Less than a year ago, we were being told that Beckham was the most reviled and despised creature in England, his effigy burnt outside a public house and his famous girlfriend the subject of obscene taunts. On Saturday she sat in the VIP seats and watched as he blew her a kiss of triumph before ascending the steps to receive his FA Cup winners' medal. Now he embarks for Barcelona, where his contribution to his side's rendezvous with Bayern Munich in the European Cup final is likely to be crucial.
But it wasn't all hearts and flowers as United completed their third Double in six years. For 45 minutes the match was a physical battle, and Beckham was in the thick of it, sometimes perilously so. Floored by Gary Speed's scything tackle in the last minute of the first half, he responded with a flick of his foot as they both lay on the turf, evoking the image of his similar response to a challenge on a hot night in St-Etienne last June. This time, however, both the TV cameras and the referee were on the blind side. And when, in the second minute of first-half injury time, he reacted to losing the ball to Didier Domi and Nolberto Solano by charging straight into Domi with his foot raised, it seemed that the break was arriving just in time.
Alex Ferguson praised the way Beckham slotted into the centre of midfield after another Speed tackle had removed Roy Keane from the action in the early stages, depriving the Irishman of the full 90 minutes that had been planned as a compensation for his enforced absence on Wednesday.
"The pleasing thing for me is that everybody had been saying that going to Barcelona without Roy Keane was going to be a major hurdle," Ferguson said. "I don't think so now. Beckham in that role was absolutely magnificent. The boy is just a great player. He's got a great appetite to play, and he enjoys his football. He's 24 now and he's approaching the mature years of his career. He wants to play football. He has no interest in anything else. He gets attention, but he handles it."
Yet it would be premature to assume from such an endorsement that Beckham is pencilled in to deputise for the suspended Keane against Bayern. On the broad expanse of the Nou Camp, several yards wider than the Old Trafford pitch, Ferguson will surely be keen to employ Beckham's special talents on the right wing, particularly in the absence through injury of Bayern's French star Bixente Lizarazu at left-back.
A more likely pointer to Wednesday's formation came when, with 15 minutes of Saturday's match to go and his side two goals up, Ferguson felt confident enough to gave Jaap Stam a run-out - Ye Gods! An FA Cup final being used as a fitness test! - and pushed Ronny Johnsen up into the holding midfield position in front of the back four, leading to the suggestion that he and Nicky Butt could be paired in place of Keane and Paul Scholes, who is also suspended, in Barcelona. "It could suggest a lot of things, but there's no indication of the team at this moment in time," Ferguson growled in response.
The FA Cup final provided yet another example of the Scot's increasing mastery of the tricky but necessary art of player-rotation. Against Tottenham a week earlier, he had taken off Teddy Sheringham at half-time and brought on Andy Cole, who scored the goal that gave United the League title within three minutes of his introduction. On Saturday Ferguson rested Dwight Yorke and began the game with Andy Cole and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer up front, only to be forced into an early adjustment by Keane's departure.
Sheringham's arrival was rewarded by a goal, again within three minutes of his appearance, an assist for the second goal, scored by Scholes, and the man of the match award. When the manager sent Yorke on for Cole after an hour, the Tobagan missed a sitter within two minutes.
"I'm very blessed," Ferguson said. "I've got four great strikers." But his ability to maintain their psychological motivation and physical freshness is something that can only be learnt from experience, and it was endorsed by Sheringham's remarks afterwards.
"I was disappointed not to be in the starting line-up," the striker said, "but the manager came and told me that I was going to play some part in the match. It's such a big squad, and there are so many good players, that he could have easily come and told me that I was going to be sitting up in the stand and watching it. You leave it up to him. As for Wednesday, he knows what it's going to take to beat the Germans. Hopefully, my name's in his mind when he picks the team." So would he have a role to play in Barcelona? "There's every chance of that," Ferguson replied.
It was noticeable against Newcastle on Saturday, as it had been against Spurs a week earlier and against Juventus in the torrid away leg of the European Cup semi-final last month, that Ferguson's team are now playing with an extraordinary degree of relaxed confidence, even when confronted by temporary setbacks. What we are seeing is the blossoming of the deep mutual understanding between the core of players who came up together through the club's youth sides - Giggs, Scholes, Beckham, Butt and the Neville brothers - and who have already, in their early twenties, amassed an extraordinary amount of experience of competition at the highest level. Where once they benefited from the example of older men like Steve Bruce, Mark Hughes and Eric Cantona, now they are the ones whose shared knowledge makes it easier for newcomers - Sheringham, Yorke, Stam, Jesper Blomqvist - to find their way.
"We've got a lot of young players," Ferguson said on Saturday night, "but they're far more experienced than Newcastle. And experience was important today." It will never be more important than in Barcelona, when the experience won through failure in Europe's top club competition in four of the past five seasons can be expected to count in their favour.
Surveying this enthralling 11-day run-in towards the unique Treble, Ferguson spoke of the momentum generated by his squad's self-belief. "They've responded to it really well. Every game, they've been up for it. That speaks volumes for them. It's something in their make-up. They've got that continuous drive that certain people have got, whether it's in industry or wherever. You sense from the spirit in there that they won't let us down on Wednesday. They're dying to play now."Reuse content