The years rolled back as he strolled down the touchline and took the applause he was so accustomed to seven years or so ago.
That was Gary Neville – and the pity for his old friend David Beckham was that there should be such a jolting reminder, five yards in front of his own dugout seat, of what might have been had he not sought out the celebrity life and become so estranged from a United manager who didn't even find a passing mention for him in his programme notes last night.
Old Trafford did not feel that way about the prodigal son. Such a roar went up when the words "No 32 – David Beckham" came from the stadium announcer that you could have been forgiven for thinking that he had never been away from the place. Wilf McGuinness was on the pitch before the match and the embrace Beckham found for him reminded you that it is, as he has always said, still his club.
There was a handshake, as he strode out, from one of the photographers who charted his growth from boy to man here. Even the mascot thrust out a big hand when the 34-year-old ran out past him for the second half and the sight of Beckham's mother, Sandra, and sister, Joanne, in the directors' box, wrapped in conversation with Kasper Schmeichel, also made it seem like home in other ways. When the first shouts of appreciation went up you saw the player's mother's face melt into a smile. No one, and least of all she, was precisely sure how Old Trafford would receive him.
But the man with the captain's armband running up the touchline provided the biting reminder of what it feels like to sit at home with your feet under the table and not just return there to taste the food for a last time – for the last time at Old Trafford this will surely be for Beckham.
Neville has not seemed like a man at one with this turf this season. There have been 16 starts but that number belies the occasions when he has looked yards off the pace of elite football. Goodison Park, three weeks ago, was a desperate place for him and the Manchester derbies in the Carling Cup have given the impression of an angry old man, raging against the dying of the light. Neville admitted a few weeks ago that he knew his time might be out come the end of the season.
Perhaps the sight of Beckham there was the incentive. Perhaps the knowledge that against Leonardo's Milan side he was operating among his own age group. But for 15 minutes or so, Neville morphed back to the Beckham era. A fierce, seventh-minute shot flew narrowly over Christian Abbiati's bar. Then came the cross of quite sublime accuracy and pace on to Wayne Rooney's forehead which set the course of the night.
There was something similar from Paul Scholes: a geometrically perfect pass through the Milan defence which Park Ji-sung slid on to for United's third. It meant that the game was an exhibition by the time the Stretford End clock blinked out the time 9.05 and Beckham – so long standing on the touchline waiting for a break in United's pressure that a coat had arrived to wrap him back up – made his arrival.
This was a moment of some theatre. In the directors' box, Sandra Beckham wiped away a tear. There was a winsome look, not a smile, when they sang "Fergie sign him on".
The last time Beckham arrived from the bench on a Champions League night was 23 April 2003, when after 63 minutes kicking his heels in the dugout he was released by Sir Alex Ferguson and almost turned around an impossible deficit against Real Madrid. He arrived after 64 minutes last night and within 10 minutes more was unleashing an impeccable, full volley which Edwin van der Sar clawed over the bar.
It was too late this time and United's fourth arrived before the end. Neville, incidentally, departed soon after Beckham ran on, with enough work done to at least ask questions of Fabio Capello. The odds are extremely long but Neville might just beat Beckham to a World Cup place, too.Reuse content