Beckham: Footballer, superstar, Manchester United legend

Posted by Mark Payne

Shaun Botterill/Allsport UK/Getty ImagesA young David Beckham celebrates his goal for Manchester United against Newcastle during the 1996 FA Charity Shield.

Thursday brought news of David Beckham's retirement from football. He bows out at PSG and although he left Manchester United 10 years ago, he retains a special place in the hearts of the Premier League club's fans.

- Macintosh: This David was a Goliath
- Johnson: Au revoir, Beckham
- Palmer: Beckham a national treasure
- Beckham proud to retire as a 'champion'

It was two crosses from Beckham that set up United's stupendous Champions League final win against Bayern Munich in 1999 that sealed a memorable and historic treble, and he was the architect of as much joy among the United faithful as any of the club's other greats.

Beckham made his United debut in 1992 but was a late developer physically and the club sent him out on loan to Preston to toughen him up.

In 1995, having finished second in the league, Sir Alex Ferguson ripped apart a United team of veterans, determined to hand responsibility to the club's young players.

The opening game of the 1995-96 season saw United soundly beaten 3-1 by Aston Villa. The redeeming feature of the match was a long-range goal from the little-known Beckham. By the end of that season, United had won the double with kids and Beckham was one of the hottest properties in football.

He started the following season by surpassing a famous Pele attempt to score from the halfway line against Wimbledon. The goal changed his life; shortly afterward he was an England player and on the front of magazines the world over. A happy period of collecting trophies for Manchester United followed.

The manner of his departure in 2003 was a shock at the time and surely no former player's transfer is regretted as much by the supporters. The boot to the head in the dressing room, and Beckham's swept-back hair to reveal the injury to the press the following day, ultimately deprived the club of a great player. And United were without a league championship until his replacement, Cristiano Ronaldo, came of age four years later.

Beckham was on the receiving end of a deafening standing ovation when he returned in 2008 for an all-star game; and a campaign to re-sign him when things were grim for the player at Real Madrid gained some hearty support. But there was never a chance it would happen. Why? Sir Alex Ferguson.

The United boss always spoke at great length about the need for players to focus on the game and not succumb to the distractions many modern footballers can. The celebrity wife and trappings that began to surround Beckham -- a hard-training, diligent and gifted footballer desperate to please the mentor he had known since he was 12 -- did not sit well with manager.

An "agree to disagree" scenario had developed and United got on with the footy and won the league in 2003. But during the course of that year, two significant things happened.

Firstly, Beckham's post-World Cup star had risen to an unbelievable height. He was one of the most recognisable athletes on the planet and, despite putting United through a victorious league campaign and getting them to within touching distance of another European Cup final, Fergie kept being asked about his No. 7.

It obviously rankled him. Ferguson is a club man and the United faithful are well drilled with the mantra "no one player is bigger than the club." This is also why plenty were eventually happy to say "ciao" to Ronaldo a few years back.

Then, the camel's back broke. United were outclassed by Arsenal in the FA Cup and Sir Alex destroyed enough crockery in the dressing room to cater for an ambassadorial reception. During the "discussion," the manager became a pinpoint specialist himself by kicking out at a boot, which found its way across the room before connecting with Beckham's bonce. More coverage was given to the two-stitch scar above Beckham's right eye than the ensuing war in Iraq. Fergie had had enough.

No sooner had United finished celebrating the Premier League title triumph of 2003, than the club accepted a bid from Barcelona. Becks eventually balked at it, but was sufficiently hurt that when Madrid put in an offer, he decided that if he wasn't wanted, then he may as well go.

When Beckham finally returned to Old Trafford for a competitive fixture with Milan in March 2010, the emotion was overwhelming. United won the match 4-0 but a screaming volley from Beckham was cheered as much as any of the goals United scored. Even though it missed.

As the match drew to a close, Beckham walked over to the United fans and picked up a protest scarf that had been thrown his way. By draping it over his shoulders, he aligned himself with the supporters who continue to protest the ownership of the club.

And that was the secret of Beckham's relationship with the United fans. Not only was he a key figure in the club's biggest night. Not only did he represent the club with distinction. But crucially, he was, and is, a United fan himself.

Follow Mark on www.twitter.com/markjpayne

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