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کتاب: زندگینامه الکس فرگوسن / فصل 7

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FIVE - BECKHAM

FROM the moment he first laid boot on ball, David Beckham displayed an unbreakable urge to make the best of himself and his talent. He and I left the main stage in the same summer, with him still prominent in European football and opportunities galore ahead of him. He went out at Paris St-Germain much as I did at United: on his own terms.

Sometimes you have to take something away from someone for them to see how much they loved it. When Beckham moved to America to join LA Galaxy, I believe he began to realise he had surrendered a part of his career. He worked incredibly hard to return to the level he had been at in his prime, and showed more enthusiasm for the hard graft of the game than he did at the end of his time with us.

David didn’t have many choices at the point of his transfer from Real Madrid to Major League Soccer in 2007. I imagine he also had his eyes on Hollywood and the impact it would have on the next phase of his career. There was no footballing reason for him to go to America. He was giving up top-level club football as well as the international game, although he fought his way back into the England squad. That proves my point about the disappointment at the heart of his career in its later stages. He drew on a huge resilience factor to regain his prominence at the elite level.

Because I saw him grow up, along with Giggs and Scholes, David was more like a son to me. He joined United as a young London lad in July 1991. Within a year he was part of the so-called Class of ’92, winning the FA Youth Cup with Nicky Butt, Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs. He made 394 appearances for the first team and scored 85 times, including one from the halfway line, against Wimbledon, the goal that really announced him to the world.

When I left the United dug-out in May 2013, Giggs and Scholes were still with us, but by then it had been ten years since David had left for Spain. On Wednesday 18 June 2003 we told the Stock Exchange he would be joining Real Madrid for a fee of £24.5 million. David was 28. The news flashed around the world. It was one of those global moments for our club.

I hold no rancour towards David at all. I like him. I think he’s a wonderful boy. But you should never surrender what you’re good at.

David was the only player I managed who chose to be famous, who made it his mission to be known outside the game. Wayne Rooney was on the radar of an industry that would have liked to change him. His profile was established in his teenage years. He had offers that would make your mind boggle. He was making twice outside of football what we were paying him. The corporate world would love to have taken over Giggsy, but that was never his style.

In his final season with us, we were aware that David’s work-rate was dropping and we had heard rumours of a flirtation between Real Madrid and David’s camp. The main issue was that his application level had dropped from its traditionally stratospheric level.

The confrontation between us that caused so much excitement around the game was an FA Cup fifth-round tie against Arsenal at Old Trafford in February 2003, which we lost 2–0.

David’s offence in that particular game was that he neglected to track back for the second Arsenal goal, scored by Sylvain Wiltord. He merely jogged. The boy just kept on running away from him. At the end I got on to him. As usual, with David at that time, he was dismissive of my criticism. It’s possible that he was starting to think he no longer needed to track back and chase, which were the very qualities that had made him what he was.

He was around 12 feet from me. Between us on the floor lay a row of boots. David swore. I moved towards him, and as I approached I kicked a boot. It hit him right above the eye. Of course he rose to have a go at me and the players stopped him. ‘Sit down,’ I said. ‘You’ve let your team down. You can argue as much as you like.’ I called him in the next day to go through the video and he still would not accept his mistake. As he sat listening to me, he didn’t say a word. Not a word.

‘Do you understand what we’re talking about, why we got on to you?’ I asked.

He didn’t even answer me.

The next day the story was in the press. In public an Alice band highlighted the damage inflicted by the boot. It was in those days that I told the board David had to go. My message would have been familiar to board members who knew me. The minute a Manchester United player thought he was bigger than the manager, he had to go. I used to say, ‘The moment the manager loses his authority, you don’t have a club. The players will be running it, and then you’re in trouble.’ David thought he was bigger than Alex Ferguson. There is no doubt about that in my mind. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Alex Ferguson or Pete the Plumber. The name of the manager is irrelevant. The authority is what counts. You cannot have a player taking over the dressing room. Many tried. The focus of authority at Manchester United is the manager’s office. That was the death knell for him.

Then, of course, after finishing top of our Champions League group, we were drawn against Real Madrid. In Spain, for the first leg, David seemed especially keen to shake hands with Roberto Carlos, the Madrid left-back. The following Saturday, after our 3–1 defeat at the Bernabéu, he withdrew from the game against Newcastle, saying he wasn’t fit. I played Solskjaer, who was magnificent in a 6–2 win, and he stayed in the side.

David’s form, quite simply, wasn’t good enough for me to pull Solskjaer out of a winning team for the Old Trafford leg against Real. During a round of head tennis before the return game, I pulled David aside and told him, ‘Look, I’m going to start with Ole.’ He huffed and walked away.

There was a terrific hullaboo that night, with David coming on as sub for Verón in the 63rd minute and giving what looked like a farewell to the Old Trafford crowd. He scored from a free kick and struck the winner in the 85th minute. We won 4–3, but Ronaldo’s wonderful hat-trick and the defeat in Spain sent us out of the competition.

David was looking for the sympathy vote from the fans. But there is no doubt there had been a direct attack on me. The move to Real Madrid was clearly accelerating. From what we could gather, there had been dialogue between his agent and Real Madrid. The first contact we had was probably in the middle of May, after our season had ended. Our chief executive, Peter Kenyon, called to say: ‘Real Madrid have been on the phone.’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘we expected that.’ We were looking for £25 million. I went to France on holiday and Peter called my mobile, while I was in a restaurant, having dinner with Jim Sheridan, the film director, who had an apartment over the place where we were eating. I needed a private phone.

‘Come up to my apartment, use mine,’ said Jim. So that’s how it was done. ‘He doesn’t go unless we get the twenty-five,’ I told Peter. I believe it was £18 million down, with add-ons, that we eventually received.

David hadn’t disappeared from the team altogether. We won the title with a 4–1 win against Charlton at Old Trafford on 3 May 2003. He scored in that game and again at Everton on 11 May as our season ended with a 2–1 win. A free kick from 20 yards was not a bad way for him to depart on a day when our defence was hounded by a young local talent called Wayne Rooney. David had played his part in our victorious League campaign, so there was no reason to leave him out at Goodison Park.

Maybe he wasn’t mature enough at that time to handle everything that was going on in his life. Today, he seems to manage things better. He is more certain of his position in life, more in control. But it was reaching the stage back then when I felt uncomfortable with the celebrity aspect of his life.

An example: arriving at the training ground at 3 p.m. before a trip to Leicester City, I noticed the press lined up on the road into Carrington. There must have been 20 photographers.

‘What’s going on?’ I demanded. I was told, ‘Apparently Beckham is revealing his new haircut tomorrow.’

David turned up with a beanie hat on. At dinner that night he was still wearing it. ‘David, take your beanie hat off, you’re in a restaurant,’ I said. He refused. ‘Don’t be so stupid,’ I persisted. ‘Take it off.’ But he wouldn’t.

So I was raging. There was no way I could fine him for it. Plenty of players had worn baseball caps on the way to games and so on, but none had been so defiant about keeping one on during a team meal.

The next day, the players were going out for the pre-match warm-up and David had his beanie hat on. ‘David,’ I said, ‘you’re not going out with that beanie hat on. You’ll not be playing. I’ll take you out of the team right now.’

He went berserk. Took it off. Bald head, completely shaved. I said, ‘Is that what this was all about? A shaved head that nobody was to see?’ The plan was that he would keep the beanie hat on and take it off just before kick-off. At that time I was starting to despair of him. I could see him being swallowed up by the media or publicity agents.

David was at a great club. He had a fine career. He gave me 12 to 15 goals a season, worked his balls off. That was taken away from him. And with that being taken away from him, he lost the chance to become an absolute top-dog player. For my money, after the change, he never attained the level where you would say: that is an absolute top player.

The process began when he was around 22 or 23. He started to make decisions that rendered it hard for him to develop into a really great footballer. That was the disappointment for me. There was no animosity between us, just disappointment, for me. Dejection. I would look at him and think: ‘What are you doing, son?’ When he joined us, he was this wee, starry-eyed kid. Football mad. At 16 he was never out of the gymnasium and couldn’t stop practising. He loved the game; he was living the dream. Then he wanted to give it all up for a new career, a new lifestyle, for stardom.

From one perspective it would be churlish of me to say he made the wrong decision, in the sense that he’s a very wealthy man. He’s become an icon. People react to his style changes. They copy them. But I’m a football man, and I don’t think you give up football for anything. You can have hobbies. I have horses; Michael Owen had horses; Scholes had horses. One or two players liked art. I had a lovely painting in my office that Kieran Richardson did. What you don’t do is surrender the nuts and bolts of football.

A year prior to leaving us, of course, David had taken part in the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea, weeks after breaking his metatarsal in the Champions League tie at Old Trafford in the spring of 2002. That was quite a drama.

Although David sustained the same metatarsal injury that was to afflict Wayne Rooney four years later, there was a difference in the recovery process. David was a naturally fit type of guy. Wayne needed more work to bring him back to sharpness. So I calculated that David might be fit enough for the World Cup, and said so openly at the time.

In the event, when England arrived in Japan, he might still have been carrying the remnants of his injury. It’s hard to tell with some players, because in their desperation to play in a World Cup, they tell you they are fine. From the evidence of the tournament, David couldn’t have been all right. The proof that physical frailty was still preying on his mind could be seen when he jumped over a tackle near the touchline in a sequence of play that led to Brazil’s equaliser in the quarter-final in Shizuoka.

I was surprised at how physically off the pace he seemed, because he was such a fit boy. So he couldn’t have been fit, either physically or mentally. People accused me, because I’m Scottish, of not wanting England to do well. If England played Scotland today, bloody right, I wouldn’t want England to do well. But I had more players in my teams who were representing England than any other country, and always wanted them to shine.

When you have a player of Beckham’s profile (and I had another later, in Rooney), there is a convergence of medical staff always wanting to interfere. England’s medical staff would want to come to the training ground. Often I felt that this was an insult to us. I wondered whether my Scottishness was a factor, a reason not to trust me.

Before the 2006 World Cup, when Rooney joined up late with England’s squad in Germany, England were texting us virtually every day, asking how he was, as if we couldn’t look after him ourselves. The panic was wild. They were petrified. In 2006 I was 100 per cent correct. Wayne Rooney should not have played in that tournament. He was not ready.

He should never have been called to Baden-Baden where England were based. It was unfair to him, to the rest of the players and to the supporters. Wayne was the great hope of that team, of course, which added to the pressure to overlook reality. With David I was confident he would turn up in good shape because I knew his record and had seen all the statistics. He was easily the fittest player at Old Trafford. In pre-season training, in the bleep tests, he was streets ahead of everyone. We told England we were sure David would be fit in time.

The obsession with David’s recovery was predictable. An oxygen tent found its way to Carrington. We had good results from that device on Roy Keane’s hamstring injury before a European game. Bones are a different matter. The cure is rest. It’s time. A metatarsal is a six- to seven-week injury.

In the 2002 World Cup, England failed to make much of an impact. Against Brazil, they were outplayed by ten men. In the first group game, they played long ball against Sweden, who knew the English game, and so were hardly likely to be caught off-guard by direct play.

It’s an indictment of England teams at youth level that so many have fallen back on this outdated tactic. Too many played long ball. On one occasion we made a point of monitoring Tom Cleverley in the U-21s against Greece, and our scouts reported that England played one up, with two wide – Cleverley being one of the wide players – and Tom didn’t get a kick. Chris Smalling played and kept launching the ball forward. This is the area where England were always likely to be caught out. Because they don’t have enough technical and coaching ability, the years from 9 to 16 are thrown away.

So how do they compensate? The boys compete, physically. Great attitude, they have. Sleeves up. But they don’t produce a player. They are never going to win a World Cup with that system, that mentality. Brazil would produce young players who could take the ball in any position, at any angle. They are fluid in their movements. They are football-minded people, because they are accustomed to it from five or six years of age.

David worked extremely hard on the technical side of his game. He was also a wonderful networker. Even when he was left out of the GB Olympic squad in the summer of 2012, it was his camp that released the news, rather than the FA. The quotes were all magnanimous. But I’m sure he was as sick as a pig.

I remember Mel Machin saying to me: ‘Giggs and Beckham – they’re world-class players, and yet you get them to go from box to box as well. How do you do that?’ I could only reply that they were gifted not only with natural talent but the stamina to carry them up and down the pitch. We had something special with those two.

It changed with David because he wanted it to change. His eye was off the ball. A shame, because he could still have been at Manchester United when I left. He would have been one of the greatest Man United legends. The only thing making him a legend at LA Galaxy and beyond was his iconic status. At some point in his life, he may feel the urge to say: I made a mistake.

But let me also pay tribute to him. His powers of perseverance are amazing, as he showed when joining Paris St-Germain in January 2013. At United he was always the fittest boy in the building. That helped him carry on playing to the age of 37. The stamina he built into himself from childhood survived.

The MLS is not a Mickey Mouse league. It’s actually quite an athletic league. I watched Beckham in the final of the MLS Cup and noticed how well he did, tracking back, putting in a shift. Nor did he disgrace himself at Milan during his loan period there. At PSG he played for an hour in the quarter-finals of the European Cup. He wasn’t in the game much, but he carried out his duties well. He worked hard and hit a few good passes early in the game.

I asked myself, ‘How does he do it?’

Stamina was the first answer. But David also discovered a desire to confound everybody. And he could still hit a fine cross, a good cross-field ball, which are traits he never lost. They were ingrained in what he was as an athlete. To play in the later rounds of the Champions League at nearly 38 was quite an achievement after five years in America. He was back in the mix. You can only praise him for that.

One or two people asked me whether I would take him back after he left LA. With him at 37, there was no point going down that road. There was a publicity element for PSG in signing him on a six-month deal. David, however, ignored that part of it. As far as he was concerned, he was still a great player. Giggs, Scholes and I discussed this one day. As I said, he had this talent for blocking out bad performances. I would give him stick and he would go off in a huff, probably thinking, ‘That manager’s off his head, I was good today.’ In LA, he probably thought Hollywood was his next step in life. There was a purpose and a plan in him going to Los Angeles, I think. That aside, you have to admire his tenacity. He amazed me and he amazed everyone at Manchester United. Whatever he pursues in life, he just keeps on going.

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