I tried to resist writing the obligatory David Beckham article on the day of his long awaited (possible) first appearance against his old beloved club. I didn’t want to get bogged down in the rather ridiculous side show that his presence, even a peripheral one, in today’s Champions League clash between AC Milan and Manchester United would inevitably cause. The game isn’t about Beckham and it’s annoying for both sets of fans to be keep being told it is. Or indeed, being told it isn’t, because having to point out that it isn’t only really goes to show how much it probably is. It was actually quite easy to avoid it for a while, even after both Sky and iTV started running adverts for their prospective legs which, if viewed by the deaf before 3 in the morning (which is inexplicably the only time the deaf are seemingly encouraged to watch television, because apparently they have nothing better to do than wait until the dead of night to watch Ready Steady Cook with sign language) could entirely plausibly give the impression that Manchester United are playing just one rather handsome man, or that Sir Alex Ferguson is battling David Beckham to the death in a WWF-style gladiatorial extravaganza.
However my resistance was finally broken yesterday by none other than Alan Hansen. To add insult to injury, he’s even made me want to make the opposite point to the one that I would’ve made had I decided to write a Beckham piece before then. Because Hansen believes that Beckham “has never been one of the best footballers in the world” and that he was never as crucial to United’s success as the likes of Keane and Scholes. This is wrong.
While I wouldn’t quibble with him being a lesser player than those two, he certainly is, I do quibble with the assertion that his role wasn’t as important or prominent, or influential during his time, especially with regards to Scholes, and I’d fiercely take issue with the rather insulting notion that he was never one of the best footballers in the world. That’s the insult, the injury comes from my injured pride because while I like and admire Beckham as a player and a man, I’ve often been at pains to point out to others how overplayed his talents have been at times, especially after his peak. However now I feel more at pains to defend his status from the lazy and now over common assertion that he was never that good to begin with. This is also wrong.
Beckham may not be one of the best players in the world right now, but he was. He was twice voted the 2nd best player in the world at the World Player of the Year awards, and once for the Ballon D’or. This obviously doesn’t prove anything for an opinion that is entirely subjective, but it’s a tangible thing to grasp in his favor. Another would be the PFA Young Player of the year award he won in 1997, or the Sir Matt Busby Player of the year award for the same season, or the UEFA club player of the year for 1999. All accolades Scholes never won. This is completely unfair on Scholes of course, the man is a wonderful player who is massively underappreciated in the individual honors stakes and obviously more naturally gifted than Beckham however he, like his still current team mate Ryan Giggs, is a man who despite all his talent, never drove a team or inspired a team during any one particularly inspired season, or run of seasons, in the same way as Beckham did. From 98-2001 Beckham’s influence was second only to Keane. He collected over 20 assists in the 98/99 season alone, and his goals & assist stats are far more impressive than Giggs’ in every season from 1998-2001 only dipping assist wise in 2002, a season when he still scored more goals. His importance was confirmed by Ferguson himself who not only played him more often than all 3, but even occasionally made him captain in Keane’s absence ahead of all these other supposedly more important players who, in the case of Giggs, were actually more senior.
Again, none of this proves Beckham was a better or more gifted player, he wasn’t. Nor am I being entirely fair by bringing Giggs into this who wasn’t mentioned by Hansen (even though he should have been) and who hasn’t done anything to deserve being dragged out as an example of someone less important than David Beckham when his career both pre and post the golden balled one’s reign has shown anything but. However it’s a very good example of how memories can be deceptive and lazy assumptions can be made. Giggs’ famous semi final goal against Arsenal is always remembered as a defining moment of United’s treble campaign but it was actually his only really inspired contribution. Beckham was far more influential that season than he, or Scholes, but it’s forgotten, or glazed over in the haze of their current depictions. I remember Frank Skinner once writing an article similar to Hansen’s (though far more fair and comparing Beckham to the all time greats) using, as his main point, the fact that Beckham has never influenced a final or significant event match the way the Zidane’s, Pele’s and Maradona’s all did. Forgetting of course that both United’s goals in the European Cup final came directly from Beckham corners. Not the same as a winner in a World Cup final no, but it’s just a simple example of how Beckham is often now underplayed, and furthermore Hansen isn’t comparing Beckham unfavorably to these legends, he’s comparing him unfavorably to his peers and teammates. Insinuating, as many do nowadays, that his influence wasn’t really ever that great and it’s all silly hype.
During the time when the global Beckham love was at it’s height, he very much deserved his status as one of United’s best and one of the world’s too. Not the best, but certainly, unquestionably one of them. For England, he not only dragged them into the World Cup in 2002 on his own, but also dragged them to the Euro’s in 2004, scoring or assisting roughly 70% of England’s goals in the qualifiers. Even at the World Cup in 2006, when he was definitely passed his best, half of all England’s goals (3 of the 6) came directly from Beckham. Not influential? Really? It’s staggering how much of this has been forgotten, or just ignored in the swing back “oh he was never as good as the hype suggested” attitude. No he wasn’t, but the hype was ridiculous, no player was worth that hype, but he was worthy of a fair deal of it.
There’s also a fair amount of hypocrisy in the assertion that he was never a good enough natural talent to be regarded as truly great. Many players who are truly exceptional, but never reach their potential, aren’t suddenly buffeted up into the upper echelons of footballing greatness because they could shimmy passed 5 defenders when it wasn’t important. Even Beckham’s current teammate Ronaldinho is often excused from “greatest of all time” lists because he let his talent go to waste after a relatively short time. Why should someone who made the most of his talents for a long time be immediately excluded then? Eric Cantona is seen as the ultimate foreign superstar of the Premier League by many but footballing wise few would argue Thierry Henry is the more accomplished player and that it’s King Eric’s influence that puts him in the same stratosphere. So why does influence not matter at all when it’s Beckham’s? All true greats of the game had obvious weaknesses or parts of their game, however small, that could’ve used improvement. Why is Beckham’s ability to pass, cross and shoot to the highest world class level not as important as his inability to flick the ball behind his right ear with the outside of his left foot, but Maradona’s inability to use his right foot much not so? You see? There’s an agenda with most Beckham bashers, and one which seems magnificently unfair when you asses the standard of criteria most people usually use to determine their great players. Underplaying Beckham is the Creationsim of football punditry. The answer’s already decided on, so any analysis is immediately compromised. Not that Hansen gives any analysis, merely blunt opinion as fact.
Once again I’ve let my ranting get the better of me, but my point is clearly not that Beckham is or was a better player than Roy Keane, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and certainly not messes Cantona, Henry and Maradona, or that he should be remembered as one of the greatest of all time. My point is that it shouldn’t be forgotten how good he was just because it’s fashionable to knock him now. And that his peers during that irrepressible United era were his equals and even at times, with the exception of Keane, less vital, influential and crucial to that team than he. Of course it flowed both ways, Giggs was more influential in the 1997/98 season and Scholes in the post 2002 ones, but to claim he was always inferior when they played together and not simply inferior by comparison after he left, or by assessment of god given talent alone, is false and wrong. And to claim he was never one of the best in the world at any time is just ignorant of the facts. As ignorant, possibly, as saying you’ll never win anything with kids.