based on the dearth of people watching the 2013 NY Red Bulls and MLS, that’s no mean feat.  Yet the guy they’d come to gawk at wasn’t even on the roster!

How dare this athlete be injured!  They’d bought tickets and everything!

To add to the increasingly farcical nature of the whole affair, there was the small issue that LA Galaxy weren’t actually very good.  At all.  They’d missed the post-season for the first time in their history the previous season and had been forced to further chop up the roster to accomodate Beckham.  Most stinging was the trading away of legendary Galaxy ‘Keeper, Kevin Hartman.

With their shiny new megabillion signing (reports had his salary at everything from $6.5m to numbers we don’t yet have names for) unable to contribute, it wasn’t long before their season fizzled out into a second consecutive playoff miss.  Not to worry though. 2008 could be awesome!

I’m not sure exactly what the timeframe was for Beckham’s mate Terry Byrne and 19 Entertainment to be brought into the Galaxy fold as consultants.  It’s frankly been too long since I read “The Beckham Experiment”.

I guess the entertainment ties between AEG, 19 Entertainment and Simon Fuller made such a relationship appealing on many fronts.

In practice, it sounded like a sheer debacle.

Tim Lieweke supposedly consulted with Byrne, rather than Galaxy GM Alexi Lalas on who to bring in as the head coach to replace the outgoing Frank Yallop.  He somewhat poignantly went the “Hollywood” route and brought in a big name in the form of Ruud Gullit, making the Dutch legend the highest paid coach in MLS history.  If nothing else, it fit the glitz factor.  It was slightly surreal though, hearing several American soccer players admitting they didn’t know who he was.

Who Gullit is to me is a once incredible player who proves that talent and even an incredible football IQ (he was one of the most cerebral players I’ve ever seen) doesn’t necessarily translate into being a good manager.

That he had a pretty inconsistent, if not mediocre resume as a coach was exacerbated by the fact he knew almost nothing of the MLS set-up and rules.  He notably tried to sign Celestine Babyaro but couldn’t due to the salary cap.

More disturbingly, I recall a member of the Chelsea staff many moons ago, slamming Gullit’s management in the press.  Among the many outlandish claims, he accused Gullit of once during a game, planning to change to a formation with only one defender.

How true that story or my recollection of it is, I can’t be sure.  Having observed him as coach of the Galaxy, it no longer seems quite so far-fetched.  The Galaxy finished the season with 55 goals.  That was five more than the next best scoring team and eventual MLS Cup winners, Colombus Crew.  It was ten more than the third best team.  Despite this, they somehow ended up with a goal difference of minus seven!

Initially it was all very exciting.  Beckham was contributing, though his willing predecessor as Captain, Landon Donovan was doing even better.  The rest of the team however, not so much.  Alvaro Pires was so awful in midfield, he made David Junior Lopez’s stint with LA seem palatable.  Abel Xavier produced a season that rivals Carlo Cudicini’s and Juan Pablo Angel’s for the “Galaxy Shadow of Their Former Selves” award.

As the season went on, the determination, fire and workrate I had considered to be Beckham’s hallmarks (well apart from his immense passing accuracy – I always felt his set-piece credentials were slightly overstated) gradually waned.

He would stand on the touchline, waving his hands in the air in frustration as another attempted Alvaro Pires stepover sent the ball into the rafters.  As his frustrations built, his performances declined.

This was disappointing for me.  I’d always thought of him as the type of guy to lead by example in such circumstances.  If nothing else, he would always give his all.  Then again, he’d spent his career at Manchester United and Real Madrid.  He’d never truly been involved in a team majorly struggling.  It showed.

Nevertheless the crowd still reacted to his every touch, every possession, like those hordes of girls in the footage of Elvis and The Beatles concerts. The entire stadium would erupt into an assortment of roars, screams and squeals.

Beckham having the ball got a bigger reaction than Alan Gordon scoring a goal. When the Galaxy tied it’s final regular season game to finish with the joint worst points total, that reaction was still there.

It was the last game in LA that he would quite get that reception.

By this point Gullit had resigned, Lalas had been fired, while the Byrne and 19 Entertainment consultancy had come to an end.

If Gullit was the Hollywood choice, his successor Bruce Arena was more like a coal mine – not especially nice to look at but effective in function. Undertaking both the head coach any GM roles, the craggy-faced curmudgeon was every bit as practical and pragmatic an appointment as Gullit’s was wild and sexy.

He arrived too late to salvage the season as LAG missed the playoffs for the third time in a row. The changes he would ultimately make though, would be transformational.

First though, there was the small matter of the offseason.  David Beckham had trained abroad before, as the MLS season was a little shorter than most.  This time he was heading to AC Milan, where he wouldn’t just be hobnobbing with Pirlo and Seedorf during dayly warm-ups.  This time it was a loan.

He was quick to assure people that this was merely a loan to keep him fit and sharp in the closed-season while also keeping himself on the radar for England call ups.  This may have also been where he first coined the phrase “I’m dedicated to MLS and dedicated to the Galaxy”, which he’d repeat frequently for the next couple of years..

Some felt he wouldn’t even get minutes.  They were wrong.  He played, he scored, he performed and before long it was looking like he’d found a cause he was once again willing to bleed for.

Before long, AC Milan were tabling bids to make the loan permanent.  Beckham, seeming to forget that he was still not only a Galaxy player but also an MLS amabassador, happily informed an interviewer that it would be at least ten years before MLS was an important league.  Ouch went the Galaxy faithful.

Somewhere around this time, the aforementioned Grant Wahl publication “The Beckham Experiment” was released.  It lifted the lid on the whole 19 Entertainment, Terry Byrne and Ruud Gullit affair.  Lalas griped about the corporate goings on, Donovan more stingingly, griped about Beckham.  It turns out that passing of the captaincy was a lot less amicable than we’d been led to believe.  Double and triple ouch, went the Galaxy faithful.

So now, not only was this guy who had been happy to come to America on a $600 Trillion contract, seemingly willing to bail – being uncomplimentary about the league in the process – it turns out his ‘people’ had their hands firmly on the corpse of the 2008 season.

Milan had offered just a few million for Beckham’s transfer.  In fairness, for Beckham the player, it wasn’t unreasonable.  For Beckham the profile-elevating, brand-making merchandise-shifter, it was laughable.  For a league that was suddenly making gargantuan revenues on his presence, the offer barely warranted reading the fax.

Normally, when Milan wants a player from a club the size of LA Galaxy, the ultimately roll over.  MLS is well versed in going a different direction when it comes to soccer, however.  When they didn’t acquiesce, the Italian press were most unhappy.  They felt the Galaxy were upstarts.

However, they couldn’t resist the collective power of Berlusconi’s Milan and David Beckham completely.  A compromise was reached with MLS prez, Don Garner and Time Lieweke.  The loan would continue throughout the Serie A season.  After this, Beckham would return in a friendly at the HDC versus his New Favourite Italian Club.

It’s a good job this got resolved well before the MLS season started, otherwise they’d be shorthanded, what with the DP slot filled and little time to reinforce.  Oh hang on, it didn’t get resolved then, did it?

Nope.  While Lieweke and MLS got a deal done that made sense to their agendas, LA Galaxy themselves looked to be in a pickle.  Fortunately, Arena worked minor miracles with smart acquisitions, supplementing youthful talent with veteran mentors. When Becks returned, he found a very healthy, playoff contending Galaxy waiting for him.  Unfortunately, he also found some very displeased Angelinos.

I do not and never will agree with the booing of one’s own players (outside a Marlon King or Ched Evans, for non-footballing reasons).  Involutary griping, shouting and swearing, I will condone because there are things Leonardo does on the field that render such actions involuntary.  Philosophically though, your job is to get behind your team and lend your support.

Beckham’s return was jaw-dropping.  It was the polar opposite of the mass squealing groupie reaction he had been receiving previously.  Banners were unfurled, boos and jeers rang out; it was uglier than Bruce Arena in the morning, before he puts on his make up.

For his own part, Beckham made the mistake of reacting with some anger of his own.  I happened to be sitting in the Riot Squad section when Becks finally started yelling back at them, motioning for some fan to come down and say it to his face.  Said fan, probably drunk, obliged and was flattened by security.  He briefly received a life ban, which to Dave’s credit, he requested be lifted.

I don’t know if that spectacle struck a chord.  I do know that Arena had Donovan (captaincy restored) and Beckham go and sort out their differences, which professionally at least, they seemed to do.  In any case, we saw Beckham restored from then on.

There was a heady combination of fire and giving-a-shit about his play.

The league allowed him to repeat the Milan loan to get him sharp for World Cup 2010.  Then his achilles tendon snapped, putting paid to the whole thing.

Some fans would never fully trust him again.  Fury would be unleashed (this time restricted to internet forums and blogs, rather than large banners and attempted drunken altercations) for anything from a trip between games to the Wine Country to involvement in the London Olympic Opening Ceremonies.

Under Arena, the Beckham era would eventually yield the Supporters Shield in ’10 & ’11 (the only two seasons in which MLS has run a truly balanced schedule) and more importantly, the MLS Cup itself in ’11 & ’12.

Funnily enough, though Beckham certainly contributed to a high level, the foundation for the success was connected more to a sound defence composed of savvy draft picks and young Brazilian Juninho as a defensive midfielder, with whom Beckham seemed to strike up an on-field rapport.

He gradually won most of the Galaxy faithful over, though the shrieks and squeals never truly returned.  He even surprised us all by extending his contract by a year rather than walking away as once was anticipated.

Ultimately he stepped away for a final year in Europe, aiding the Nouveau Riche Paris Saint Germain in a supporting role as they won the Ligue Un title, meaning he’d won titles with every professional team he played for except AC Milan and Preston NE.

He’s a guy who’s impressed me for the bulk of his career, as much in character as in talent.  He strikes you as the kind of player who does all he can with what he has.  Even in the wake of the darker Galaxy days, he won us all over when he reapplied his determination and work ethic.

The first player I ever took it upon myself to stick my neck out and form a strong, uninfluenced opinion over, I’ve seen him go from a kid coming through, to retiring as a global star on and off the field.  It was heartwarming to see him play with the rest of the class of ’92 at Paul Scholes’s testimonial.

And of course, writing about this guy has put my Festive Footy Advent challenge on life support.  Thanks a lot Goldenballs…

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