Beckham, the beanie and the boot cut

On this day, David Beckham's mistake in an FA Cup tie against Arsenal led to a dressing room bust-up with Sir Alex Ferguson that spelled an end to his Manchester United career.

The tutor-pupil relationship turned frosty when Beckham felt Ferguson need not know about his life outside of work.   -  Getty Images

Tommy Docherty, Manchester United’s manager from 1972-77, once described Sir Alex Ferguson as “a crackpot and a bully.” Paul Ince, Roy Keane and Ruud van Nistelrooy would more or less agree after falling out with Ferguson. But possibly the most famous of the dressing room bust-ups happened on February 15, 2003, between the Scotsman and David Beckham.

Manchester United was up against an Arsenal side that dominated without either Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry on the bench. Roy Keane, Nistelrooy and Paul Scholes picked up yellow cards in the first half, while Ryan Giggs’ miss in the 30th minute provided for front-page headlines. Arsenal kicked United out of the FA Cup in the fifth round, winning 2-0 at Old Trafford.

On that day, Beckham’s long locks were up for the hairdryer treatment by his manager. The midfielder stood ball-watching when Arsenal forward Edu ran into space on the left and fed Sylvain Wiltord for the Gunners’ second goal. Lethargy of that level might be a common sight in a Sunday League match, but certainly not in a game between then England’s fiercest rivals.

Beckham’s mistake against Arsenal warranted an earful, but he refused to admit it to the manager. In Beckham’s mind, he never had a bad game. Unwavering confidence amid severe scrutiny, a quality Ferguson both objected to and admired.

Ferguson described in My Autobiography what happened after: “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.”

To Ferguson, the manager’s office at Manchester United was the citadel. In his own words, “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.” Big players will have big egos, they should be weeded out before they start controlling the dressing room. Beckham had to go. Ferguson made it clear to the club’s hierarchy.

Hollywood aspirations

Before dressing rooms stood up and later unravelled under Jose Mourinho’s us-versus-the-world philosophy, Ferguson’s dressing room was impenetrable. Never mind that Keane scythed at Robert Pires’ legs, “Arsenal players bullied the referee and got away with it,” was Ferguson’s post-match reaction.

It took a couple of years for Beckham and Ferguson to reconcile.   -  Getty Images


For a defensive midfielder who worshipped work rate, Ferguson felt Beckham was not doing enough to track back. His ward’s celebrity status after marrying Victoria Adams of the Spice Girls irked him.

The tutor-pupil relationship turned frosty when Beckham felt his boss need not know about his life outside of work. On one such occasion, he flew to Ireland to meet Victoria without informing Ferguson. But the manager found out.

“I was coming back at 6am for training, I was sat in the lounge and the manager walked in. He didn’t talk to me. I knew I was in a little bit of trouble,” Beckham told BBC Radio.

He spotted Beckham wearing a Beanie hat to training, the team meal and the pre-match warm-up to hide his new hairstyle – a shaved head – until kick-off against Leicester City. At that moment, Ferguson knew his fledgling was lost to the glitz and glamour.

Real Madrid and reconciliation

After being struck by the boot, Beckham was patched up by the team doctors. An inch-long surgical tape over the eye dominated the news the next day. The following week, Ferguson observed Beckham’s keenness to shake hands with Roberto Carlos during the Champions League tie against Real Madrid. For the rest of the season, in-form Ole Gunnar Solskjær started ahead of Beckham. Ferguson felt Beckham didn’t care any more.

“I had no aspirations to leave United. There was never any revenge. I was hurt and angry at the time at how the situation had gone because throughout the season I was left out of certain games but never thought it would lead to me leaving,” Beckham told BBC Radio.


David Beckham's success at Manchester United started with the Youth FA Cup win in 1992.   -  Twitter: @ManUtd


In the summer, Ferguson shipped off Beckham on a £24.5 million deal with Real Madrid. He had won six Premier Leagues, two FA Cups, four Community Shields and the 1999 Champions League during United’s treble-winning season.

“I didn’t watch Manchester United for three years [after leaving]. I was shocked and devastated because we had just won the league that season,” Beckham revealed.

The reconciliation took a few years. Memories of 1998 World Cup would come flooding back to Beckham. He and Victoria were expecting their first child. But there would be no reason to be happy after England was dumped out by Argentina in the last-16 clash where Beckham was sent off. Ferguson was the first man to call. “Son, get back to Manchester, you’ll be fine.” The gaffer’s generosity would remain in Beckham’s mind.

Ferguson remained a fan of Beckham’s incredible stamina, his ability to make the ball swerve like a boomerang even at the age of 37 when he retired at PSG. To Beckham, Ferguson always remained ‘The Boss,’ like he was to many other United players.

“It was a freak occurrence that will never happen again,” Ferguson told the media three days after the boot-kicking incident.

“It was a freak accident. He could never do it again, because I have seen him in training,” Beckham agreed on BBC Radio in 2017.

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