Euro 2000: England v Scotland: Cheers not jeers as Beckham pulls through

t EURO 2000 PLAY-OFF The England midfielder has survived outrageous abuse to stand on the verge of being recognised as Europe's best player
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The Independent Online
THE HUNTED look is disappearing from David Beckham's face. Perhaps it is family life, perhaps it is the fact that England are 2-0 up going into today's Euro 2000 return against Scotland. But the man who has suffered such outrageous public abuse in the last year for a ragbag of reasons - playing for Manchester United, being very good, dyeing his hair, getting sent off in the World Cup finals, marrying Posh Spice - well, the man looks happy.

And why not? A European champion already, and a key part of England's ongoing European challenge - assuming there is no collapse at Wembley tonight - he also has another continental prospect to savour in the weeks ahead.

At the age of 24, Beckham is on the brink of official recognition as the outstanding British player of his generation, a leading contender for the European Footballer of the Year award, which will be voted for next month by a wide range of journalists and coaches.

Should the Manchester United midfielder prevail over the rival claims of such as Rivaldo and Christian Vieiri, he will become the first English player to win the award since his England manager, Kevin Keegan, did so in 1977 and 1978, for Liverpool and Hamburg respectively.

"If I win it, and I hope I do, then great," Beckham said. "It is an honour just to be nominated."

Yesterday Keegan waxed eloquent over the qualities of a player who, for all his sublime work on the right wing, is central to England's ambitions.

"I have never been to the ceremony since I won it," Keegan said. "But I will make a point of going back if he wins. I think he is the only British player that has had a chance to win it since I did - genuinely.

"The biggest impression he would have made is the way he has triumphed over what happened a year ago. That shows a lot of character, a lot of strength, and they look for those sort of things as well.

"And you have to do it at more than club level. You have to impress people. That's why David's name has been mentioned, because over the past year he has been an excellent player for England. It gives me a lot of confidence knowing that David Beckham is in my side because I know he's a master of his trade."

Keegan was more than happy to have Beckham mentioned in the same breath as himself; and indeed in the same breath as George Best, one of three Manchester United winners of the award in the 1960s, along with Denis Law and Bobby Charlton.

Beckham is up there in that company now. And a large part of the reason for that is the way he has reacted to adversity.

"I've got used to being abused on the pitch, whether it be about my wife or my family," he said yesterday. "I didn't expect to get that kind of treatment in home international matches, but it's calmed down the last couple of times I've played at Wembley.

"My lifestyle has got nothing to do with anyone else. But people do like to highlight things that I've been doing, even if it's just going for dinner, they highlight it because of where I play and who I'm married to.

"I've had to get used to it. I go to Tesco and there are two or three photographers there so I can't get away from it anywhere. But I've learnt to get on with it and enjoy my football, which I'm doing."

He admitted, nevertheless, that there had been times when the treatment he received made him consider moving abroad, although he stressed yesterday that he was happy to see out his contract at United.

Asked about the difference between the regimes of Glenn Hoddle and Keegan, Beckham said: "It's more relaxed before games now than it was before. We're treated as grown-ups more. We can do more things, he's more lenient with us and that creates a better atmosphere.

"If the players are more relaxed then you get better results on the pitch. If you're happier leading up to the game then it's going to make you feel better and make you want to play, which it does."

He has become adept at spotting leading questions. As he was steered towards perilous waters yesterday by some of the attendant press, he simply stopped - "I wouldn't say that" - smiled sweetly, and awaited the next question.

Beckham's game still has an edge to it. He had to restrain his natural impulses at Hampden on Saturday because, having gone into the game with a yellow card, he could not afford to earn a suspension. But the overall picture has changed for him.

"The lads really respect him and there has been a fantastic change in him as a person in the time I have been England manager," Keegan said, "because he has got to weigh up everything in his life and he has got to find the solution. I think, as a family, they are doing that.

"David has become a bit like Alan Shearer when it comes to dealing with the abuse," Keegan went on. "I just look at him and try to imagine what it is like for him. And it is maybe easier for me to imagine because 15 years ago it was me, but it was not like it is now. It is no good pretending it is.

"Whatever people write about him, as long as he trains properly and his football is good he need not worry. And his football is as good as it ever was."

There will surely be more cheers than jeers at Wembley tonight for England's master craftsman.