James Lawton: Beckham's reign in Spain embellished by incessant hype

Wilkinson lets performance on pitch do the talking while England captain's contribution at Real is exaggerated as a result of self-styled image
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The Independent Football

The great beauty of Jonny Wilkinson's rocket launch into the heart of the nation is that, so far at least, his achievements are utterly free from the inevitable exaggerations and blurrings of hype.

You didn't have to be a rugby aficionado to grasp that his contribution to England's World Cup victory in Australia was both fundamental and a mighty triumph of will. Before our eyes he came through the greatest crisis of his life, a statement that can be made comfortably because it is so clear that rugby is his life.

Nothing has underlined this more than the astonishing statements he made to bemused executives of the celebrity magazine Hello. First he said he would not accept half a million pounds for his co-operation in one of their soppy picture spreads. Then he turned down a million.

This, of course, and quite seamlessly, brings us to the situation of Wilkinson's friend David Beckham, who, after doing more picture exclusives than Wilko has dropped goals, now rides, at least for a day, in the second seat of the celebrity bandwagon.

It needs to be said straight away that Beckham has done very well, albeit predictably, in displaying the particular strengths of his game on behalf of Real Madrid.

His supreme talent, which is striking the ball, showed up particularly well in Saturday night's huge game at the Nou Camp, when his beautifully delivered cross-field pass helped Zinedine Zidane set up Roberto Carlos's opening goal.

When we say Beckham has done predictably well it is not some sly put-down but a simple assessment of realities. In the team of Zidane, Ronaldo, Raul, Figo and Roberto Carlos, Beckham was always going to get lots of space and time to display his huge passing skills. But then if you missed Real's 2-1 defeat of Barça, and then read some English papers, you would have been forgiven for believing that what happened at the Nou Camp was a Beckham tour de force, something to rank perhaps with the long ago weekend when the city was stunned by the matador Diego Puerta's outclassing of the legendary El Cordobes.

It wasn't like that. As my colleague John Carlin observed, Beckham was a bit player... an impressive one at times, no doubt, but very much a member of the gifted chorus which in this game supported the superb cutting edge of Roberto Carlos and Ronaldo. So why the needless inflation of a decent night's work? Why the reproduction of the absurd claim, by a Madrid columnist, that "David is the Di Stefano of our time... Yesterday he might have been better." It is because Beckham's image is like the plant in the Little Shop of Horrors. It demands constant feeding.

Last week he was quoted, again, on the subject of Sir Alex Ferguson's unfriendliness. Ferguson had merely said hello to him at the funeral of a young former United player. At the weekend Beckham sent his best wishes to his old manager after reports, boisterously dismissed by Fergie, of ill health. But then, as we go along, a myth is hardening into an undisputed fact.

It is that the United manager vindictively made Beckham's continued presence at Old Trafford impossible. No doubt great, great pressure built around their relationship down the months, but what was the source of that tension? Was it the envy of a curmudgeon of the youth and the fame of his protégé? Or was it the sense that Beckham's celebrity as England captain had begun to outweigh heavily his contribution to United? When Ferguson left Beckham on the bench for crucial matches was it out of pique, was it personal, or was it from the conviction of perhaps the most committed winner in the history of English football that the player simply wasn't doing his stuff? Those who lean to the first explanation do not begin to understand the thrust of Ferguson's nature, or the basic reason for all his extraordinary success.

No doubt there have been times, and quite recently, when Ferguson would have given much for Beckham at the top of his game. But that shouldn't be some retrospective guide to the wisdom of his decision to say it was time for Beckham and the club to move on. A football manager, like the rest of us, is obliged to deal with life as it is happening, not how it was or how he would like it to be.

As for the assessment that in his short stint at the Bernabeu the England captain has matched, and perhaps exceeded, the standards of Alfredo di Stefano, the mind is obliged to reel. In his recent autobiography, Nobby Stiles spoke of the time he eavesdropped Di Stefano delivering a sustained and searing rebuke to one of his Real Madrid team-mates during half-time in a friendly match at Old Trafford. The teenaged Stiles was stunned that the legend of the game should have been so annoyed by the failings of a colleague in such an inconsequential match. His awe was only increased by the identity of Di Stefano's victim. It was Ferenc Puskas.

Different players, a different age, of course. But some truths linger. One, reasserted by Jonny Wilkinson, is that performance speaks for itself. Hype tells so many different stories.

Eriksson's candour raises questions of leadership

Where did it come from? The road to Damascus? A burning bush? It doesn't really matter, the important point is that Sven Goran Eriksson is on the record with an unassailable truth: Rio Ferdinand should not be playing while he awaits a grotesquely delayed Football Association hearing for missing a drugs test.

"Sepp Blatter [the Fifa president] is right about one thing," the England coach is quoted as saying. "You miss a drugs test and you are banned." Such candour is welcome but surely it begs a question. Why, when most of his team were running around hatching strike plans when Ferdinand was left out of the vital European Championship qualifying game against Turkey in Istanbul, did Eriksson stay silent? Was it out of fear of upsetting his players? If that was so, it was surely a collapse of leadership.

Let's be charitable and optimistic. Maybe accountability is in the air. Maybe key figures in football have looked in the mirror and decided it is indeed time to show a degree of responsibility for the future of the game that provides so many rich livings.

Perhaps we shouldn't hold our breath, but then it is also true that Arsène Wenger admitted to seeing the appalling tackle by Ashley Cole that brought Arsenal their latest red card at the weekend. He wasn't awash with contrition, but he saw it. Who knows, things indeed may be looking up.

Souness' tough tackle on referees lacks tact

Graeme Souness was one of the great midfielders. Eye-wateringly hard, he was also marvellously creative. Unfortunately, it is not easy to be so unequivocal about him in his role as a manager, despite obvious talent. His failure to take the high ground in the inevitable flashpoints of his job appears to be progressive - and very damaging to his image.

However, some recent ferocious criticism heaped upon him ignores the validity of the question he asks so often, admittedly with ever-declining poise: why is it that referees are able to make the most atrocious decisions without any necessity to explain themselves?

It is creating a hopeless imbalance in the professional responsibilities of leading managers and referees, and is a cause of much of the most damaging friction in the game.

The most atrocious recent case of faulty officiating was when Jeff Winter utterly changed the shape of Liverpool's game with Leeds on 25 October - shortly before Peter Reid lost his job at Elland Road. Winter overruled a linesman and awarded Liverpool a goal despite the fact that three of their players were plainly offside.

However, he did explain that he saw something that the linesman didn't, namely that the Liverpool players weren't interfering with the play as they rushed towards the whites of goalkeeper Paul Robinson's eyes. Winter volunteered his statement, which was to his credit, even though it showed his vision of the game in an appalling light.

Bob McNab, the former Arsenal and England full-back, saw the incident on television at his home in Los Angeles. He called seething with indignation, recalling the classic observation of Bill Shankly that a player shouldn't be on the field if he isn't interfering with the play.

For his own sake, Souness might think about modifying his style. But he should not abandon his argument. It is utterly right.