A victory for Ferguson over the cult of the individual


At Madrid, David Beckham will acquire new skills, as Steve McManaman has, and will have to think more strategically about how, when and where, to move the ball. — Pic. AP-

David Beckham is joining Real Madrid for one reason alone. It's because he and Sir Alex Ferguson have come to loathe each other.

If the godfather of Manchester United had left Old Trafford this summer to pursue a new interest in paper folding or stamp collecting, you can take it on good authority that Beckham would have served out his career at the club he so reveres.

So he's hardly Laurie Lee, setting out for Spain with a sense of wonder and a song in his heart. Sometimes you pick up the papers and assume that the whole world has yielded to his powers and his charm. One interested spectator, though, declined to be seduced. Beckham's mutation from a member of Fergie's home-grown sect into a global mega-celeb is anathema to the man who chalks up the Man United team.

The irony is that the culture `icon' has lost his war against the old Glaswegian. The Beckham sale is a victory for managerial authority over the cult of the individual.

But this is a good day for both United and the England captain. One day soon Beckham will walk on to a training ground in Spain and measure himself against Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, Ronaldo and Raul, not to mention Roberto Carlos, the Brazilian left-back who, in Ferguson's memorable phrase, has had Beckham "in his pocket" whenever the two have clashed. Beckham's current work-mates — Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Ruud van Nistelrooy — are hardly a bunch of shire horses, but it's fair to argue that El Becks is not yet the player English football has always wanted him to be. He is a dynamic, game-altering, lethal crosser and dead-ball specialist, but not an orchestrator of the calibre of a Zidane.

When Beckham first emerged in the modern equivalent of the Busby Babes, there was an expectation that he would become the new Glenn Hoddle but with a lot more tenacity and less of the rampant ego. Instead neither Ferguson nor any of the many England managers Beckham has served have had sufficient faith in his game-running abilities to bring him in from the right flank. Some experts even talk of him these days as a `special teams' player (an American phrase): a free-kick artist and dispatcher of wicked, curling crosses.

He is, unquestionably, a great Premiership player with a competitive edge sharp enough to have been made by Gillette. Nobody has ever questioned his work-rate or his love for the crimson shirt. His achievements so far, though, have been largely domestic.

With England, he wrecked his own first World Cup campaign by being sent off against Argentina at France 98 and was nowhere near fit enough to parade his capabilities properly in Japan — where he scored a cathartic winning penalty against Argentina but then jumped over a tackle to protect his injured foot at the start of a move which put Brazil level against Sven-Goran Eriksson's men.

In the qualifying campaign for that World Cup, we saw the clearest evidence of Beckham's talent for the heroic. Against Finland and Greece, he seized a limp England side by the neck and dragged it up the pitch. Speak to England supporters and they all pick out his brilliantly manic performance and last-minute free-kick against the Greeks as a manifestation of undiluted English spirit. The goal itself was pure alchemy.

But for Beckham himself it was not the glorious prelude to the rising of his own monogrammed sun in Japan. His United career, meanwhile, has become distorted by personal animosity to the point where he was considered surplus to needs in the club's two biggest games of last season — against Arsenal at Highbury and at home to Real Madrid.

So there is a persistent feeling that Beckham remains a work in progress, and that he has learnt all he can in the pinball arcade of the English Premiership. At Madrid, he will acquire new skills, as Steve McManaman has, and will have to think more strategically about how, when and where, to move the ball. To argue that he has been promoted to a higher echelon of the game would have the knight Ferguson down off his horse to defend his United team.

But many of us would stand up in court to defend the belief that Spanish football generally is more sophisticated, tactically and technically, than its English equivalent. We can expect to see a more rounded England captain return to the camp this autumn.

The bonfire of his fame was hardly in need of another consignment of logs. USA Today recently declared him to be the world's most recognisable sportsman ahead of even Tiger Woods and Michael Schumacher (a daft assertion).

While the deal with Real is being finalised, he is making his way round Japan, Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia, partly in support of Victoria, his wife. The big danger is that Beckham's arrival at the Bernabeu will descend into some kind of freak show which will hinder his family's attempts to settle and destroy the equilibrium of the world's most illustrious club.

This is the end of an era at Old Trafford. The great brotherhood of the 1993 FA Youth Cup-winning side has broken up. The relationship between Beckham and Ferguson was quasi father-son. But the club's star player created a world for himself that his manager could no longer recognise or accept. One of them had to go, and it was always unlikely to be the architect of eight Premiership title-winning campaigns. United regenerate. Beckham goes into a kind of regal exile. Both should come out of all this madness stronger.

Copyright, Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2003