When Eric Cantona decided to leave Manchester United in the wake of his Selhurst Park hurdling act, the Manchester United manager, Alex Ferguson, flew to Paris and, over dinner, talked him into returning. When Cantona's successor in the No 7 shirt, David Beckham, considered leaving, Ferguson did nothing. Sven Goran Eriksson telephoned Beckham to discuss his move to Real Madrid, but Ferguson kept his own counsel.
With this revelation, Beckham, returning to English shores on footballing duty for the first time since leaving Old Trafford, yesterday underlined the extent of his rift with Ferguson. Asked when he last spoke to his former mentor, Beckham initially could not remember. Then he added: "I think it was at the Everton game."
That match, in which Beckham scored, was on 11 May, the final day of the Premiership season. It was another month before United agreed a fee for his transfer with Barcelona and not until 2 July that he signed for Real Madrid. During that time Ferguson was not in touch. Nor has he been since. While it is clear that he did not want to persuade Beckham to remain at Old Trafford it is surprising, having nurtured his talent since he was 14, that he has not spoken to him since May.
Perhaps this was because Ferguson found it difficult to accept that Beckham was no longer under his command. The player stressed: "I am always in control of the decisions I make. I always knew what I was doing."
Beckham, who is staying in Essex with the rest of the England squad before England's friendly with Croatia at Ipswich tomorrow, added that he wished United luck. "I've supported United all my life and still do." His forthcoming book, he insisted, would not sour his relationship with the fans or players. Whether it would further worsen his relationship with Ferguson was less clear.
Having received a frosty send-off, Beckham stressed he had received a warm welcome in Madrid, especially from Luis Figo whose place may be under threat from his arrival. "Luis Figo's been pretty amazing," said Beckham. "He speaks very good English and within an hour of my arrival he had sat talking with me for 20-30 minutes, asking me if I had found a house and things like that.
"All the players have been great," he added. "It helped that we had a few weeks together in Asia, getting to know each other. There had been all this hype. Their season had not even finished when the transfer happened and the hype might have upset a few people. They must have been wondering who this David Beckham was, what he would add to the team?
"You have to prove yourself whenever you go to a new team. You have to show on the training ground and the pitch that you have a work ethic and if players see that, and that you have a bit of quality, they accept you. I felt that straight away. [The hype] that comes with me comes with me, but I'll always give 100 per cent on the football pitch."
In a dressing-room with few English speakers Figo is an ally worth cultivating as Beckham's language classes are going slowly. He admitted: "It has taken me 28 years to learn English. It will take me more than 28 days to learn Spanish."
He hopes instead to do his talking on the pitch but fluffed his lines on his Spanish debut on Sunday night, a pre-season match in Valencia. Real won on penalties after a goalless draw but by then Beckham had been substituted. The home fans jeered him off and their dismissive verdict was repeated in the Spanish media. Beckham admitted he could have played better and was confident he would. He said he had been primed, after the experiences of Ronaldo, to accept it would take time to win over the local press.
The rigours of the match, and a hard bout of training as the Real coach, Carlos Queiroz, sought last week to make up for the limitations imposed by their Asian tour, left Beckham with a sore back. Since he has had it written into his contract that he is free to join all England get-togethers and matches it did not prevent him from joining the squad in their rural Essex retreat. It did force him to restrict training to a gym session where he was joined by Emile Heskey.
Both are expected to play at Portman Road tomorrow, but Sol Campbell and Jonathan Woodgate sat out the afternoon with more serious concerns. Matthew Upson has thus been recalled to the squad, a choice which appears to confirm the probable end of Gareth Southgate's international career. As expected, Owen Hargreaves has already pulled out. The Bayern Munich midfielder reported for duty but, after his groin injury was assessed, swiftly returned to Germany.
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