David Beckham was a footballing phenomenon comparable only with George Best, because both – perhaps uniquely in British football – re-defined the whole notion of footballing celebrity in the age in which they played. Beckham had a mastery of the photo opportunity and an eye for what it took to get on both the back and front pages well beyond the grasp of any of his peers, and light years ahead of anyone who came before him. Unlike Bestie, there was a sense in which Beckham controlled the prying eye of the media for his own purposes, rather than allow it to dominate and destroy him.
Whether it was wearing a sarong to a night out, sporting that tiny plaster over his eye to highlight the injury he received following Fergie’s mistimed kick in the dressing room or putting that green and gold scarf around his neck on his final competitive visit to Old Trafford, Beckham never missed a trick when it came to ensuring he called the tune when it came to media relations.
It unquestionably accelerated his departure from Old Trafford. We knew Fergie was never going to have any truck with that kind of palaver for long, and his craving for national attention also affected his relationship with United fans. In that great United midfield of the treble winning season and the years immediately afterwards – our best ever, and there’s a good argument for it being the finest in the history of English football – we never related to him as we did to the passionate Roy Keane, the quietly brilliant Paul Scholes or the United-fan-who-lived-the-dream elegance of Ryan Giggs.
It was different with Beckham. He’d been vilified by the whole ABU nation following his sending off in the World Cup and United fans at that time loved him all the more for it. But soon afterwards he became national property and that’s never something that never sits well with United fans. Not only that, but his craving for celebrity was just a bit too crass, his eventual run-in with Fergie just a bit too predictable. Few United fans ever even sang his name and he certainly never found it matched to a memorable chant or song that lasted long enough to become a genuine terrace anthem. Even now we still celebrate in song team mates from that era like Solskjaer, Stam and, inevitably, Cantona. But Beckham never became a darling of the Stretford End, never an idol in the true United mould and was never immortalised in song.
Yet whenever he’s returned to Old Trafford since his departure for Real Madrid the response from United supporters has been rapturous. We always treat our returning idols with the respect they deserve, but for Beckham alone we cranked up the adulation beyond anything he received at his peak as a player.
We always knew, of course, that we had a midfielder of real class who could hit a free kick as well as anyone I’ve seen in a United shirt with the exception of Cristiano Ronaldo; a great team player who sacrificed his personal ambition to be a top class creative midfielder to make the right wing position his own; the best crosser of a ball with his right foot we’ve seen in world football for many years. But for so much of that time, he never seemed completely ours: those same England fans who were happy to see his effigy burned in 1998 decided he was OK after all and we lost him, long before he wore a United shirt for the last time.
In the end, I’d have loved him to return to United for just one season, and I know a lot of other United fans feel the same way. He’d have done a job for us, I’m sure of that, but I suspect the reason we wanted it was it might have given us a chance to show him how much he really meant to us.