Beckham excels on his refresher course

England v Italy: Club gain from playmaker's unwanted mid-season break. Now it's his country's turn to benefit
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The Independent Online

At Upton Park last Saturday, when Manchester United were the visitors, one could not help but recall a previous visit by Sir Alex Ferguson's men early in the 1998-99 season. On that post-France '98 August afternoon, bobbies had been on the Beckham beat in extraordinary numbers.

One was detailed to escort the midfielder to the dressing room as a torrent of vitriol was directed from the mouths of the more moronic elements who frequent the home of West Ham, while numerous other officers kept the mob at bay as the team coach arrived. And all because of a rather laconically-delivered boot aimed at an Argentinian drama queen named Diego Simeone at Saint-Etienne.

At the latest reunion between the sides any antagonism towards the United midfielder in the psyche of the Hammers' stalwarts was decidedly muted. With the World Cup only 10 weeks away, anti-Beckham hysteria had given way to approval.

Whether Elland Road will be as forgiving on Wednesday when he arrives as captain of England for the visit of Italy for the friendly international is another matter, of course. Whether it will clutch Beckham to its bosom, or whether its more voluble spectators will treat him as the pariah they regard all those tainted by connection with Manchester United – yes, even their own head coach, Brian Kidd – remains to be seen.

This can be as unforgiving an audience as a working men's club to a nervous novice comedian. But you suspect that the more talented half of Posh 'n' Becks will receive the begrudging admiration due to a man who has had his entire lifestyle spread out for inspection like a soiled bedsheet being examined by a pathologist and come through with stature intact.

At times he is ridiculed for his haircut. "Is Becks growing a mullet?" asked the London Evening Standard last week with apparent gravitas, top of page, in its sports section. On other occasions, in part, it must be said, because of that whiny timbre to his voice – has anybody noticed that he sounds like a young Jimmy Greaves? – he is reduced to an airhead. And worse. His wife utters one jokey comment about him wearing her underwear and suddenly he turns from sublime crosser to some kind of cross-dresser.

Many of his counterparts would seek help from the bottle or The Priory, or both. Yet, somehow he maintains a supremely equable temperament despite the English propensity for shrinking an ego to what is considered an appropriate size; certainly one whose salary is – we understand – about to rise to £80,000 a week and £20,000 for "image rights" if he accepts United's reported "final" offer.

There is, quite simply, an appreciation for a character who has withstood the media mockery and the vile insults of opposition supporters and still ascended to the standards constantly demanded by club and country. Much of that mockery is self-generated – only the Beckhams could organise a pre-World Cup bash, dress code "white tie and diamonds", with "geisha girls" serving drinks at their Hertfordshire mansion.

The responsibility for Beckham's blossoming lies in large measure with Peter Taylor and Sir Alex Ferguson; one bestowed on him the England captaincy when most would not have considered it and the other declared in the wake of Beckham's finest moment against Greece that it was time to interrupt his season.

The indignation that was provoked by Ferguson's reduction of Beckham to a mere "squad member" back in December was widespread and can now be viewed for what it was, ill-conceived. Underlying the manager's rationale, it is probable, was a desire to restore Beckham – BBC Sports Personality of the Year and World Footballer of the Year runner-up – to mortality when too many had affixed god-like status to him.

Whatever the truth, it was cold turkey, even before Christmas Day, for the midfielder who sat on the bench, his face under that woolly hat an apparent study of misery. "If Beckham is to deliver his best for his country, he needs to be playing for his club," complained one observer, who proceeded to describe the player as "a virtual outcast". It was, so we were informed, the prelude to Beckham's departure into Euroland.

It wasn't, of course, and inevitably there has been more than a touch of told-you-so about Ferguson after his protégé vindicated the turn-of-the-year hiatus with perfomances of authority, most recently against West Ham on Saturday. The individual mid-season break has been demonstrably to his club's, and undoubtedly to his country's, advantage. "A coach always wants his players to be playing regularly and I am no different," says Sven Goran Eriksson. "But it is important they keep fresh."

And so, Beckham has been the scorer or provider of 10 of United's last 12 goals as they have maintained their title surge and confirmed their qualification for the Champions' League quarter-finals. Unless burn-out results from United's conclusion in both competitions, which appears unlikely, it bodes well for Japan and Korea.

Two of those goals have been penalties, when Ruud van Nistelrooy has been off the pitch. In the past eight days, both West Ham's David James and Boavista's Ricardo have helped by assuming he would opt for precision, when power was his objective. You expect him to curl them in, just inside the post. A conun-drum confronts his next goalkeeping opponent.

The desire to accept such a daunting responsibility defines the character of a man who is desperate to assert himself as a performer who is regarded as considerably more than a gifted midfield creator, a supremely adept crosser, and a venomous scorer from free-kicks.

Even the Leeds aficionados are likely to applaud his less recognised qualities, including that willingness to chase, harry, and tackle back. At least until three days later, when the midfielder returns in the red shirt of Manchester United. Then Beckham may just revert to he who must be abused.

But for 90 minutes, or however long Eriksson asks him to perform, the likelihood is that he will enjoy Yorkshire generosity. He's been to hell and back. This week he travels to Elland and back. It will be some journey.

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