The moment I realised how special David Beckham was did not occur because of anything he did on the field. It was on a train four years ago, on the way from Liverpool Lime Street to Manchester.
The carriage was an unlikely mix of football supporters and people dressed up for a Cher concert who contemplated each other in happy amusement until, seconds before the doors shut, the contrasting senses of fulfilment and anticipation were fouled by ugly voices and uglier attitudes.
I will not call them Leeds United supporters - the city and the club deserve better - but the dozen who forced themselves into our lives proclaimed to be followers returning from a match against Everton. First they besmirched the air with songs about Jamie Bulger, then they turned on the Beckhams. Not just David and Posh, but Brooklyn, who was barely out of nappies.
On and on it went, until a young girl dressed up for the concert snapped. "You're disgusting," she said. Then a decent Leeds fan also appealed for moderation. "You're just a Munich lover," was hurled at him with a venom that thankfully was not backed up by anything more physical.
Me? I took the coward's way, pretending to read, scared stiff I might be revealed as a Manchester United fan. But if I could have found a safe place I would have shouted them down; a zone of immunity like a football pitch, where players perform to the crowd but are kept out of reach by security. But Beckham, ever the target of vile abuse, never took that option.
Eric Cantona needed to hear only one idiot to fly into the stands, but Beckham could listen to a thousand voices questioning his sexual practices and barely bat an eyelid. It takes strength to do that, and to cope with a rapacious celebrity interest many times greater than that which drove George Best to drink.
Old Trafford loves its renegades like Law, Cantona and Keane, and Beckham became bracketed with them because of the reaction of others. Privately, we may have thought he looked a prat in a sarong, inwardly we seethed when he got himself sent off against Argentina in the World Cup, and we could do without the posing as a fashion icon, but when the opposition hordes vilified him he became elevated to near-martyr status.
It began from the moment he made it to the first team. In his first game, in September 1994, United were lambasted by Port Vale for sending an under-strength side to the Potteries, and how we giggled when a team of unknown names such as Beckham, Scholes and Neville (Gary) won 2-1. Suddenly we had reason to believe that the whispers about the kids might have some grounding.
Butt, Scholes and even the other Neville, Phil, made it to the Premiership ahead of Beckham, yet as soon as he arrived the beauty of his passing was apparent. A new Gerry Daly, I thought, which for all the qualities of the will-o'-the-wisp Irishman, became faint praise when Beckham scored that goal from his own half against Wimbledon. The date should be remembered: 17 August 1996. It was the day he was transformed into the extraordinary.
Posh, Diego Simeone, even Sir Alex Ferguson, have occasionally seemed like props as the boy David became the world brand Becks, and Old Trafford might have rung to dissenting voices on days when the style seemed more important than the substance, had the visiting bile not made it vital to support him.
And he does have the terrace hero's capacity to dig out something special even on the dog days. A cross whipped in, or a free-kick that bends and breaks the hearts of defences. Look back on his time with United and the lasting images will be of expectation whenever he had the ball, and the slightly bemused grin on his face when he delivered.
Like Best, he is too pretty fully to win over a Mancunian crowd and that, added to his over-concern about image, is perhaps why there is a slight ambivalence about his going. If Cantona had been transferred there would have been riots, but with Beckham, adored as he is, the mood is that itis good business.
He was never one of us, but on most days we wished we were him.Reuse content