James Lawton: Beckham sells plenty of shirts, but Ferguson is in business of winning

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The Independent Football

A forest of headlines have this week raised, but scarcely illuminated, the most compelling question in English football : what is really going on at Old Trafford?

The answer is complicated but does include several points of certainty. One is that a massive power battle between Sir Alex Ferguson and the board continues to rumble on. Another is that David Beckham's ability to play football some time ago entered the margins of the debate. The big issue is the stability of the club.

Ronaldinho, the most exciting talent in last summer's World Cup, is almost certainly in, but is Beckham out? And if he is, what has been the determining factor in a decision which in many business circles would be deemed an act of wilful commercial irresponsibility?

It would be victory for Ferguson over the United plc and one which, some close to Old Trafford believe, could have far greater implications than the mere ending of the manager's torment over the distractions created by the ever-increasing imbalance between Beckham's celebrity life and his contribution to the team.

Here, some say, is the crux of the matter: if Beckham departs with his immense commercial significance, United's share price is likely to fall - and make the club even more vulnerable to the frequently rumoured takeover plans of Ferguson's friends, John Magnier and JP McManus.

One source said yesterday: "The more you look at the Beckham situation, the more it is possible to see a plot inside a plot. On the face of it the matter is simple. Fergie is sick of Beckham's significance at the club, doesn't see it related to the strength of the team. But those who oppose the sale of Beckham may also think they are fighting for their own survival somewhere down the road."

Whatever the intricacies of the sub-text, one fact was as self-evident as ever as Beckham's face decorated the pages of English and Spanish newspapers this week - and USA Today and The Wall Street Journal. It was that his transfer value, with two years to run on his contract with United, continues to be far in excess of what it would have been without nearly a decade of relentlessly playing the fame game.

As one of Barcelona's presidential candidates, lawyer Joan Laporta, shamelessly uses the possibility of signing Beckham as a vote-catching tool, another intriguing suggestion yesterday was that the Barça connection is being actively encouraged by Ferguson's agent son, Jason. Meanwhile, the word in Madrid is that Real would return to the equation the moment their "friends" at Old Trafford made it clear that they had indeed decided to part with the player. The position of Real, already loaded with both high talent and celebrity in Ronaldo, Figo, Raul and Zidane, is maybe the most staggering evidence so far that football has become a new game with new priorities and values,

This reality falls neatly into line with Ferguson's arguments, which are made with an old-fashioned, some might even say touching, emphasis on the importance of what happens on the field. Because Real - especially Real, with a commercial infrastructure that is United's only rival in international club football - know that they could not fail to cover their investment. Beckham's value is estimated at around £30m - at least three times the fee United would be able to demand if the assessment was based simply on his form over the last two seasons.

This enables Ferguson to make the classic case that the ultimate strength of a club resides on the pitch. United are obviously not dependent on the sale of Beckham for the Ronaldinho signing, but with a Beckham sale Ferguson could clearly add significant strength to the side with Harry Kewell, of Leeds United, and, maybe, Alessandro Nesta, of Milan, making the most desirable targets.

In this light the power of Ferguson's position is beyond question. His credibility has been restored dramatically by his ability to pull the team back on to their old high ground of commitment - a renewed passion which simply engulfed Arsenal in the run-in to the title race.

Here for a moment we can put on one side Beckham's undoubted commercial value. A key part of Ferguson's revamping of United's winning psychology was his willingness to finally make public his dissatisfaction with Beckham the player. The decision to drop him from huge games at Highbury and the Bernabeu was plainly more strategic than tactical. When the pressure was at its highest, Ferguson withdrew his trust in the England's captain. In the manager's mind Beckham could not equate with the kind of performance being consistently produced by the likes of Ruud van Nistelrooy, Paul Scholes and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the man who took the midfielder's place so controversially in the second leg of the Champions' League quarter-final with Real.

This leads us to a somewhat wider answer to that first question about what really has been happening at Old Trafford these last few days.

Apart from underpinning his own power, Ferguson has been saying that sooner or later a line has to be drawn between commercial exploitation and winning important football matches, and in the manager's view Beckham passed that point quite some time ago. Ferguson was aghast to hear of the player's globe-trotting celebrity-enhancing plans for the summer - he will be glad-handing and dressing up in America for another 10 days - and saw them as a grotesque affront to the old pro's idea that the close season, such as it is these days, was a time to relax and, hopefully, re-kindle old appetites for the game. The game of football, that is.

At the broader one of building "image rights" Beckham long ago announced his mastery. It is, we can see more clearly as the years roll by, his enduring passion.

One report this week referred to Beckham as the most "talked about" player since Pele. A breathtaking understatement, surely. In the game in Madrid Beckham's performance was feeble, but it apparently did little to dampen his celebrity rating in the Spanish capital, no more than his anonymous performances in Japan in the World Cup affected his huge following in Asia. Unlike Pele or Maradona or any number of more able footballers you care to mention running back to Sir Stanley Matthews, whose high-point of commercial glory was a boot sponsorship by the Co-op, Beckham has outdistanced the need to consistently perform.

He is the founder of a new game which has brought new rules, and it is Ferguson's resistance to them which is at the core of the battle of Old Trafford.

His argument is that United will be a better, more integrated team without Beckham - and one more likely to win the European Cup. That, Ferguson says, should be the overwhelming priority. Selling shirts makes big money. But the real business is winning.

It is, anyway, the view of the man who re-made Manchester United, and for that reason alone it is the one likely to prevail. The issue is not really David Beckham. It is about the purpose of a great football club - as seen through the eyes of the most successful manager in the history of English football.