Beckham show inspires Neville to roll back years
Thursday 11 March 2010
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.
Latest in Sport
Arsenal defender Kieran Gibbs posts bizarre video of his Miami holiday being invaded by an iguana
Raheem Sterling to Manchester City: Winger to report for Liverpool training on Monday but Reds braced for third City bid this week
Women's World Cup 2015: England secure third place as they beat Germany in extra time with penalty by Fara Williams
Toby Alderweireld to Tottenham: Atletico Madrid 'accept £11m bid' as Spurs beat Southampton to defender
Alexis Sanchez 'will miss start of Arsenal season' after Chile go all the way in Copa America
- 1 BBC told new political editor must be 'impartial' with Nick Robinson reportedly stepping down
- 2 Humans of New York image of crying gay teen receives best response yet from Ellen DeGeneres
- 3 Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
- 4 Motorists taunt suicidal woman on bridge and tell her to 'get on with it'
- 5 The map showing the most dangerous tourist destinations in Europe, according to the Foreign Office
More Britons believe that multiculturalism makes the country worse - not better, says poll
Nathan Collier: Montana man inspired by same-sex marriage ruling requests right to wed two wives
Greece crisis: IMF was pushed around by Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy – and now it is being humiliated
'I wish the BBC would stop calling it Islamic State' – David Cameron unleashes frustration at broadcaster
Forget little green men – aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert
Girl, 7, stares down hate preacher at Ohio festival with pro-LGBT rainbow flag gesture