Football: Beckham still petulant as ever

Manchester United 3 Blackburn Rovers 2
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The Independent Online
OLD TRAFFORD's acquaintance with the bons mots of French footballing thinkers tends to be limited to cod philosophy about sardines and seagulls. But the words of Eric Cantona's most distinguished, perhaps only, predecessor sprung to mind as the rival managers pondered Tim Sherwood's dismissal for elbowing David Beckham.

Albert Camus, something of a Peter Schmeichel when he was not contemplating navals or novels, once claimed that "everything I know about morality and the obligations of man, I owe to football". His pronouncement, which lives on as a T-shirt slogan, came at a time when the Busby Babes carried the flag for flair and fairness as England's representatives in Europe.

To suggest that the sport was a model of moral rectitude in their heyday would be to view it through rose-tinted glasses. However, it is hard to imagine that Duncan Edwards would have fallen, clasping his head, after a blow in the chest as the finest of Manchester United's latest generation of gifted young players did on Saturday.

Beckham went down like a wounded rhino when Sherwood, the Blackburn captain, irritably swung an arm at the red shirt charging towards him. Alex Ferguson summed up the incident as "silly, because nothing really happened", which was one way of overlooking his own player's excitable reaction to being fouled.

Sherwood's manager, Roy Hodgson, might have been expected to condemn Beckham or the referee, Mike Reed, for helping to deprive him of a key player for three matches that could determine not only whether Blackburn spend the winter fighting relegation but his own job security. Instead, he castigated his own man for giving the official an excuse to send him off.

Hodgson's rationale was that a player of Sherwood's experience knows that raising an arm to an opponent is a red-card offence. For all that, it was "a minor incident" which involved "no contact" and he added pointedly: "The last time someone put an elbow in my face, it broke my nose."

He was coy about openly criticising Beckham. "I'm a realistic football man," he said. "Players do what they do and I'm not prepared to moralise about it." Perhaps it is time someone was - and to ask what it says about our values that the Camus quote should now appear so naive.

Equally, if Beckham is justifying his escape from punishment by the Premiership's most punitive official on the grounds that he was harshly banished after the fiasco with Argentina's Diego Simeone, then he has learned nothing from St Etienne. He was the "victim" this time, but the petulant streak remains as blatant as the highlights in his hair.

The curious aspect of Sherwood's folly was that it worked against United. Coasting on the back of clinically taken goals by Paul Scholes and Dwight Yorke, they scored again shortly afterwards. Unsurprisingly, given their sapping schedule, they eased up.

Dario Marcolin, who had already volleyed rashly over, soon beat Schmeichel. Nathan Blake then buried a free header as United, by their manager's admission, became "careless", although the 10 men never seriously threatened to equalise.

United's victory, with an under-strength side, underlined the squad depth they will need to keep the championship and European Cup in their sights. Ferguson's big summer buys, Yorke and Jaap Stam, were especially impressive.

The pounds 12.6m lavished on Yorke looks less exorbitant with every goal, and he is in double figures already. Even on the lunar landscape of a pitch which United dug up and replaced yesterday, his clever linking with midfield contrasted starkly with the one-dimensional play of Hodgson's pounds 11.5m strike force.

Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton were known as the SAS. To see Blake and Kevin Davies subdued by Stam, in a neat reversal of the way the Dutchman's rugby-playing compatriots were being brushed aside by England, was to be reminded that this Blackburn duo risk being remembered as BAD.

Jack Walker, who bankrolled their purchase, insists that he is as committed as ever, while his fellow supporters vociferously drowned out 53,000 home fans.

United may have adopted "Theatre of Dreams" as a marketing slogan, and play-acting certainly had a part in this drama, but a crowd spoiled by success are becoming as circumspect as a theatre audience.

Goals: Scholes (31) 1-0; Yorke (43) 2-0; Scholes (59) 3-0; Marcolin (66) 3-1; Blake (74) 3-2.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; P Neville, Stam, G Neville, Curtis; Beckham, Scholes (Cruyff, 63; Keane, 81), Butt, Blomqvist (Solskjaer, 66); Cole, Yorke. Substitutes not used: Irwin, Berg.

Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Filan; Kenna, Henchoz, Peacock, Davidson (Croft, 55); Johnson, Sherwood, Dailly, Duff (Marcolin, 52); Blake, Davies (Gallacher, 78). Substitutes not used: Dunn, Fettis (gk).

Referee: M Reed (Birmingham).

Sending-off: Blackburn: Sherwood. Bookings: United: Scholes, Stam. Blackburn: Davies, Sherwood, Johnson, Henchoz.

Man of the match: Yorke.

Attendance: 55,198.