Beckham told by rival: 'You won't get out of here alive'

Road to Euro 2004: England captain guides his men through traumatic night
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The Independent Football

After days of recriminatory tales of the Old Trafford "boot room" we were reminded here last night that David Beckham has a purpose beyond promoting an ever-more powerful global brand of celebrity.

True, scoring inside the first two minutes of his league debut against Real Betis, in the process earning plaudits from Real Madrid's demanding sporting cognoscenti and demonstrating that he is by no means a one-trick pony-tail, was a thoroughly acceptable way to start the week. But between then and last night the obsession with Beckham's serialised "revelations" ahead of his soon-to-be-published memoirs has been a distraction which his England coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, cannot have desired ahead of such an occasion.

That is even before we begin to address such questions as "Is David Beckham a special case?" following his belated return to the England fold after playing for Real on Tuesday. And more pertinently, with last night's contest in mind, would that delicate groin of his take the strain?

At Friday's audience with the media here, he was ushered in through camera-toting local youngsters determined to get a view of their idol. It's probably as well that they were unable to understand what he said. Out of the mouths of multi-million pound footballers are uttered some desperate platitudes. Take this, in response to the question posed above: "As much as I'm England captain or play for Real Madrid, I'm no different to any other player in the squad." Oh, no? This from the man who was dispatched to the last World Cup having only just recovered from that celebrated metatarsal fracture which, it was clear to everyone, detracted from his performances, certainly in the quarter-final against Brazil.

Would this be the case here, too, with the England captain yet again having to contend with injury at a crucial time? It was an intimidating environment in which to discover the truth. With no more than an estimated 500 travelling supporters present, the Macedonia fans created a wall of sound which would have instilled trepidation in the bravest hearts. Those who suggest that class should always transcend the most hostile of atmospheres should have witnessed this encounter, one upon which racist abuse of England's black players was an unnacceptable blight.

While there is no recorded history of England ever having pillaged these lands, there was no warmth at all afforded to Becks and his men, except from the flames created by the ritual burning of a union flag. Only in one small corner of this stadium were there banners informing us that those footballing hotspots of Beverley and Banbury were represented.

Those souls were scarcely repaid for their commitment, either, during a dismal first half in which Michael Owen presented the only threat. Beckham himself was in one of those mercurial moods, though it did not appear that the groin injury was impeding him.

As for Eriksson's much-vaunted diamond midfield, it had a flawed look. While the excellent Owen Hargreaves rampaged down the left in tandem with Cole, Beckham and Neville never managed to perfect their partnership down the right. With the former Barnsley striker Georgi Hristov's 26th-minute goal dividing the sides, Beckham finally began to assert himself, primarily though central thrusts.

Two moments in a five-minute period before the interval defined his evening up to then. First, he stupidly kicked out at Hristov and was cautioned. Within seconds, he had bludgeoned his way like a man possessed through the home midfield cover and released Owen who was denied by only goalkeeper Petar Milosevski.

Beckham's body language betrayed his bristling indignation. At the performance. At the treatment meted out to himself and his colleagues. He claimed later that he had been spat at by an opposing player. "I was spat at two or three times, and other players were as well. One of their players said to me, 'You won't get out of here alive'," the captain said afterwards.

Eriksson added: "David knew the importance of the game, as we all did, and was a little bit upset coming into the dressing room at half-time. It took him 30 seconds to calm down again. Then he said: 'Come on boys, let's go out and do it'."

Scarcely Churchillian, but no doubt apposite. Almost certainly of more effect was the fact that the diamond was ditched, with Emile Heskey replacing Frank Lampard. The Liverpool man supplemented Owen and Wayne Rooney, who had been largely anonymous, in a three-man attack.

The move swiftly bore dividends when Beckham swept the ball forward and found the dependable head of Heskey. A nod-down and Rooney placed the ball impeccably beyond Milosevski before racing away, with attendant colleagues, to the area of non-persons, the England fans. An instinctive reaction maybe, but the FA, who had been adamant that England fans should not travel, will possibly have a quiet word with their players about the faux pas. One hesitates to imagine the effect if it happened against Turkey next month.

It was repeated a few minutes later when Beckham does what he does with aplomb, strike a dead ball; this time from a penalty after John Terry had been upended.

England had finally quelled the Macedonian spirit, both on the pitch and off, although they continued to appear vulnerable to a home sortie. Once again, the defence was far from convincing against a lowly-ranked nation. The fact that Macedonia failed to gain a point last night was attributable in great part to Beckham, who can infuriate you with his petulance, but who, along with Owen, can be depended upon to provide a flourish even when team-mates are at an embarrassingly low ebb, as they were in the first half.

"Beckham did well, his passing and delivery was important - and his heart, for the team," reflected Eriksson.

At the conclusion, Beckham led his men over to applaud the small gathering of England supporters before disappearing to a chorus of disapproval from the home faithful. Evidence enough that it was, in almost all respects, on a most daunting night, a job well done.

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