It was perhaps the night that David Beckham came of age up on England's bridge. For the first time, those of us who had been somewhat sceptical about his suitability to the captain's role were persuaded that he possessed not only the navigational skills to ensure a successful World Cup passage, but the ability to galvanise a crew.
You recalled that moment three years ago in France '98 when, as a petulant individual, he contributed to England's downfall by reacting to the provocation of Diego Simeone. Now here instead was a leader; not by barking order or engaging in histrionic gesture, but purely by his own commitment to the cause.
It was just after half-time against Greece in Wednesday's World Cup qualifier that his assertion of authority served to transform the contest. There are those who will maintain that England's victory was inevitable from the start. Yet there was a period after the interval when Greece, to the backdrop of vociferous vocal support made all the more hostile by flare, firecracker and, regrettably, missiles aimed at Beckham, laid down a sustained challenge to the visitors.
The threat to England's record of consecutive wins was not extreme, but it existed. There have been similar contests against inferior opposition when England have capitulated or, at best, escaped with the points even, but, here at the Olympic Stadium, Beckham was a man possessed. By challenging without a flinch, covering ground that wasn't strictly his domain, arrowing the ball around with his customary accuracy while constantly combining with Steven Gerrard and Paul Scholes to prise open the Greek rearguard, he inspired an appropriate response from his team-mates.
When confronted with more formidable, disciplined opponents, Sven Goran Eriksson may privately harbour some concerns about Beckham's tendency to drift out of position, which inevitably restricts the service from England's right. But here, at least, his performance was manifestly enhanced by the freedom to play through the middle.
His free-kick success, four minutes from time, was due reward for his endeavours. "He really behaves as a captain should," agreed Eriksson, whose stand-in predecessor, Peter Taylor, actually nominated Beckham captain for the friendly against Italy. "All the five games he's played since I took over, he's been really good on the pitch. Maybe he's not the kind of captain who stands on a table, talking to the players every day, but you can see he's concerned about everything that happens around the team.If there are some small problems, he's always coming to talk to me and the other staff. He behaves like a captain and he can only get better and better."
That was pleasing to observe, because there was the suspicion initially that the captaincy was awarded for Beckham's own benefit rather than the team's, and that Eriksson, having inherited the situation, didn't want to create a furore by appointing someone else. In fact, with Sol Campbell and Gary Neville injured, there is a dearth of other candidates, although in time you suspect that Rio Ferdinand will take the armband, as he has done in Lucas Radebe's absence at Leeds. Or, once he has gained more experience, Gerrard.
In fact, Beckham's elevation to skipper has been to the advantage of all. As the striker Robbie Fowler explained: "He seems to have become a better player as a result of it. Before he was captain, he was going through a bit of an indifferent patch with Manchester United. But since he's had the captaincy, he's been on top of his game. Although he's not a captain who shouts all the time he will have a word with you. He's not scared to have a go."
Considering the off-field attention he receives, Beckham might have shied away from such a responsibility, one that brings him even more under public scrutiny. Yet he appears to thrive on the added pressure. "I've had it too and you've got to take it on the chin," Fowler said of the price of fame. "He's very high-profile, he's married to a pop star, and people are always going to find out what's going on in his life. But he's handled that all very well. Although he's always in the papers, you never see him moaning. He just gets on with the job."
Beckham will always find it difficult to escape the impression, offered literally by Alistair McGowan's BBC TV programme, that, intellectually, he is not the brightest star in the firmament. That probably does him a disservice and also ignores the fact that he appears to exhibit admirable good sense. Beckham, for example, knows the value of good public relations, and he has been party to a more relaxed atmosphere existing between the media and the England players.
In the past, there have been occasions when the barricades have been put in place and one or two players detailed for interview, some almost on sufferance. Under the current regime, and apparently with Beckham's assent as captain, virtually the whole team were made available to the press when the squad were based in La Manga at their training camp before the Greece fixture. It was also noticeable that Beckham was at the forefront when it came to signing autographs and talking to young fans.
With an unpredictable line in hairstyles, facial jewellery and clothing, the United midfielder may not be everyone's idea of an England captain. Bryan Robson or Tony Adams he is decidedly not in temperament. Yet, like them, he sets a standard to which his team-mates must aspire. As almost a veteran now in Eriksson's team of callow youth, Beckham wears the armband with no less pride than his distinguished predecessors. It is a lot more than a fashion accessory.Reuse content