Following the 2-0 defeat in the FA Cup at home to Arsenal, Sir Alex Ferguson was furious with the team, and kicked a boot across the dressing room.
Remarkably, the boot hit David Beckham in the face, even though it was a complete accident on behalf of the manager.
Beckham received medical attention at the ground before leaving with his wife Victoria and son Brooklyn. However, when he turned up at training, following the story being leaked to the press, he made no attempt to hide the injury. Instead, hair scraped back, his stitches were visible for all to see.
Tony Coton, who was United’s goalkeeping coach at the time, has claimed it was this bust up and decision to hang Ferguson out to dry which lead to Beckham’s exit a few months later.
It wasn’t the dressing-room row in the aftermath of a 2–0 FA Cup defeat at the hands of Arsenal at Old Trafford in 2003 that did for Becks. It was his reaction to the fallout, a crass attempt by the nation’s favourite player to turn United fans and the general public against his boss.
Sir Alex and David were having words about the midfielder’s failure to track back for the second goal. The manager saw a stray boot lying on the floor and kicked at it in frustration – only to see it fly above Becks’ head. The boot thudded against the wall, but the metal aglet on one of the laces caught David above his eye. Becks felt blood trickle down his face, then lost the plot completely.
Thankfully, Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs managed to calm their mate down, while Sir Alex told David that he was sorry for kicking the boot towards him. It was a genuine apology from the boss, even though it was a freak accident.What David should have done was accept the olive branch and issue his own words of remorse, but he petulantly brushed the gaffer away before adding insult to injury.
The incident was leaked to the tabloids and the next time Becks appeared in public his hair had been swept back off his face and held in place by an Alice band. A couple of butterfly stitches had been inserted into the small nick above David’s eye, and he wanted the whole world to see.
When I saw how staged the photographs were I realised Beckham’s PR experts had gone for Sir Alex’s throat. My first reaction was: ‘Close the door on your way out, David.’
In the final weeks of the season, it became the worst-kept secret at the club that Becks was Real Madrid-bound in the summer.The manager was always willing to sacrifice a stellar player if he felt it necessary to maintain control; it was his number one rule of football management.
Ferguson spoke about the incident in his autobiography, claiming Beckham was already in talks with Real Madrid at the time and swore at the manager before the boot was kicked.
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.
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.’
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.’