Sir Alex Ferguson could not have been more fulsome in his praise yesterday about the young footballer who left Manchester United in what some would regard as his prime, leaning back in his chair as he remembered the good times. "He was a marvellous player," he said, momentarily lost in the memory. "Marvellous."
Unfortunately for David Beckham, the former United No 7 in question was Cristiano Ronaldo.
That paean was delivered in response to a question at San Siro yesterday about whether Milan had lost more with the departure of Kaká to Real Madrid or United with Ronaldo's sale to the same club last summer. What followed was the kind of hagiography that most United players under Ferguson, past or present, can only dream of – especially the former United player who will, if selected, line up for Milan tonight.
Ferguson talked openly about the difficulties of compensating for the loss of "the best player in the world". "I'm biased but I think he [Ronaldo] is," he said. "When a player like that goes there is a loss. You have to react and recover. You have to look at your team differently and you have to move on."
As is often the case when he talks about Ronaldo, Ferguson took on the character of a teenager who has had his heart broken for the first time.
The contrast with his response to questions about Beckham could not have been more marked. Earlier in the day, Beckham had described Ferguson as "a father figure", in fact when he speaks about his former manager it is hard not to think of a rejected child reaching out to a parent. But Ferguson is not up for playing a role in this particular love-in. Seven years on and he is still determined to give Beckham the cold shoulder.
When it came to offering his opinions on what Beckham had to offer at the age of 34, the only quality that Ferguson could think of was "experience". It was the equivalent of praising one of his thoroughbred racehorses for having four legs. "David has good experience, that's what he has," Ferguson said. "He has one hundred-something caps for England. He has played for Manchester United and Real Madrid."
The "hundred-something caps" was a classic Ferguson put-down – it is of no interest to him that Beckham has a record 115 caps for an England outfield player – and if anyone expected him to forget Beckham's rancorous departure they were very mistaken.
We were not quite back in the summer of 2003, when any mention to Ferguson of the recently departed Beckham caused the temperature in the room to drop dramatically – but we were not far off.
As for Beckham, there was only praise for the manager he has always claimed sold him against his will. Beckham, of course, never criticises anyone but even by his standards the praise for Ferguson – "an incredible man" – was unrelenting yesterday.
"There is no score to be settled. Sir Alex Ferguson has been like a father figure to me, always has been and always will be, no matter what people have said in the past abut our relationship," Beckham said. "We had good times and bad times but I only remember the good times. Of course as a Milan player I want to win this tie and to say that as a Manchester United fan is quite difficult.
"Sir Alex Ferguson is a manager who is respected all the way through football and around the world. He was the man who gave me the chance at the club I always dreamed of playing for. The club has moved forward and my time to leave Manchester United was 2003 but I definitely don't hold anything against the manager – he really is an incredible man."
Exactly seven years have passed but the sale of Beckham, and his attendant falling out with Ferguson, still ranks as one of the most interesting sagas in modern football. We have never really got Ferguson's side of it – that will have to wait for the second volume of his memoirs – but Beckham gave a version of sorts in his autobiography that came out later in 2003, subsequent to his departure.
According to the bestselling My Side the moment that Beckham knew he was finished at United did not come when Ferguson kicked that loose football boot into his face in the aftermath of a defeat to Arsenal or on any one of the occasions when Beckham was left on the bench in his last season at United.
As Beckham recounted it in his autobiography, it came when he sat at home in the early hours watching a re-run of United's victory over Real Madrid which had not prevented them from being eliminated 6-5 on aggregate from the Champions League quarter-final. "It's over," Beckham recounted. "He wants me out."
The clue, Beckham said, was in Ferguson's reaction when the camera cut to him after a free-kick of Beckham's had missed the target. Beckham had come on as a substitute after controversially being left on the bench and had a huge impact, scoring twice to give United a chance of rescuing the tie. "His face just told me everything I needed to know," Beckham later wrote. "His rage, his frustration: and it was all Beckham's fault."
Now Beckham is not even the most famous United player to have left the club, nor the most expensive. Ronaldo can claim both those honours, not to mention the undying admiration of Ferguson – and since Beckham left, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Roy Keane have gone in equally rancorous circumstances.
Ferguson clearly believes that to praise Beckham too lavishly would be to play into the hands of a player who he seems still to treat with a degree of mistrust. It would also accord Beckham an importance that Ferguson does not believe he deserves. He may be right if Milan's Englishman is left on the bench tonight, as he has been for the club's last two games.
Even when Beckham turned up to watch United train before their game at Inter Milan last year there was not the big emotional reunion that the player himself would have craved. Seven years after he left United, three months before his 35th birthday and with the end of his career looming, all Beckham wanted was a bit of appreciation from his old manager. As is his wont, Ferguson refused to oblige.
Champions' champion? Beckham in Europe
*David Beckham made his Champions League debut for Manchester United aged 19, scoring in the 4-0 victory against Galatasaray at home on 7 December 1994.
*Beckham went on to make 81 Champions League appearances for United, the fourth most for a United player, behind Ryan Giggs (126), Paul Scholes (118) and Gary Neville (113).
*His corners assisted both late goals in United's memorable Final victory in 1999.
The midfielder has scored 17 goals in the competition playing for Real Madrid (2) and United (15 – the eighth most for a United player).
Beckham is due to make his 110th Champions League appearance tonight, which will put him ninth on the competition's all-time appearance list. He is one of only 16 players to have played in over 100 games in the competition.
Although Joe Jordan, Ray Wilkins, Massimo Taibi and Jesper Blomqvist have represented both sides, none have played in the Champions League for both. Beckham could become the first player to do so tonight.Reuse content