At some football clubs it’s not that difficult to be remembered by the fans as a “legend”. For one club, it might be someone who has scored a lot of goals, for another it might be someone who is half decent and rejected offers from other clubs, at another it might be the person who scored the winning goal in a cup final or promotion play-off. At United, all of those things can be expected as a minimum, with you having to do something fairly special over a longer period of time to reserve a place in our history books.
Sir Bobby Charlton is an obvious candidate. Our all-time highest goal scorer who lived through the tragedy of Munich and emerged the other side as a fantastic player who helped us become the first English European Champions, before dedicating most of his retirement to the club. Eric Cantona was the catalyst behind our first title in 26 years, who was a fantastic player, understood completely what our club was all about and whose legacy can be best viewed in the “kids” he inspired who later went on to win the Treble. Ryan Giggs came through the ranks of the club as a United fan, went on to play more games for the club than anyone else, has won a ridiculous 13 titles, and as he approaches is 40, is still capable of competing at the highest level. For me, there’s three examples of players you can’t doubt deserve the title “Manchester United legend”, and there are many more, but people tend to disagree about a lot of them. Roy Keane was probably the best captain we ever had but things turned sour when he left the club and comes across as fairly bitter when talking about us. Is he still a legend? Cristiano Ronaldo scored 42 goals in 47 games in the second most successful season in the club’s entire history, was named the best player in the world, and contributed to numerous trophies. But his dream was to play for Real Madrid and he left us before he even reached his peak, so is he a legend? We can go around in circles debating it all day. We’ve had so many fantastic players that it can be fairly difficult to separate one from another.
Another interesting candidate for legendary status at this club is David Beckham. His dad was a massive red and took him to games as a kid, he was a mascot for our game against West Ham when he was 11-years-old, he joined the club when he was just 14-years-old and went on to make almost 400 appearances and won 10 trophies. Gary Neville, who is red through and through, claimed that having his first conversations with a teenage Beckham made him realise that people not from Manchester could love the club as much as he did. But is he a United legend though?
Chris Waddle hilariously claimed this week that Beckham wouldn’t even rank amongst the top 1000 players in the Premier League. It’s difficult to even dignify that with a response. It would be like saying Alan Shearer, Thierry Henry, Peter Schmeichel or Tony Adams weren’t amongst the best. Beckham was a fantastic footballer, truly gifted, but then also tirelessly dedicated to improving. He was fortunate enough to come through with like-minded players, fans of the club, who were all desperate to be good enough to play for United. So whatever ability he had naturally he added to with his determination to be the best and hard work to make sure that he got there.
On the opening day of the 1995-1996 season, when Alan Hansen told us we wouldn’t win anything with kids after a 3-1 defeat to Aston Villa, it was Beckham who scored our only goal. That was his stepping stone. He finished the season with a winners medal for the Premier League and FA Cup, having played 90 minutes against Liverpool at Wembley. The following season he was voted the Sir Matt Busby player of the year by the fans and the PFA young player of the year by his fellow professionals, and won the league again.
Then came Beckham’s most productive league campaign so far, with him missing just one game and scoring nine goals. It was his first season wearing our #7 shirt after Cantona’s retirement. “I can remember David Beckham when Eric left,” Albert Morgan has said since. “He was desperate for that number 7 shirt, absolutely desperate.” However, whilst it was a good season for Beckham personally, it ended with Arsenal winning the double and one of the defining moments of his career, as he was sent off for England at the World Cup. He was a national hate figure and they were burning effigies of him in the capital, but as you would expect, our fans rallied behind him. He has since spoken out several times about the difference our support made to him.
“Everyone knows that’s what got me through what happened against Argentina, with my friends, my family and the manager,” he said in 2009. “I will never forget that. In my eyes they are the best in the world, without a doubt.”
We were rewarded for our loyalty when he went on to play an integral part in our Treble success the season that followed. It would be hard to single out just one person that year but Beckham was certainly up there with our best performers. That was really where things took off for Beckham. He wasn’t just that kid who scored from his own half, he was a European Champion, and on his way to becoming one of the best players in the world. Oh, and he also married some pop star that summer too.
The following season he was named the highest earning English footballer (on a £27,000-a-week contract at United) as he brought in £1.4m a year. He won another league title and in the summer he was linked with moves to a whole host of top European club, including Barcelona, AC Milan, Real Madrid and Inter Milan. He came second behind Barcelona and Brazil’s Rivaldo in the FIFA World Player of the Year award.
Just before Christmas, Beckham hinted for the first time that he may be open to a move away from the club. “If I’m happy and my family are happy then I will stay where I am, if things go well with the club and the contract,” he said. “But you don’t know. You can never say about that. So I will have to wait and see over the next few months.”
In the February, Beckham was named England captain by manager Sven Goran-Eriksson but the following month was dropped by Ferguson for the game against Sturm Graz after a string of below par performances.
Having already won the title in April, United had a difficult game against Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter-finals. Beckham picked up a silly yellow card for a foul on Stefan Effenberg and would miss the second leg.
“David on his best form would be a massive loss and, of course, I would prefer it if he was available,” said Ferguson. “But he has not been playing as well as we would have liked. He knows that. All great players have little spells when they are not at their best. He is going through it now.”
The road to Madrid
Ferguson is often blamed for Beckham’s departure from the club, with the misconception being that the player was forced out of the club after his relationship with the manager broke down. Some even say that the club sold him against his wishes, that a deal was done with Barcelona and Real Madrid behind Beckham’s back. People think that a fall out with Ferguson, which resulted in our manager kicking a boot at his head, paved the way for his exit, but Beckham’s journey away from United started long before that.
A year and a half before the boot incident, contract negotiations with Beckham began. He was deemed the 2nd best player in the world again, this time behind Real Madrid and Portugal’s Luis Figo. As a self proclaimed United fan, at the height of his career with the club he loved, there surely shouldn’t have been any stumbling blocks with his contract talks. But there were. Whilst club and player had agreed on a weekly wage, Beckham was not prepared to settle for what we’d offered him for image rights. “It’s not the salary that’s a problem,” he said. “It’s just the image rights that needed a little perking.”
In February 2002, The Telegraph reported that Beckham had already gone through 22 unsuccessful meetings with in the club in regards to his contract. “We will always try and re-sign any player at Man United and David is no different,” Ferguson said at the time. “Hopefully in the next two weeks we will get that sorted. The offer is there, it’s a good one and David knows where he is. I’ve spoken to him many times. I think when David was left out of the team it was an area of worry for him. Nobody likes to be left out but it happened for the best reason and David’s form now is because we rested him – if we hadn’t you would not see that form today.”
A few months later, the club and player finally came to an agreement, with the BBC reporting that his new contract represented a 300% increase on what he was earning before. His total earnings were expected to be around £11m a year.
So, did we have our happy ending? Not quite. Terry Byrne, Beckham’s friend and former manager, has since spoken to Sports Illustrated to explain what was going on behind the scenes.
In June 2002, Beckham called Byrne to tell him that he would be leaving his management group, SFX, and offered him the job. There was one condition though: he would have to move to Spain.
“David then called me and said, ‘Look, I’m going to split with SFX. Would you consider you and your wife moving? I’m going to go to Real Madrid next summer and leave Manchester United. Would you come and live in Spain and just run my world?’ I said, ‘OK, fine.’ And I can say this with my hand on my heart, I never took a penny of commission out of David. Ever. I took the same salary I was on at Watford. I said, ‘Look, it’s not about money. I’ll help you for a period, get your life sorted back out and then there will be a time when I step away.’ I managed him for five years. Lived in Spain, loved it. There came a point where the England players asked me to manage them too. David wanted me to move to L.A., and my wife and I didn’t want to. Our baby had just been born, so I said to David, ‘Now is the right time for me to step away.’ So I chose at that point to extricate myself from it. I still speak to David regularly, and he’ll ask my advice on whatever. But the friendship comes first and will always come first before business.”
This throws a spanner in the works for those claiming that Beckham was forced out the following year after the boot incident.
Four months before moving to Spain, Beckham was linked heavily with a move to Real Madrid in the press. “Any player would be honoured to be spoken about by Real Madrid,” he said when asked about the speculation. “They have great players and a great tradition.”
Whilst on holiday with his family Beckham told the Los Angeles Times, “I’ve never said that I’d never move away from Manchester, and I’ve never said that I’d end my career there.” This contradicts the comments Beckham has made since, insisting that if he’d had his way, he would have stayed at the club forever.
Barcelona put in an offer for him which was accepted and made public by the club, much the apparent disappointment of the player. “David is very disappointed and surprised to learn of this statement and has no plans to meet Mr Laporta or his representatives.” Beckham didn’t want to go to Barcelona, he wanted to go to Real Madrid. It wasn’t long before they then put in a reasonable offer too which was also accepted by United.
It took Beckham two years to negotiate his last contract with United and if we are to believe Beckham hadn’t been speaking to Real Madrid behind our back, it took him a matter of days to agree a salary and image rights with them. And that was that.
When the news was confirmed, Beckham released a statement which thanked the manager and the fans, but also explained why he had chosen to leave. “I know that I will always regret it later in life if I had turned down the chance to play at another great club like Real Madrid, which also has world-class players,” he said.
Beckham was then unveiled at the Bernabeu and talked of how much the move meant to him. “Football is everything to me and joining Real Madrid is a dream come true,” he said. “Hala Madrid!”
Even if you were to believe Beckham didn’t want to leave the club, whilst I wouldn’t expect him to take to the mic and claim he would prefer to be at United, he hardly sounds like a player desperate to stay in Manchester for the rest of his career.
The re-writing of history
In October 2006, Beckham reflected on the damaged relationship he now had with Ferguson, suggesting that his decision to leave the club could have played a part.
“I have known Ferguson since I was 12 years old and we have had one or two problems in that time,” he said. “Maybe he didn’t want me to leave.”
Again, for those claiming Beckham was sold against his wishes, his own remarks on what happened don’t add up. But I can’t be too critical of people who stand by the claim that the player was forced out, as 2006 was probably the last time Beckham has been honest about what went on. He has since attempted to re-write history whenever he can.
“I always said that if I’d had my choice, I would never have left Manchester United because that was where I always wanted to start my career and finish it,” Beckham said in 2009. “Then I had to look at it in a different way. I’d been there over 10 years and been really successful and had amazing times and made so many great friends.”
“I’d have loved to have stayed at Manchester United for my whole career and never gone anywhere else,” he said in January 2010.
“When you are a Manchester United player and a Manchester United fan you never want to play for any other club,” he said the following month.
These statement don’t quite fit with the things he had said earlier though and certainly contradict the comments made by his friend Byrne. Maybe it’s cynical to suggest that this is a calculated move on Beckham’s part, king of successful PR, to try and build up his legendary status with the fans. Maybe the truth is Beckham really does feel that way about the club, that if he had his chance again he would see out his career here, but that he was a different person in a different position back then. Ten years have gone by and it’s easier to see things through rose-tinted specs now, so maybe he’s forgotten the ambition and drive he felt to leave the club and test himself elsewhere. Maybe he’s forgotten about the pressures of a demanding wife and the awkwardness of a deteriorating relationship with the manager. Maybe he’s forgotten what it felt like just to be one of the better-known Manchester United players compared to the global superstar he is today. Who knows. But what we do know is that Beckham had his say in what happened to his career and moving to Real Madrid was certainly not something the club or manager made him do against his will.
Bearing that in mind then, given how much stick Wayne Rooney is getting for handing in a transfer request, is it accurate to describe Beckham as a legend? Whilst Rooney’s situation isn’t comparable with any other United player, given he has now formally requested to leave the club twice, we surely can’t paint him as a Judas for wanting leave, whilst putting Beckham on a pedestal with Charlton and Giggs.
It certainly isn’t my place to determine whether Beckham can be classed as a legend at United or not, but it is important that when people are weighing up the decision for themselves that they are aware of the full picture, not just the version Beckham has painted in the past few years.
Nothing can take away what a brilliant player he was and how much he was loved by our fans when he was at the club though. I do find myself irritated by his constant need to describe himself as a huge fan, but I suppose I am being unfair to him there. It’s nice that a fella who has been all over the place, playing football for the biggest clubs in the world, still holds us in such high regard. I suppose it’s the lack of honesty that is grating though. He wants people to see him as someone that was forced out of his boyhood club against his wishes, rather than someone who was drawn to Real Madrid for all the reasons you can imagine a player is drawn to them for.
Beckham’s retirement sees another of his generation bite the dust though, with our Fergie Fledglings dropping like flies, but you would have to argue he’s had one of the best careers of all time. He’s won titles and trophies all over the world which is a remarkable achievement, particular for an Englishman, given they so rarely leave our shores to play football. And genuinely, I am pleased for him. He’ll never be on the same level as Giggs, Solskjaer, Scholes or Cantona for me, but I’d feel daft if I couldn’t show him respect for all the brilliant things he did when he played for our club. Red legend? Not for me. But a truly brilliant player who we were fortunate to see in our shirt for ten years. Football legend? Definitely.