Beckham deserves easier ride

In my teens there was only one man I longed to be and that was Michael Parkinson
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The Independent Online

It is always illuminating to find out from people who their heroes are. Or aren't. The teenage Nick Faldo idolised Jack Nicklaus, so no surprises there. Similarly, the young Dominic Cork idolised Ian Botham. But little Alec Stewart's sporting pin-up was not even a cricketer; he worshipped John Hollins. And a surprising number of the sporting stars I interview claim never to have had heroes or even role-models, presumably being far too preoccupied scaling the pedestal of greatness themselves.

It is always illuminating to find out from people who their heroes are. Or aren't. The teenage Nick Faldo idolised Jack Nicklaus, so no surprises there. Similarly, the young Dominic Cork idolised Ian Botham. But little Alec Stewart's sporting pin-up was not even a cricketer; he worshipped John Hollins. And a surprising number of the sporting stars I interview claim never to have had heroes or even role-models, presumably being far too preoccupied scaling the pedestal of greatness themselves.

As for my own heroes, I am greatly inspired by the remarkable deeds of Mahatma Gandhi, Franklin D Roosevelt, Nelson Mandela, Albert Schweitzer and Kevin Campbell. But in my teens there was only one man I actually longed to be, and that was Michael Parkinson. Which wasn't very cool. At my Lancashire grammar school there was considerably more kudos in being a Kevin Keegan or Marc Bolan wannabe. But I thought Parky was the bee's knees, and still do.

On the basis of four or five personal encounters I can also testify that he is a better raconteur than most of his guests. Anyway, before I put myself in contention for Private Eye's Order of the Brown Nose, let me get to the point. When I first met Parky, six years or so ago, I asked him whether he had any desire to revive his TV chat show. He said no, not least because celebrities had diminished in stature since his 1970s heyday. "If you have interviewed Dame Edith Evans," he said, "then why would you want to interview Madonna?" But then the BBC made him a handsome offer and he changed his tune, or rather didn't, it being the same jaunty number as in the old days.

Just before his first show went out I reminded him of his line about Madonna. He said he still felt the same about the waning of star quality, and this time used sport as an example. Muhammad Ali and George Best had both effervesced on his show in the 1970s. Who were their modern-day counterparts? The worthy-but-dull Lennox Lewis, and Ryan Giggs, a wonderful footballer but with the personality, in Parky's memorable words, of a baked bean.

On Saturday evening Parky finally let OK! magazine culture get the better of him, and interviewed David Beckham, reputedly another baked bean. Parky tried manfully to gain some insight into what makes Beckham tick, but, perhaps aptly on the night the clocks went back, merely found that he ticks rather slowly. Beckham was perfectly engaging and looked lovely, bless him, but his eloquence is all in his right foot.

Which is, of course, exactly how it should be. Even as I poke gentle fun at him I am aware of how unfair I am being. For one thing, he is smart enough to be a contented family man earning a shedload of money, and in my book that is quite smart enough. Besides, if his intellect were the equivalent of my ability to drop a 60-yard cross-field pass into the path of a speeding winger, we wouldn't be mocking him for sounding slightly dim, we'd be measuring his lobotomy scar.

Moreover, there's something I should tell you about Beckham. Last year I spent some time at the England training camp, at Burnham Beeches, and watched with amusement the gaggle of schoolgirls loitering at the gate desperate for a glimpse of their pin-ups. They could barely contain themselves when Michael Owen and Jamie Redknapp appeared, and begged them to come over.

Owen and Redknapp ignored them. As did every other player except Beckham, who spent fully 20 minutes obligingly signing every autograph and smilingly posing for every photo. He soared in my estimation. Those girls were a far cry from the morons who chant obscenities about Posh Spice, and wish cancer on little Brooklyn, but even so, there is nobody more entitled than Beckham to give the fans a wide berth.

I heard an even more heartwarming fan story last week, about Matt Elliott, the Leicester City and Scotland defender, who looks like the sort of chap happier to dish out headbutts than his last Rolo. A taxi-driver who picked me up at Edinburgh Airport said he'd had that Mattie Elliott in the back of his cab once, and that they got talking about a forthcoming World Cup qualifier between Scotland and Estonia, to be played at the Hearts ground, Tynecastle.

The cabbie happened to remark that he wanted to take his eight-year-old son, but because space was limited at Tynecastle he couldn't get tickets. Elliott promptly asked for his phone number, a kind gesture, although the cabbie felt certain he'd never follow it up. However, several days later, on the eve of the match, Elliott phoned to say that there were two VIP tickets waiting at the gate.

"He's been my wee lad's hero ever since," said the cabbie, and quite right too.

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