Beckham has an enduring place in my heart, as he was a truly magnificent player whose quality at United and contribution during our period of success cannot be undervalued. He was a quite superb dead ball specialist whose corners and free kicks created havoc for opposing defenders and goalkeepers alike. He was the sort of winger that strikers thrive off, who had an unerring accuracy in knowing the position to place the ball so that they had maximum potential to be able to supply the finishing touch. He was a member of the Class of 92, one of the elite youngsters who when combined with more seasoned professionals would sweep all before them during a period of domestic dominance which culminated in the Holy Grail of the Champions League trophy in 1999. During that famous night Beckham was the key ingredient which first salvaged and then secured a trophy which had been on the brink of escaping, the final piece in the magical Unprecedented Treble. Firstly a whipped delivery into the middle of the crowded box for his initial corner where Schmeichel’s green jersey lurked and could cause the most havoc, from which the result was a prodded Sheringham finish. Secondly, a near post corner which found Sheringham to flick toward goal which Solskjaer rammed home to spark raucous celebration. Had we the current crop of United players, these corners would more than likely have been wasted, the delivery either overshot or failing to evade the first man. Beckham’s potency gave an edge that almost seemed like cheating, in a time where we were festooned with strikers who would score all types of goals if given such a cavalcade of ammunition to utilise. This is summed up aptly here by goalkeeping legend Peter Schmeichel:
“You only have to go on MUTV and watch programmes like ‘Ruud van Nistelrooy: all the goals’, ‘Andy Cole: All the goals’ and so on, and see how many goals they scored came from his crosses. A cross from him is as good as a goal. His crossing was unbelievable. ”
Beckham’s early life was typical of that of a precocious boy who dreamed of playing football, whose soul ambition was to secure a playing role in the beautiful game. When asked the arch old question of what career he wished to pursue, Beckham remained obstinate beyond castigation that he would indeed fulfil this dream. Fortuitously for him, as all United fans know, he had the talent in abundance in order to make this dream a reality and was signed up for United after impressing particularly as a youth who had come to prominence whilst attending one of Sir Bobby Charlton’s football schools. As Neville remarked during his own recollection of Beckham’s arrival into the group of fledgling prodigies that were to become later known as the Class of 92, there was a real sense that Beckham’s presence acted as catalyst for the others who were envious of the sheer natural football talent that he (Beckham) had at his disposal even at such a young age.
He was the final member of the greatest midfield quartet to grace the Premier League, providing the width and demanding the pressure of the Number 7 shirt. In Keane’s autobiography, Keane recounts that Sir Alex wanted to give Keane the shirt but that the Irishman thought that Beckham better befitted that jersey. It proved to be an inspirational choice, particularly as Beckham was charged with filling the shoes of the King, Eric Cantona. On the first day of the 96-97 season Beckham scored a goal from the halfway line against Wimbledon, it was a goal which propelled the youngster straight into the nation’s consciousness. It was the season where Beckham cemented his place as a first choice starter for United and was voted to be PFA Young Player of the Year by his peers. Though the following season was disappointing, it was during the Treble season that Beckham came alive; this flying in the face of the widespread condemnation Beckham had received for the infamous petulant kick which many felt was the direct contributing factor to England’s early exit in the previous summer’s World Cup. It was here that Beckham demonstrated his endeavour and bravery by succeeding when many prayed for his failure. He finished the season, as arguably United’s most valuable asset, an assertion given credence by him finishing runner up to Rivaldo in both the European and World Player of the Year award.
As Ryan Giggs pointed out, the remainder of the United squad knew Beckham’s value to the team and the squad pouring the following praise upon his team mate:
“The best crosser of the ball I have ever seen. You would make a run and he would put the ball into your path without having to break stride. A brilliant footballer.”
His fine form was carried into the next season as United won the Premier League by a handsome 18 points in the 99-2000 season. In particular though it was Beckham’s extracurricular activities which were giving Sir Alex the biggest headache, the fact that in 2000 he was given permission to miss out on training in order to take care of his son, Brooklyn who had gastroenteritis. However, Victoria was then spotted at the London Fashion Week Night that day which meant that she could have looked after the sick child. As Ferguson was quick to admonish:
“He was never a problem until he got married. He used to go into work with the academy coaches at night time; he was a fantastic young lad. Getting married into that entertainment scene was a difficult thing – from that moment, his life was never going to be the same. He is such a big celebrity; football is only a small part.”
United though were still in a period of great dominance and this was reflected when they secured their third successive league title in 2000-1. He scored nine goals that season, all of which came in the Premier League. In the following season Beckham scored 16 goals in 42 games in all competitions which was the best of his career, it demonstrated a player whose capabilities were at an all time high in terms of end product. However, Beckham lost his place the next year, following an early season injury, to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and struggled to get back into the team. In February 2003 following an FA Cup defeat to Arsenal Beckham was infamously then the victim of Sir Alex Ferguson’s ire receiving a football boot to the head which really sparked the beginning of the end for the winger. All in all, Beckham made 265 league appearances for Manchester United and scored 61 goals. He also made 81 Champions League appearances and scored 15 goals. His medal total was quite remarkable accruing 6 Premier League Titles, 2 FA Cups, 1 UCL, 1 Intercontinental Cup and 1 Youth Cup in a 12 year period with the club.
When Beckham left he moved to Real Madrid, his dream of continuing to play for United was in tatters. As he has said before, he couldn’t bear to watch United for two years following the swap. He had a heartfelt connection to his boyhood club and ultimately didn’t want to leave, though he then enjoyed the remainder of his career sequentially with Real Madrid, LA Galaxy, AC Milan and Paris St Germain which amounted to quite an illustrious spell of globetrotting. There are those including Sir Alex who felt that Beckham could have made more of himself had he really applied his full talent to his craft rather than what some might refer to as his brand and the celebrity where he really excelled, becoming a global phenomenon in how he marketed himself. However, it is hard to forget how much Beckham had worked to get to where he was and also that he was a quite incredible footballer first and foremost. He had a natural engine which few could match, often covering great distances and was very much an athlete which gave him the extra longevity that only the footballers who take the greatest care of themselves can hope to achieve. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, himself an undisputed legend of the game was quick to praise Beckham’s personality and ethics with regard to how he handled himself even at a mature age, when he went to play for Paris St Germain:
“As a footballer it is important to be yourself and live your life – not to live in a bubble, not enjoying your life. That is what I admire about Beckham. The attention that follows him is not easy to live out your life. But he does it. I even told him that I admired him because he brings his children to surfing, to the park. I felt sometimes I would stay at home, because I want to be left alone. But after I saw him, he brought me off the couch and he motivated me to take my family out and do these things. If he can do it, then me, someone with 10% of his attention, can do it.”
For me David Beckham is a United legend, a man who won many trophies with us and contributed sublimely at many key times. He will forever belong to the greatest exclusive club in football, those who have worn the hallowed United Number 7 shirt and his football prowess justifies that he is within that pantheon, a player who played with grit, style, determination and panache in equal measure. Without Beckham’s efforts United fans would not have so many enduring memories with which to comfort our souls during this barren period of true domestic success. Beckham will remain interwoven in the rich tapestry of United’s history, the member of the Class of 92 with abilities so unique and special; they even made a movie about one of them. Indeed, nobody could bend it like Beckham and precious few in United’s history have been as good as he was, a legendary player, never forgotten.