The Ferguson and Beckham saga

SO it drags on. The Fergie and Beckham saga. Beckham dropped by Ferguson from the vital League game at Highbury, five days after his feeble performance at the Bernabeu against Real Madrid.


SO it drags on. The Fergie and Beckham saga. Beckham dropped by Ferguson from the vital League game at Highbury, five days after his feeble performance at the Bernabeu against Real Madrid. Left out of the starting line up against Real in the return at Old Trafford, only to come on in the second half, score from one of his glorious free kicks, make what should have been an easy goal for the head of Ole Gunnar Solksjaer — who'd been the man to replace him in this and the previous game — and tap in United's winner.

David Beckham of Manchester United and his manager Sir Alex Ferguson look in different directions during the FA Barclaycard Premiership match against Tottenham Hotspur. There was much criticism of Ferguson for leaving Beckham out of the starting line up against Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League match at Old Trafford. — Pic. SHAUN BOTTERILL/GETTY IMAGES-

After which, inevitably, there was much criticism of Ferguson for leaving him out initially at Old Trafford and with somewhat more logic for deciding to field a Juan Sebastian Veron who hadn't played at all for seven weeks. Largely ignored was the fact that Beckham had been such a flop in Madrid where Real's Brazilian left back, surely never best known for his defensive qualities, seemed to have a jinx on him.

Would Beckham stay, it was asked, or would Real Madrid buy him for a king's ransom as had been rumoured for some time? I couldn't see it then and I cannot see it now. Why on earth would they want him? When they already have Luis Figo, who himself cost a fortune, and has an infinity of tricks and stratagems denied to Beckham, on the right flank. When they have the splendid Ronaldo who, admittedly with the complicity of the United defence, got all three Real goals at Old Trafford. When there is the incomparable Zinedine Zidane, making bullets for his colleagues to fire. Zidane, let it be said, in parenthesis, who was dismissed by the ever crass Ferguson as a mere showman whose actual contribution to a game was minimal. It hardly looked like that in Madrid.

Then, though he couldn't play in Manchester thanks to an appendix operation, there is the sparkling young centre forward, Raul, treading in the distinguished steps of "El Buitre", The Vulture, Emilio Butragueno, like him a product, though a rare one, of the Real Madrid youth scheme. Where would Beckham fit in there? If it were to be on the right flank: does that man Figo would be pushed out to the left where as United found out to their cost in Madrid he can function perfectly well, as he showed with that insidious curling shot which gave Real the first of their three goals at the Bernabeu.

What Beckham does well with that superb right foot he does superlatively well, but he is essentially a one trick pony, lacking pace, exceptional ball skills and ability in the air. Tension between him and Ferguson has been very much in the air since in a moment of peevish petulance Ferguson kicked that boot in the United dressing room after they had lost at home to Arsenal, which fortuitously struck Beckham on the brow and inflicted a cut which needed stitches.

Yes, Fergie did have a case for not starting Beckham against Real in Manchester, but when all is said and done it was surely United's wretched defending which enabled Ronaldo to get those three goals. Where was Rio Ferdinand when he glided through to score the devastating early first?

And why did Fabien Barthez let the shot slip between himself and his near post? What Fergie thought of that was evident when he dropped the French international 'keeper from the next United game.

Crass is as crass does. After the Old Trafford match Ferguson couldn't resist having an ill-natured and wholly gratuitous pop at Steve McManaman who came on as a substitute there and played perfectly well. The only reason he could think of for using McManaman, said Fergie, was because he had once nearly played for Liverpool. As if it was any business of his. McManaman in an English newspaper column replied with restraint that he'd been playing successfully in recent matches for Real. And it should be remembered that he had a couple of fine performances as substitute in the semifinals and Final of last season's European Champions Cup.

Meanwhile Ferguson has been on the carpet with UEFA for his foolish accusations after the quarterfinal draw was made that it was fixed so that Real and United would meet. He apologised for that though too late; but what proof did he have to support his accusation. He also went public with the statement that he was afraid pressure might be brought on therefore at the Bernabeu. Well if any pressure was brought at all it was one felt by Fergie since two colossally incorrect decisions went the way of United; first when Wes Brown blatantly brought down his man in the box and no spot kick was given then still more blatantly, when Barthez in a moment of sheer amnesia advanced beyond his penalty area with the ball and handled it. That should have meant his expulsion but the referee ignored that, too. And if Ferguson sneered at Real as being like Harlem Globetrotters that must mean United played the part of the patsies Harlem always best!

With Arsenal faltering in the Premiership, United forcing that draw at Highbury which should really have been a win, Ferguson had the satisfaction of seeing United make a powerful let burst for the Championship which at one time seemed inevitably destined for Highbury. But one has to say that on the evidence of United's pitiful defeat in Madrid, they cannot be called a major European power, even if they did reverse the result at Old Trafford. With Roy Keane nothing like the force he was before his various injuries and operations, Rio Ferdinand, so colossally expensive an acquisition, still making such odd mistakes in central defence, even Paul Scholes, whatever the force of his finishing, capable of the kind of error which gave away a goal in Madrid, United don't, to me, look like a major European power. Still less do the Gunners.

Zidane, Figo, Ronaldo. Real have paid vertiginous amounts of money for all of them and it seems emphatically to have paid off. But to pay some �35 million plus for Beckham would surely be a foolish extravagance. United meanwhile know that they need him, not merely as a player but because for better or for worse his "image" is worth a fortune to them commercially; and globally. He may or may not be a truly great player, but he has caught the imagination of the footballing world in a way that Ryan Giggs, his teammate and in my view his plain superior in terms of skills and versatility, has never done.