Beckham foils the fear factor

Glenn Moore speaks to a United youngster living up to great expectation s
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Vienna's freezing Ernst Happel Stadium seemed a long way from a sunlit cricket ground on Wednesday night but while watching Manchester United's youngsters coming to terms with expectation my mind went back to a conversation in Hove three summers ago.

It was with Mark Taylor, the Australian opening batsman. A few years earlier, Taylor had been a revelation as he began his international career, but by 1993 the flow of runs had slowed. His place was under pressure from two tiro batsmen, Matthew Hayden and Michael Slater.

"When you are young you don't have fear," Taylor said with a trace of envy. "You just go out and play your shots. The older you get the more you start worrying about how you are out. You can think about it too much."

Different sport, same problem. Listen to Gary Neville before Wednesday's match. "When I first came into the team I did not think about what was at stake, I just played the game. When you are young you do not feel the same tension." Neville is 21, an age which most of us would still regard as young. Yet, with 16 internationals to his name and a mature head on his shoulders, he is regarded as a senior player.

David Beckham, though just three months younger and an England cap himself, is not yet at that stage. After Wednesday's match he was asked if Europe had surprised him. "Not really," he said. "The older players had told us what to expect. I've gone out and not thought about the games, just played them."

Bravado? Naivety? Beckham has a touch of both, but his response was more that of a confident player enjoying the form of his life. "I never thought I'd be playing in Europe at 21," he added. "I never thought I'd be in the first team. Playing in Europe is special, it is always a task. We've learned a lot. You have to concentrate on defending more, be more organised. It can seem slower than the Premiership but the change of pace is fast. You definitely have to be more careful with possession. You have to keep the ball a lot more. When you get it you have to keep hold of it because if you give it away you don't get it back."

This might inhibit some players but Beckham, so far, has not allowed fear of the consequences to compromise one of his great strengths - long passing. "If I see a ball that's on and I think I can make it, I'll play it. Simple as that."

There will be dark periods for Beckham as there have been for Neville who has been kept out of the team by his younger brother. Like Ryan Giggs before him, Neville has emerged stronger for the experience. He, too, retains the characteristic freshness of United's young players. The big- game temperament that so impressed during Euro 96 was again evident on Wednesday and he might even have scored his first United goal.

The continuing progress of the youngsters, and their eagerness to learn, augurs well for United as they prepare for a testing quarter-final with Porto in March. In the meantime they will turn their attention to the League, starting with a trip to West Ham today. Whatever happens in March they want to be challenging for the Champions' Cup again next season. Even in the euphoria of victory, United were taking the long-term view, regarding this season's contest as a European masterclass as well as a competition.

"This is a young side and a new side," said Martin Edwards, the United chairman. "It may prove be too early for them yet. But they are gaining experience from every game in Europe and the quarter-final will be another one. I don't know if we're ready yet, only time will tell."

Mark Taylor retained his place and is now Australia's captain. Matthew Hayden has never established himself in the Test side and Michael Slater was recently dropped despite averaging 50.