Football: Beckham back for flaw show

Nick Townsend says the United midfielder still has much to learn
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The Independent Online
FOOTBALL the new rock 'n' roll? More like the old punk, in a fortnight which began with the demon appearing within Paolo Di Canio, continued with the head-banging Hammer and culminated in Paul Ince rightly receiving a belated three-match come-uppance for his snarling abuse of the referee Pierluigi Collina in Stockholm.

Placed in perspective, David Beckham's petulant flick at the Argentine Diego Simone in St Etienne, which produced a convenient scapegoat for England's premature World Cup exit, was a minor affray compared with GBH.

Over three months after that piece of idiosyncratic behaviour punished by a two- game ban, Beckham returns in relatively discreet fashion to international football, away to Luxembourg in Wednesday's Euro 2000 qualifier. The Manchester United midfielder has survived the anticipated baying from opposition supporters without demur, has scored a couple of goals and created several more from his right touchline domain.

He will no doubt relish the opportunity to return quietly to the international arena, with Hoddle claiming: "There's been a lot of bravery in what he has had to face mentally, and not letting these things affect his performance, although there has been nothing outrageous and that's a credit to everyone in football, including the supporters. He hasn't got anything to prove to anyone. Certainly there has been nothing wrong with his performances. They've been spot-on this season."

Yet his reaction to a spot of shirt-tugging during Manchester United's Champions' League game against Bayern Munich last week which could, and quite possibly should, have ended in his dismissal, suggested to many observers that his learning curve had taken a drop like last week's FTSE- 100 Index. There is always the fear that he could revert to a fit of pique like that which persuaded the referee Kim Nielsen to brandish his red card.

Yet the England coach insisted: "What he's got to prove, if anything, is that if a situation happens again, that he has learnt from it and doesn't react in the same way. Most of the time this season, probably 95 per cent, I've seen him cope very well with situations that in the past could have got to him. He's still only a young man, only 23, and he does get stuck in, and, of course, I would not want to stop him. He's a determined character, but you have got to channel that in the right way. He's trying to do that. We've spoken, but the best way for him to give any answers to me is the way he is performing."

Hoddle added: "He likes to win the ball back as well as go forward, just like little Scholesy and Nicky Butt get stuck in, all the United players. As long as it's channelled right, that's when you've got a good modern midfield player. He's a talented lad and if we can guide him in the right way and he can learn from his adversities he'll just get better and better."

Hoddle can see no evidence of a reaction to the sending-off. "I've seen a lot of his games and you would know if there were some problem there, some hangover, and him going into a shell. He certainly hasn't done that. He is scoring goals, putting free-kicks in. He's got that confidence in and around the penalty area, that he is going to score, or at least hit the target. That's the sort of thing that can win you matches, or save you matches. We could have done with him in Sweden. That is the sign of somebody focused and into his game."

Worryingly, Hoddle appears, at least in public, to take the view of a benign bishop when it comes to the self-discipline of his players. He must take some responsibility for the message that his indulgent attitude conveys to the rest of football, from the Premiership right down to the schoolboy game. Beckham's excuse for that lapse in an England shirt is his lack of maturity, despite that being his 18th international appearance. At the age of nearly 31, Ince cannot summon the same defence, and his response to the sending-off in Stockholm - about which there could be no dispute - was a shameful episode, which Hoddle failed to address adequately.

Certainly, nobody could accuse the England coach of zero tolerance. Last week he was still attempting to exonerate his men's flaws by blaming the system. "If somebody thumps an opponent, or there's something really outrageous, I would never condone that. But with the changes in the rules now, people are getting sent off for lesser offences," he maintained. Maybe we should be thankful that Hoddle is England coach, not commissioner of police.

England beware the

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