Beckham plays the right role

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Glenn Hoddle rode shotgun, the Association's director of public affairs protected the other flank, and the spirit of Alex Ferguson stalked in the shadows. They were there to protect English football's latest jewel, David Beckham, at his first press conference.

Six months ago few outside Manchester knew of Beckham, by next week he could be a household name even in Moldova, where England launch their World Cup campaign on Sunday. His fame is spreading faster than his club would like - only last week Ferguson said it would be two years before Beckham would be allowed out of purdah. This may seem iniquitous given the way Manchester United plc market the youngster, but Ferguson need only point to the development of the similarly protected Ryan Giggs for justification.

However, playing Canute with Beckham is much harder. The Premiership publicity machine has mushroomed since Giggs' emergence - and, while Giggs was Welsh, Beckham is English and subject to far greater interest.

These days the FA does its best to respond to this interest. It realises that representing England is about more than just playing football. Thus Beckham's appearance yesterday - with Hoddle at his side in deference to Ferguson, and Beckham's inexperience.

The result was unsensational. Beckham said all the right things - including citing Hoddle as his childhood hero. The coach stepped in just once, when the questioning dwelt on Ferguson's protectiveness.

Of that Beckham said: "It's not just me, he protects all of us as he did Ryan. I think we do need it. A lot has happened in a short time. Every day there are offers to do this, do that, you need someone to protect you."

Beckham then sidestepped the tricky questions as easily as he would a lunging defender. Best position? "I like playing in the middle but I have been on the right for United and enjoyed it. I'll play anywhere."

You seem to have a special understanding with Eric Cantona? "I think everyone in the team has a special understanding with him. There is no way you can't with a player of his ability. We all get on brilliantly with him."

Do you practice anything in particular? "Every bit of my play. There are a lot of mistakes I have got to correct, a lot I have got to learn." Beckham tends to hone his skills with Gary Neville after training. It has thus helped that Neville is already with England (they are rooming together) as is Gary Pallister. "They eased my nerves. I found out on Thursday. The manager called me in to his office. He said 'enjoy it.' The feeling was unbelievable."

"He is a footballer," Hoddle said. "He'll get paid the rest of his life, and get acclaimed, for what he does on the football pitch, not off it. Those things spin off because you are playing well on the pitch for the next 10 years, not the next 10 months. That is why Alex is protecting him and I totally agree with that. But he is a level-headed lad, the way he plays shows his personality. There is not too much flash about him, he gets on with the job.

"He has to make sure when the downside comes he needs to be able to handle it. It happens to every player, whether it is loss of form, injury, whatever."

But will he play? "As a youngster you always feel ready for anything - but it is up to the management to decide," Beckham said. His chances of starting may have declined with the gradual recovery of David Batty who, said Hoddle, has a "60-40 per cent chance" of playing on Sunday in Chisinau.

While he and Les Ferdinand trained yesterday, Paul Ince and Teddy Sheringham watched but that, said Hoddle, was "just a precaution - they have slight strains." Today's flight will be England's first since the infamous return from China with Cathay Pacific. Hoddle does not expect a repeat performance.

"We have already had a light chat about behaviour," he said. "It is no different to what I have said at every club. In many respects it has been made easier for me with what went on. It is a lesson learned."