Realists will recall Beckham as little better than ordinary

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David Beckham leaves Manchester United with a designer bag full of medals and accolades to go with his unchallenged marketability, yet he may, if he has the time or inclination between commercial engagements, reflect that in purely football terms he was unfulfilled at Old Trafford.

His parting shot, an outrageously executed free-kick against Everton at Goodison Park, on 11 May, was, alas, not typical of his contribution through lengthy periods of his final season at the club.

During the run-in to the championship, when United had comprehensive and crucial wins against Liverpool and Newcastle, and drew at Arsenal, Beckham was absent from the starting line-up. He also had to watch much of the second leg of the Champions' League quarter-final, against Real Madrid, from the substitutes' bench.

Would one of the most significant players in United's history have been omitted at such a critical stage of the season? Surely not. The reality is that the Beckham phenomenon, to the gullible at least, has managed to obscure the distinction of style from substance, while at Old Trafford a sense of reality and perspective has prevailed.

In the pantheon of United gods, Beckham is a mere mortal. Perhaps only Eric Cantona, of modern times, commands a place alongside the "holy trinity'' of Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and George Best. But players like Bryan Robson, Roy Keane and Peter Schmeichel have been far more influential in the United cause.

Beckham's stature has become entangled in a web of myths. The wondrous free-kicks are the hallmark of greatness, but he can scarcely be considered a great player. At his best he is very good and in one match for England, against Greece, he was a man possessed. Mostly, to United he was little better than ordinary.

The fabled crosses, in truth, too infrequently found their intended target. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the ever-faithful servant, filled the right-hand position and delivered with equal and possibly more consistent effect.

Beckham is an excellent athlete yet no sprinter. He lacks the pace to go past a full-back and the jinking trick of a natural winger. Charlton, Law and Best were simply on a higher plane. Charlton had two explosive feet, an ability to glide away from defenders and an extraordinary range of passes. Law was pure theatre: dramatic bursts, dramatic gestures, dramatic goals. Best had everything: he was supreme.

Cantona, too, had far superior skills than Beckham and charisma to spare. The Frenchman provided the catalyst for Alex Ferguson's creation and to this day, six years after his retirement, the galleries still sing Cantona's praises.

It is unlikely Beckham's name will reverberate around those towering stands in months, let alone years, to come. However, the pity is that he perhaps never had the opportunity to give full expression to his talents. On the flank he can be isolated and neutralised. Permit him the liberty of the midfield and he has far more options and angles to exploit the capability of that right foot.

It should be recalled that Beckham had a central role during the first half of United's European Cup final against Bayern Munich in 1999 and for those 45 minutes was the outstanding player on view. He reverted to the right in Ferguson's second-half shuffle. On other, rare occasions, he has revelled in the freedom and responsibility of the playmaker's task. In a past age, he would have been the perfect inside forward.

Beckham has been a victim of his club's, and this country's, apparent inability to produce genuine wingers. He has his consolations, of course, but somehow it was not quite what it might have been.