Beckham's contract fills void as United seek a celebration

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The Independent Football

If you're looking for a place and a date to mark the ultimate emancipation of the professional footballer, that point when the last hint of slavery fell away and it could be seen so plainly that he had inherited the earth and all its riches, why not Old Trafford, Manchester, May 11, 2002?

It was there and then, you might tell a grandchild, that David Beckham, maybe the most over-rated and over-publicised player in the history of the game, was the recipient of great waves of gratitude from a crowd of 67, 579 who had nothing else to celebrate but the fact that this player who is fêted wherever he goes, not least at 10 Downing Street, had just agreed to play for Manchester United for three more years at a wage rate of £100,000 a week.

Beckham walked out into the centre of the sun-bathed field with his manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who though not famous for his ability to mask his feelings managed to translate the occasion into something that made the feasting for the Prodigal Son seem like a snack at a motorway cafe.

In the joyous circumstances only the most resilient of memories had any chance of retaining the fact that just a few months ago, and in the middle of the most serious crisis suffered by the world's richest football franchise in 10 years, Ferguson had twice been obliged to pull Beckham off the field in vital matches which United desperately needed to win but lost.

This led, of course, to a six-match stint on the substitutes' bench, a development which was variously explained away by Beckham and his manager by a cold, a bad back and fatigue caused by the player's phenomenal efforts on behalf of England.

Though United's vast wage bill had produced not a single trophy, other than the one given to the winners of the northern section of the Reserve League, the players decided to add some further weight to the treacly tradition initiated a few years ago when Chelsea players piled their kids on their shoulders and marched around Wembley after winning the FA Cup. Even Ferguson called for his grandkids. The crowd cheered and cheered.

To be fair to Fergie, he does not create the values of today's football but simply has to live with them. Certainly it was much more reassuring to read in his programme notes how much he was hurting, and there was plenty for anyone who cared to read between the lines of his statement to the crowd that next season there would be players who would "try" to win back some of the old rewards.

The need for such men, plus a central defender who, unlike the still beautifully elegant Laurent Blanc, is not undermined by the first burst of genuine opposition speed, was certainly evident in this soporific send-off to the season that just refused to happen for United. The emotion that came with the farewells to the departing Denis Irwin – "a magnificent servant to me and the club," said Ferguson – Ronny Johnsen and Raimond van der Gouw no doubt also had much to do with memories of better days, when Irwin, particularly, represented some of the club's best competitive values.

But then after several days of intense inquest on United's season, it was not so easy to drag back from the fascination of the Beckham business. You couldn't help thinking what Wilf Mannion or Raich Carter or Peter Doherty would have made of this great arena coming to its feet to salute the awarding of the world's first £100,000 a week football wage packet. Or George Eastham, who went to court and impressed on a high court judge the fact that indeed he had no more employment rights than a slave. Or Johnny Haynes, whose reward for authentic midfield genius was the first £100-a-week wage in English football. Or Charlie Mitten, who was banned by Fifa for playing in Bogota for better wages.

Beckham, who, remarkably enough had not changed his hairstyle since his most recent photo opportunity at Downing Street, was of course quite blameless in this particular piece of hype. The club paraded him and his new contract as a harbinger of better days on the field, and who could argue with a player's right to win himself his market price? What was stunning was the reaction of the crowd, and what it said not so much about the changes in football but the world. The crowd were cheering the best paid player in the world, and, perhaps, the ability of their club to make him so. Later they would cheer the players and their children. They were a crowd who, for the first time in so long, were in search of something to celebrate.

The match offered nothing beyond still more evidence that Roy Keane would bring a hard edge to an egg-and-spoon race. Charlton's manager Alan Curbishley thought it was a nice result on which to end his season and, maybe deferring to the strange mood of Old Trafford, politely refrained from stressing too heavily that it could easily have been a much better one, his players scorning three good opportunities offered up by United's defence before half-time.

Had they taken them, would the kids have stayed in the stand? Who knows? It was a day that had brought only one guarantee, the one in which the celebrity and the wealth of David Beckham is now officially enshrined.

Manchester United 0 Charlton Athletic 0

Manchester United (4-4-2): Barthez 5 (Van der Gouw, 78); Irwin 6 (O'Shea 5, 70), Blanc 6, Brown 6, P Neville, 5; Stewart 4 (Giggs 5, 59), Scholes 5, Keane 7, Fortune 5; Forlan 5, Solskjaer 5. Substitutes not used: Wallwork, Lynch.

Charlton Athletic (4-4-2) Kiely 5; Young 5, Rufus 6, Jorge Costa 5, Powell 5; Stuart 5 (Jensen 76), Parker 4, Bart-Williams 5, Konchesky 5 (Johansson 81); Lisbie 5 (Svensson 90), Euell 5. Substitutes not used: Ilic (gk), Fortune.

Referee: G Poll (Hertfordshire) 6.

Booked: Manchester United: Irwin, Neville.

Man of the match: Keane.

Attendance: 67, 579.