When that incident occurred my immediate thought was, "Idiot". Then I quickly changed it to: "You petulant boy." Many people within the game had been saying for a long time that Manchester United was becoming a breeding ground for petulant behaviour. This seemed to originate from around the time when Eric Cantona became a Reds' legend. Even during his finest times, his violent outbursts were too frequent to be ignored, even when his genius meant we wanted to excuse his darker side. So when Beckham's little kick connected with the Argentinian Diego Simeone I was as quick as any to adopt a position of righteous indignation. His peer group as well as those he was supposed to look up to had been allowed to get away with it for too long and now the whole country would be made to pay for this laxness towards Man Utd players.
Less than one month later I was in France on a pre-season tour with Kilmarnock. After an hour of being pushed, pulled, blocked, tripped and even nipped in front of an inadequate referee, I lashed out in an embarrassingly similar way to young Beckham. My little flick hadn't even reached my tormentor before I regretted it, but I couldn't pull back in time. It was no more than a momentary lapse of reason and control, maybe only the second or third time I had done this in 17 years playing professional football.
The referee didn't do anything, after all it was only a friendly, but I was furious with myself. Apart from the bad example I had set, I was embarrassed how harshly I had judged Beckham just weeks before. There couldn't even be the beginnings of a comparison to the pressure we were both under when we snapped. Hoddle had left the England midfielder out at the start of the World Cup and it took a sustained press and public movement to get him reinstated. Incredible things were expected of the team and of him in particular.
There was no escape from the pressure in his private life either. His wages, his Spice Girl fiancee Victoria Adams and his dress sense each hogged the front and back pages day after day. He lost it for a second in amongst all this and he became Public Enemy Number One. At the time I wouldn't have argued his case too strongly, in fact I wouldn't have backed him at all.
He has, it is hoped, learned a lesson in the most painful and public way, albeit one he should have been forced to learn long before. He will be a better player for it. The petulant streak detracted from his game, it distracted him from fully focusing on the real job. With the eyes of the whole country fixed on his behaviour and attitude he now has no choice but to knuckle down and get on with his game. No complaints, no reactions, indeed just the way a certain Bobby Charlton would have behaved in his day.
The taunts he will have to deal with will be at a level rarely experienced by any other professional sportsman in this or any other country. But I believe he will cope perfectly well. To get as far in the game as he already has, there will have been plenty to endure already.
I recall one particularly loud, persistent and offensive barracking at Upton Park. Strangely, this is where I used to get most abuse when I played in England. They are so close to you down there, it is possible to hear each individual cry of, "big nose", "yiddo" and "gay boy". The last comment in particular wasn't greatly appreciated by my wife, but I actually took these slurs as back-handed compliments.
I figured that those fans considered me a good enough player to be a threat and so they would try anything to put me off. It was noticeable that the newcomer having a quiet game at left-back for us rarely got a mention. Far more off-putting for me would have been to be ignored or unknown and the subject of that pleasant refrain "Who the ****in' hell are you?"
David Beckham has to understand this and believe this. When he fully understands the reasons for the vicious comments and the lambasting, he can use them as encouragements. With a little wisdom supplied by Alex Ferguson, Brian Kidd or any other mentor he has, allied with the humility to listen, then that moment of madness on 30 June could become in the long run, the making of the man.
IN THE MAGAZINE
Lee the scaffolder constructed an effigy of Beckham and strung it up outside the pub. "It was my proudest World Cup moment. I laughed out loud when I saw it,' said the landlord.Reuse content