Football: Beckham's maturity wins respect of critics

Victim of vitriol handles tormentors with rare style.
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The Independent Online
IF DAVID BECKHAM shows as much assurance at Wembley tomorrow as he did in a well attended press conference yesterday at the England squad's hotel in Buckinghamshire, Sweden will be in trouble. The challenges came in from all angles - on parenthood, privacy, his fiancee and, inevitably, that night in St Etienne - but with the self-confidence of a man who has not played on the losing side since Christmas, he skipped nimbly through them, weighing up the options then whipping in his answers with the precision of those trademark crosses.

It was an unexpectedly mature and disarmingly frank performance, far removed from the occasionally tongue-tied efforts of earlier years, prompting the sudden thought that this was a future international captain speaking. Far fetched? Consider the response of Kevin Keegan, the man in a position to confer that honour just as soon as a hamstring here or a thigh strain there necessitates handing on the armband.

Having sat in as minder, yet finding his presence superfluous, Keegan could not contain his admiration. "I've tremendous respect for him," he said. "It's not easy to come in and answer some of those questions and I thought he did it really well."

At training earlier in the day, the manager had seen another side of Beckham: "He hit two bad crosses and that annoys him. He really cares. His attitude's good and he's a good mixer round the team. Taken across the whole year, he's definitely my player of the year with his performances and that level of consistency he's found."

As the superstar of his day, even if he admits "it's another world now", Keegan has an empathy with his players that only Glenn Hoddle of previous England managers came close to. Having had his father crying in the Wembley dressing room 25 years ago following his own equally infamous sending off, in the Charity Shield, Keegan can appreciate better than most what Beckham felt after seeing red in France last summer. Even he may have been disarmed by the honesty of the player's admission yesterday that it could happen again.

"I still react if I get booked for saying something or kicking somebody," Beckham said. "I'm never going to change. I didn't say I wasn't going to do that again. It could happen again, you never know. Afterwards I just got on with things. The manager said get back to playing with United and forget about it. It was hard at first and affected my family more than me. I just got on with my football, because as long as I'm playing and enjoying it, I'm happy.

"It upset me more that it was affecting my mum and dad and people round me. Victoria [Adams] was upset because I was upset but she knows how I am. I was away so mum and dad got everything which wasn't fair on them. You either crack or come out and make people eat their words."

Asked by a red-top reporter what was the most hurtful thing that was said at the time, he might have been tempted to refer to big black headlines like "TEN HEROIC LIONS AND ONE STUPID BOY". Yet he claimed to have forgotten the worst taunts, quickly turning the conversation back to the positive: "I'm happier now than I've ever been. We've won the treble, I'm in the England squad and my private life is perfect."

As a United hero his celebrity status was daunting enough without a pop- star fiancee. Privacy, he says, is just about still possible, "in your own home, when the curtains are closed. Apart from that, so many people are trying to get into my life and get a piece of me."

But fatherhood has added a new perspective, and helped him see himself as other, much younger, eyes see him. "I love to see little kids and young players looking up to me. It's something I've always done with people like Bryan Robson and Bobby Charlton."

Dreams of achieving what he has in the past fortnight alone would have been regarded as pre-pubescent fantasy when he was running round for Ridge- way Rovers in Chingford. Yet here he stands, a treble winner, still hungry for the next game and insisting there will be no hangover after a packed month. "When you've been doing well and the club's been doing well, you want to keep playing. I've felt a bit tired sometimes but I love playing football and so long as I'm involved I'm happy."

If it all adds up to a lot of weight on a 24-year-old's shoulders, consolation is not limited to an enviable bank balance. "I'm happier now than I've ever been," he says contentedly and has a baby boy and the European Cup video to prove it.