Football: European Cup Final - Beckham allies skill with common sense

Resolutely down to earth, United's stellar midfielder has the talent to reach for the sky. By Glenn Moore
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The Independent Online
DAVID BECKHAM has been well aware of the double-edged nature of celebrity since last summer's World Cup finals but the past few days, with Lawrence Dallaglio, Lenny Henry and Ian Botham being turned over by the tabloids on successive days, will have underlined the precarious status of the modern hero.

Tonight he hopes to complete a personal epiphany, from the despair of dismissal in St-Etienne to the joy of a winning the European Cup, but whatever his team's fate in Barcelona he will try and retain the broader perspective.

This is partly a matter of adjusting to fame. "It is not something you ever get used to," he admits. "It is always going to be there, but it is something you learn to cope with as you go along."

But it also means concentrating on the basics, the things that made you a star. To that end Beckham is regularly seen at The Cliff, Manchester United's training ground, long after his team-mates have gone home. Alex Ferguson's players have been putting extra work ever since Eric Cantona set the example but sometimes Beckham goes on so long the manager has to stop him for his own good.

"I do a lot of training on my own after everyone has finished," said Beckham yesterday as he prepared for tonight's final with Bayern Munich. "I stay out for an hour hitting balls if the manager lets me. Sometimes he sends me in. I have tried to sneak back out but the manager's office has a view of everything so I can't get away with it.

"I practise all the time. If I didn't practise I wouldn't be able to put the ball on a sixpence. Sometimes I don't get it right but I have always been able to strike a ball well, even as a youngster. My dad told me so and I've seen videos of myself. From seven or eight I could hit a ball a long way. What I've learned since then is technique."

And common sense. Glenn Hoddle publicly criticised him for not performing a free-kick routine to the former England coach's satisfaction during the World Cup. Beckham's explanation is that he did not want to hit the ball that hard so early in the morning. "It didn't make sense. [The comments] didn't hurt as much as people think because I know I could have done it."

His crossing of the ball has become as noted as his free-kicks this season but, he added: "That's only because the games are bigger and more goals have been scored from them. It's nice to be talked of as the best crosser in the game but I don't think too much about it. Otherwise you get big- headed."

While he can be distant, Beckham does appear relatively unaffected by stardom. Ryan Giggs, who went through the publicity mill a few years earlier, said of their experiences: "You do learn to cope and it makes you stronger but I never had the spotlight Becks had. Coming into the team at an early age I gradually grew up in it. He has coped ever so well. His performances this year have been magnificent."

That he has done so probably reflects Beckham's strength of character, the influence of his down-to-earth parents and the selfless team ethic cultivated by Ferguson.

Steve McClaren, the new United coach, said this was one of the first things he noticed when he arrived at Old Trafford. "You always get different personalities and characters in the dressing-room," he said. "The difference here is that they are all stars in their own right.

"The problem in any dressing-room is keeping everyone happy and, if there are only one or two stars, you can get what I call the `disease of me'. That's when you get one or two who get above their station. It is difficult to bring them down and you get a fragmented dressing-room. There is none of that here: they quickly get brought down by other stars. They are all fighting for 11 places and they just get on with it."

The amount of work Beckham gets through in a game, and the roasting he gets from team-mate Gary Neville if he slackens, is testament to that. Beckham will be playing his 54th United match this season, a figure only matched by Roy Keane among outfield players. There have also been England games.

"I've always had a good engine," said Beckham by way of explanation. "I was Essex 1500 metres champion four years on the trot at school. I won a lot of cross-country championships, too. I used to get more nervous running cross-country than playing football in front of 50,000 people."

There will be twice that many at the Nou Camp tonight and many of them will be concentrating on Beckham. He was certainly one of those Ferguson was referring to when he said, yesterday: "In a game of this stature you are waiting for an individual to change the game. I'm confident we've got players who can do that."

Should Beckham be that man, United will again receive discreet enquiries about his future. Only this week Ottmar Hitzfeld, the Bayern manager, admitted he would love to add Beckham to his team.

First, however, he would have to persuade him to leave a club he has grown up in. "I've got a contract until 2002 at United. I enjoy my football and I want to stay," he said. "United might want to get rid of me but from my perspective I'm more than happy here. I've heard people say I'm going here or there but I'm really happy.

"All the stuff about Victoria [Adams, his Spice Girl fiance] not liking Manchester, or not liking the shops, is just crap. She likes Manchester and where-ever I'm happy she is happy. We've got a nice house. We've got family three hours away, which is important because she is close to her mum and dad and so am I.

"The idea that you have to better yourself by going abroad is not the case any more. There are a lot of players at the biggest foreign clubs who would love to come and play for Manchester United."

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