With the score pegged at nil-nil and the temperature of the game beginning to rise, two figures converged on the ball as it ran loose outside the Arsenal area. One, Tony Adams, is the rugged oak at the centre of the Gunners' legendary defence, a man with a character forged in an exemplary personal battle against alcohol addiction. The other, David Beckham, is English football's willowy, floppy-haired poster boy, the living symbol of the new affluence which has enabled the game to shake itself free of its roots. Together, these two symbolic figures went for the 50-50 ball. And suddenly Adams, perhaps for the first time in his life, pulled out of the potential collision, leaving Beckham to take possession and renew the attack.
Whatever Adams's motives, his action was a tribute to the resilience with which David Beckham has faced a relentless challenge to his own character throughout a year in which he has been vilified as the man who cost England the chance of glory in last summer's World Cup. Without making a fuss about it, Beckham has schooled himself out of the bursts of anger that disfigured his early career. His booking on Wednesday night, in a tense game at Blackburn, was his sixth yellow card of the season in league matches, but seemed almost an aberration. In place of his old snarl we have seen a new determination to focus his remarkable talent to the best sporting effect. And, even more clearly, a renewed commitment to the team ethic - especially noteworthy since it comes from a player whose gifts would entitle him to the special consideration given to individuals of genius within team sports.
But David Beckham is not Paul Gascoigne. His talent is almost as extraordinary as that of the wayward Geordie boy, albeit different in kind - more technical, less intuitive and visionary, not so easily intoxicated by the idea of risk. In the way he conducts his life, too, we see a very different creature, one whose innate caution has helped him appreciate the wisdom of swimming away from danger, rather than insisting on sniffing the bait.
Not that he is always easy to love. With his pop-star fiancee, his silver Ferrari Maranello, an autobiography published before he was 23, and an income recently estimated at pounds 3m a year, Beckham might seem to represent everything that is most repellently excessive about professional football in the age of satellite TV. And that would be to take no account of the mortal sin he committed in St Etienne on the evening of Tuesday 30 June last year when, in a moment of petulance, he flicked his boot at an opponent who had just barged him over. No matter that 10 minutes earlier he had himself been hacked down under the nose of a referee who took no action. Beckham's expulsion from the World Cup match between England and Argentina prefaced his team's departure from the tournament, an event for which he was held solely responsible by a large segment of the population, including his own coach.
The following morning, the tabloids followed Glenn Hoddle's cruel and stupid lead by ripping into Beckham with the savagery reserved for those who have given them a really good story. The word "shame" was freely applied. Somewhere in England, a publican hung him in effigy. A formal apology to the people of England had little effect. Up and down the country, fans of football clubs other than Manchester United prepared to give him a torrid reception when the Premier League schedule brought his team to their town.
Almost a year later, Beckham's ears are ringing with obscene taunts taking their tone from the special brand of ersatz hatred in which the tabloids specialise. The verbal insults are delivered from close quarters as he takes up his position on the touchline to take a corner, sometimes only a few feet from his tormentors. Often they contain vile insults aimed at Victoria Adams, his fiancee and the mother of his baby son. His reaction, or lack of it, suggests that Diego Simeone might even have done him a favour, by teaching him a lesson in the art of handling provocation. Or perhaps he has taken the higher philosophical route, rationalising the experience by telling himself that the antagonism is fuelled by the same agency - the Murdoch empire - that is responsible for his enrichment. At any rate, over the course of the whole season he has responded by turning himself into the very opposite of his image, which is that of a pampered, petulant playboy. And this weekend he stands, alongside his team-mates, on the brink of a unique triple crown.
Tomorrow, at Old Trafford, Manchester United are odds-on to win the Premier League championship. Next Saturday they travel to Wembley as favourites to win the FA Cup. And the following Wednesday, in Barcelona, they face Bayern Munich in the struggle for the European Cup - the trophy which they became the first English club to win, back in 1968. Since that triumph came to symbolise Sir Matt Busby's success in rebuilding the club after the 1958 Munich air crash, the European Cup has held a special place in the United mythology, yet the match on 26 May is their first appearance in the final in 30 years. Victory would crown Alex Ferguson's remarkable 13 years in the manager's office, during which his finest achievement has been to revive the Old Trafford tradition of blending expensively imported stars with a constant influx of home-produced youngsters.
Beckham's contribution has been as valuable as any, and often pivotal in important games. His phenomenal ability to bend free kicks and crosses - perhaps the product of an unusual arrangement of bones and hinges in his feet and ankles - has delivered many vital goals. And in the match against Arsenal in February there was another illustration of his remodelled temperament that night when, with 20 minutes to go, he ran at the Arsenal rearguard, checked back and changed direction as he entered the penalty area, and was brought down. More than 50,000 home fans roared with rage as the referee refused the appeal for a penalty.
A year earlier, Beckham would have confronted the official and perhaps earned himself a yellow card for conspicuous dissent. On this occasion he kept his feelings to himself and got on with the business of helping United win their first league point in two seasons from their bitterest contemporary rivals.
In Turin a couple of months later, during United's European Cup semi- final against Juventus, it was noticeable that his devotion to the cause encompassed a willingness to perform the unglamorous tasks. His chasing and tackling on United right flank, covering for Gary Neville, the defender who is his closest friend and who will be his best man next month, contradicted the stereotype of the indolent winger blind to all imperatives but the need to express his own talent. From a man recently said by France Football magazine to be the second-highest earner in the world game (behind Inter Milan's Ronaldo and ahead of Lazio's Christian Vieri), this was a display of the unselfishness that has characterised his post-World Cup performances.
Off the pitch he is sometimes less surefooted. Living in the bubble of modern celebrity, Becks and Posh aren't always easy to love, and are sometimes exposed to ridicule by their own childish hubris. Their attempt to auction the blue Porsche in which they had exchanged their first kiss was not a success. The bidding failed to reach a reserve price inflated far beyond the vehicle's book value. The sale of the coverage of their forthcoming wedding to OK! magazine for a reported pounds 1m might also encourage cynics to predict doom, based on the outcome of the last footballer's marriage ceremony blessed by such a publication - that of Paul Gascoigne, whose marriage to Sheryl Kyle began with nuptials lavish enough to impress Marie Antoinette, but which ended with blows and curses and visits to the lawyer, just like EastEnders.
When Beckham and Adams gave a joint interview, their mutual interest in fashion led them to choose Vogue - whose writer could hardly have been expected to resist the opportunity to poke fun at their displays of nouveau riche banality, such as turning up in matching white Polo Sport puffa jackets, the way they bemoaned their lack of privacy before complaining about not being recognised while dining at the Ivy, or Victoria's habit of ending every statement with a sweetly nudging "Don't we, David?"
It also took every one of Beckham's fine performances on the pitch to obliterate the memory of a cover of the recent Easter issue of Time Out, for which he posed in a transparent Gucci shirt and several crucifixes, with his arms outflung above a headline referring to his "resurrection". It was like some ghastly brain-dead cross between Andres Serrano's Piss Christ and Eric Cantona's Nike poster, the one that claimed "1966 was a good year for English football" because "Eric was born", and it caused a bit of a stink in the Italian papers in the week before the Juventus match.
Fittingly, Cantona was the young Beckham's acknowledged role model. "One day I'd like to be as charismatic as him," he said, a few weeks before the World Cup calamity threatened to bestow upon him a different kind of aura - not the sort he had intended, but very much the kind that had surrounded Cantona after the kung-fu incident at Selhurst Park in 1994. Beckham's ability to transcend the resulting notoriety, apparently through his own effort of will, perhaps owed something to the example of the Frenchman's dignified return from a suspension that had threatened to destroy his career.
As the season reaches its crescendo, the younger man's own brand of dignity becomes more apparent. Pallid in manner and mundane in thought when confronted by a microphone or a notebook, his off-pitch personality may be something of a disappointment to those whose interest in sportsmen cannot be satisfied by simply taking pleasure from watching them play the game. On the ball, however, David Beckham has said more than enough.
A Concise History
Born: On 2 May 1975, at Leytonstone, east London
Weight: 11st 12 oz
Education: Chingford School, Essex
Family: Father, Ted, a kitchen equipment fitter (and former trialist for Leyton Orient): mother, Sandra, a hairdresser. Engaged to Victoria Adams (aka Posh Spice, pictured) and father of Brooklyn (born 4 March 1999)
Football career: Signed for Manchester United on his 14th birthday. England honours at every level, including 22 full caps.
Earnings: Approximately pounds 2.9m per annum, including endorsements for Brylcreem, Pepsi and adidas.
Pastimes: Fashion ("If I really like a pair of trousers there's isn't any limit to the price I'll pay"); cars, drives a Ferrari 550 Maranello, Porshe 911 Turbo and a Jaguar XK8 ("I've never looked at a car and thought that's too much money").
He says: "Football has been my life for a long time and it always will be" She says: "David is actually very deep. He's also a modern man; after we get married he is not going to expect me to sit at home, clean and breed"Reuse content