There really should have been bunting and flag-waving crowds, and local school children should have been given the day off, because yesterday was the day when David Beckham came home. But fewer than a dozen fans waited down the long country lane that leads to Tottenham Hotspur's training ground as the most famous living Englishman passed by – not in a chauffeur-driven limousine, but driving his own black Audi – on the way to his first formal engagement with an English club since he left Manchester United more than seven years ago.
The site of his historic return is not one of London's beauty spots. Luxborough Lane, off Chigwell High Road, promises to be a pleasant country road concealed on the outer edge of London, until suddenly the vista opens out on a vast centre for depositing household waste, not far from a sewage works. The training ground is tucked between these two unattractive amenities.
Beckham arrived dressed in jeans and a chunky knitted jumper, and clutching a pair of football boots, at around 10.15am, ignored the waiting film crews, and vanished inside. A press officer emphasised that this was only a preliminary visit so that the soccer superstar could meet medical staff. He is due to take part in his first training session today.
While hardly any fans were there to see him in, more turned out after news of his presence had been broadcast on Sky Sports. They were mostly men, but included two young women who lived nearby, one of whom would not give her name because she should have been at work. Her friend, Amy Tuson, explained that they came out of admiration for the man, but not the club that is seeking his services.
"We're David Beckham fans, not Tottenham fans, football fans, not style fans," she said.
Kevin Clowting, who lives close by in Chigwell Lodge, is a Spurs fan, often to be seen at the entrance to the training ground hoping for a glimpse of the players. "I'm always down here," he said. "Normally when I come, I'm the only one here. They're good, the Spurs players, they stop and talk, but I don't think Beckham will, with all these cameras here. Another day, maybe."
He was right. As Beckham emerged just before noon, the police had to tell cameramen and onlookers to clear the way, and he drove quickly past – though he gave a pleasant enough smile to fans running alongside his window holding out their Beckham shirts.
They included Harry Harrison, who had been dispatched by his 12- year-old son, also called Harry, with instructions to get a signature, but had to leave with his mission unaccomplished.
Another disappointed fan was Paul Leslie, a West Ham supporter who lives in Upminster, nearly 20 miles from the Tottenham training ground. When he heard that the superstar was to be there, he picked up both his Beckham shirts and drove the 20 miles with his mate, who gave his name as "Handsome" Joe Stratford, so they would be holding one shirt each to improve Paul's chances of getting both signed.
"He saw, but he just drove past. I suppose Posh is waiting for him, cooking beans on toast," Paul said.
It is still far from certain that David Beckham will be seen back on the pitch during a Spurs fixture. All that Tottenham have secured so far is an agreement with Beckham's main employers, Los Angeles Galaxy, that the former England captain can stay in the UK to train with the north London club during the closed season of the US's Major Soccer League.
But Tottenham's manager, Harry Redknapp, is understandably keen to have Beckham play, because even if the 35-year-old's sporting prowess is not what it used to be, there is no doubt about his crowd-pulling appeal.
Having him making regular appearances along Luxborough Lane would be a boost, too, for the little Essex community of Chigwell, which is a comfortable and relatively crime-free place, situated not far from where Beckham grew up, and where he and his pregnant wife and three children have their palatial London home.
Chigwell is the setting for the popular soapumentary The Only Way is Essex, which has done so much to reinforce the stereotyped idea of what Essex people are like, to the considerable annoyance of many of the real people who live there. In the local shopping parade, the reaction to having Beckham coming in and out was mostly positive.
"I'm sure it will be very good for the area," said Sharon Pearlman, who works in the Chigwell Valet Service, where Harry Redknapp is a customer. "I'm sure all the people will love having him around, because there are a lot of Spurs fans here, and you often see the players."
Bruce Smiley, who owns the nearby Mace store, where some of the players and their Wags go to buy sweets and other necessities, would love it if the Beckhams dropped by too, but does not expect it. "I saw him in Loughton, just up the road, a couple of weeks ago. He was just covered in security. It would be nice if he came shopping here, but everywhere he goes he's inundated with people wanting his signature. If I was him, I'd just stay home."
But one of the shoppers, Alan Harris, a retired worker who claimed not to be a football fan while showing an encyclopaedic knowledge of the sport, was not rolling a red carpet out for Beckham.
"He's a bit old hat now. I don't think he'll make much difference," he said. "There's a lot of better players than Beckham. I wouldn't pay to go and see him. I'd sooner watch the kids play round the back of our house."
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