Nick Townsend: Time to get Real in the world of Dosh & Becks

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The Independent Football

Strange thing. If you want to escape the B-word, go to the USA. Even when the pair of them are actually in their midst, as I discovered on a recent trip. Say what you like about the cultural deficiencies of our cousins across the pond, at least they have a healthy disregard for celebrity foisted upon them. Yet weren't the Beckhams' attempts to open up the frontiers to their charms in the States always going to result in a collective forming of the expression perfected in Fawlty Towers by Manuel? "Qué?"

America was presented with a visiting sportsman who may excel, but at a game which, professionally, remains obscure in the American psyche, one regarded as primarily suitable for girls; he was accompanied by a songstress wife who, despite her provocative sex appeal, is unlikely ever to emulate Madonna for charisma or vocal chords. While it is certainly true that the British-made Bend It Like Beckham is being well received in the metropolitan cinemas, that is more because of the intrinsic quality of the picture. In the reviews I scrutinised, there is thoughtfully little reference to the identity of the eponymous Beckham, presumably so as not to confuse potential film-goers.

Anyway, what would they make of his current biography: this icon of British sport, who is honoured for... well, nobody is quite sure what, other than a useful device for the Government in an apparent hide-the-bad-news exercise; and who is so revered that his club are quite happy to dispense with his services. If there is one thing even Beckham will be familiar with, it is that delightful example of American understatement, "Sorry, buddy, but we're letting you go". Almost as if the employer is doing you a favour.

As far as the future of the England captain is concerned, this is almost certainly the case. We learn that Beckham's father, Ted, who comes across as a thoroughly decent fellow, and Gordon Taylor of the players' union have both condemned Sir Alex Ferguson's and United's approach, but as they might say in the New World, from where Posh 'n' Becks have just returned: hey, guys, let's get real. In offices and factories throughout the country, there will be many thousands of workers who know that their bosses don't value or appreciate them, some under pressure to quit. It's not right; but please, let us not confuse that kind of misery with Beckham's "plight". His workplace is a rather different world than the rest of us understand. And his fate, should he be "forced" to move abroad, will be a massive enhancement to his earnings.

Father Ted and the PFA chief complain he has been turned into a commodity, to be bought and sold. Yet, in a sense, Beckham and his acolytes have achieved that themselves. He is a brand, not just a footballer; hence the American sojourn, and another one planned to the Far East.

Beckham's demeanour has suggested that a move has been plausible for some weeks, months even, though the defining moment could well have been the changing-room flying-boot incident. Nevertheless, when one considers Ferguson's connivance in all this, one suspects that the Scot's attitude is primarily pragmatic rather than personal. It would hardly be the first time that the United manager has dispensed with a player hitherto considered untouchable, purely for what he perceives as sound footballing reasons. Beyond that, in the current market no club could pass on the opportunity of divesting one of their principal Euro-pean rivals of £25m-£30m for a player who has only two years remaining on his contract, and whose contribution to United is constrained within certain limits.

That is not to deny Beckham possesses specific skills which are an asset, namely a right foot armed with an electronic direction-finding device. There is also his remarkable energy, infrequently found in a quality performer. Though there has been a tendency to belittle his attributes, he does possess that indefinable quality which, as with Michael Owen or Steven Gerrard, makes him a winner even when the fates are seemingly lined in solid formation against his team.

Still, the feeling persists that if Ferguson is to reclaim that European prize he needs to install a new order within his side. As a headline, "Premier reshuffle" had more than one story behind it this week. It was interesting to reflect back to what the manager said at the end of last year: "From 1992 to 2001 there were nine years of fantastic achievement, and all done with a variety of players. We had to build three teams in that period. The next challenge may well be to build another one."

Will it be constructed without Beckham? Almost certainly, with Real Madrid appearing the likeliest destination. It would provide the ultimate test in his quest to be recognised as a world-class player, an avenue allowing him to exhibit arts and crafts not previously appreciated, notably an ability to control affairs from central midfield rather than being serenaded as a right-wing rapper of crosses.

British players have tended to regard that step across 20 miles of water with trepidation. But Bayern Munich's Owen Hargreaves, who emerged as a rare first-half England substitute under Sven Goran Eriksson on Wednesday, and in the captain's absence on the right provided an injection of impetus, will testify to the beneficial effects of playing abroad - though with the proviso that the club is Champions' League-qualified.

"You have to try to be the best, which means playing for the best and with the best," asserts Hargreaves. "That should be everybody's ideal. I have that opportunity now with Bayern, who are Double winners in Germany, and with England. Obviously, David doesn't belong in the Uefa Cup; he's one of the premier players in Europe. That's why it would be a shame to see him at Barcelona. They've got a great history, but aren't the force they were a few years ago. At the moment, the best clubs in the world, apart from Manchester United, are Real Madrid and Milan, and if he could go to either of them it would be a great move."

Despite the continuing brouhaha, that is essentially all that needs to be said.

Ugly but beautiful

In neither case was it pretty, but by heck it was effective. England's footballers triumph in their third consecutive European qualifier by dint of character, a couple of special players and a coach whose stature is in the ascendancy. England's rugby union heroes achieve a tremendous national double with a bloody-minded refusal to accept historical precedent and genuflect to their illustrious opponents, numerous special players and a coach whose star is already high in the firmament. For once a potentially profitable betting double - Sven's men for European champions, Clive's as world champions - looks more than just pathetic optimism. One could add a third - Tim Henman, Wimbledon champion - for the treble. But that would be getting carried away.