Sam Wallace: Brave but brutal McClaren brings curtain down on an icon

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When Steve McClaren was told privately yesterday that David Beckham had released a statement to articulate his desire to continue fighting for his place in the England team, the reaction was simple from the new manager: why? Beckham's international career is over as long as McClaren is in charge and he had told the player exactly that.

It is the end of an era for a modern football icon, but in Beckham's world there is always one more response, one more announcement - a final word to be had. This time, however, Beckham had been outmanoeuvred. When he was called on Monday by McClaren, before Real Madrid flew out on their tour of America, it came as a complete shock to Beckham and, to judge by the tone of his statement, "my passion for representing my country remains as strong as ever", he is having some difficulty accepting it.

For so long, Beckham had been such a force in the England team, the set-up around it and the Football Association that it was hard to imagine the side without him. He played such a part in the lucrative commercial partnerships that the FA enjoyed with its sponsors, and had such a major role in the decision-making that went into all aspects of the England team. He was understood to favour the all-white strip, which England wore in his greatest performance against Greece in October 2001, he had the biggest hotel suites and he had the extra security men.

Beckham loomed over everything Sven Goran Eriksson and the FA did. Once, with a slip of the tongue in an England press conference at Anfield, he accidentally referred to himself as "the manager". He cringed at the laughter that followed but everyone present knew that he was not really that far from the truth.

It sometimes felt difficult to reconcile the image of Beckham, the man who dominated every aspect of the England team, to the polite, patient bloke you might chat to around the players' families' hotel in Baden-Baden. He never seemed like the pushy, demanding type, but his influence was exerted subtly throughout the England set-up. His status, his profile had grown so large that he had simply become the main man - to the extent that it was no longer even questioned.

So what have the senior players made of McClaren's decision? The answer is that they were impressed and excited with the decision. There has never been a great deal of animosity towards Beckham - there is not much to dislike about him personally - but the problem is the baggage he brings with him. At the team's base in Germany this summer, Beckham was assigned the biggest suite in the hotel. Beckham and his family were also given extra security.

They were not big issues in the grand scheme of things, but when you consider that this is an England squad of multimillionaire footballers cooped up together for five weeks, they take on a greater significance. Four years earlier, just before the 2002 World Cup, when Beckham's star was at its highest, such perks would have been accepted. But more recently the mood towards Beckham in the squad has been: what makes him so special?

That, of course, is an answer that can only be delivered on the pitch and, since the 2002 World Cup finals, the evidence of Beckham's decline has been increasingly obvious. He does still have an impressive goalscoring record - 17 in 94 caps - but then he did take all the free-kicks and, up until, Euro 2004, the penalties too. Beckham said after his goal against Ecuador that Wayne Rooney had teased him about his dominance of the dead-ball situations during the summer in Germany - a joke, but perhaps one with a serious edge to it.

McClaren's decision was difficult, brave and may even rebound on him. But now it is done, it makes a great deal of sense and he is unlikely to encounter much opposition to it among the media and supporters.

The cold truth is that he is not short of right wingers. Aaron Lennon was the exceptional breakthrough player in Germany, Shaun Wright-Phillips is still on the scene and, towering above both of them, is Steven Gerrard who, given that he is deployed on the right for Liverpool, must be favourite to succeed Beckham there. A midfield without Beckham allows McClaren to move his players around, without the restrictions that Eriksson imposed upon himself.

It means that Owen Hargreaves, whose performance against Portugal was universally praised, can be accommodated. It gives Frank Lampard a chance to rehabilitate himself. But most of all it suggests that everything is up for grabs and that no one can take his place for granted.

Was an example made of Beckham by McClaren to signal a new era? Yes - whatever the manager may say - but that is his right. Beckham has been captain of England at three major tournaments; no one could say that he has not been given his chance to lead England on the greatest stage. And equally it could not be argued that at any of his three World Cups, or his two European Championships, did he really establish himself as one of the world's pre-eminent players.

So it is over. Beckham has given his country a great deal including a major hand in qualification for the last three major tournaments after the misery of the final days of Kevin Keegan's regime.

By continually stating the importance of the England team, he has also used his status to protect the sanctity of international football in this country at a time when it is continually under threat from the interests of the Premiership's biggest clubs

It was time to go, although in the movie that plays in Beckham's head, in which he is always the hero - tragic or otherwise - it was not supposed to be like this. He thought he had cushioned the blow by relinquishing the captaincy and had not counted on McClaren being quite so brutal as he was this week.

When he gets perspective on the decision in the months to come, Beckham may realise that it is the best for all concerned. Alas, when you are David Beckham, and the world has a habit of placing you at its centre, that kind of perspective can be difficult to find.