Don't drive away priceless talent

The extraordinary scrutiny under which Beckham lives could yet convince him to look abroad
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The Independent Online

He was almost reluctant to leave the field at the final whistle, determined to luxuriate in his surroundings. He took an eternity to leave the stage, stripped off his shirt, applauded the faithful and had that appreciation returned multifold. Then a handshake for Kim Nielsen - the referee who by dismissing him at Saint-Etienne had rendered him the subject of such virulence back at home - and finally a hug from his manager.

He was almost reluctant to leave the field at the final whistle, determined to luxuriate in his surroundings. He took an eternity to leave the stage, stripped off his shirt, applauded the faithful and had that appreciation returned multifold. Then a handshake for Kim Nielsen - the referee who by dismissing him at Saint-Etienne had rendered him the subject of such virulence back at home - and finally a hug from his manager.

In the gridiron game they'd call David Beckham the MVP. Few afterwards would argue that he was Manchester United's Most Valuable Player, at least in terms of his ability to bemuse the Valencia rearguard, if not according to the Old Trafford payroll.

After Roy Keane had inscribed his signature on the country's most lucrative football contract, it was Beckham who actually succeeded in writing off Valencia's Champions' League expectations. Hence, the thought that struck you, as United players queued up to register their approval of the Irishman's pay hike in the week United finally loosened the chains around their salary chest, was by how much had the value of Beckham's stock risen if the captain was deemed worthy of around £11m over the next four years?

Next weekend, it is anticipated that Rivaldo will succeed Zinedine Zidane as European Footballer of the Year. Beckham, partly because he was not viewed at his most potent in the Champions' League final, may be deprived of first prize, but could be named runner-up. If he retains his destructive instincts and continues to quell his self-destructive ones, his time will come. His claims to such an honour were again presented against the Spaniards. Not for the first time on a European night, did Mr Spice not only possess far too much piquancy for the left side of his opponents' defence; he also scrapped - in the best sense of the word - tirelessly in the United cause.

He will never be the tidiest tackler in the business, any more than his pace will earn him a sprint gold - speed is seemingly a forte he restricts to his silver Ferrari Maranello - but those retrieval missions when his team lose possession are a sightto behold in a player of his class. The veteran Italian defender, Armedo Carboni, and his team-mates can rarely have been given as little opportunity to dwell on the ball. The centres, if not unerringly accurate, can always be counted on to provide a constant distraction to defences, as Mauricio Pellegrino obligingly demonstrated when he allowed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to steal in and purloin the goal which effectively secured the game for United. "It's my job to get across to the near post, and Becks is the best in the world to put those crosses in," the Norwegian said modestly.

Solskjaer was one of several performers who professed themselves gratified by Keane's decision, even if the more cynical will suggest that, human nature being what it is, that sentiment will last until the United players' next contract negotiations. But for the moment everyone, as the spin doctors of the Sir Alex Ferguson-supported Government would put it, is "on message".

The chorus was led by Gary Neville, whose candour when uttering the words "if Roy Keane earns four, five times the money of me, then he deserves that because he's more important", was arguably above and beyond the call of the duty. The versatile England defender would been among those whom Ferguson would also be severely reluctant to yield from his grasp. On an evening when, frankly, United were worthy of victory, but not by 3-0, the commotion over Keane and Beckham's virtuoso display should not conceal the fact that it was as much a credit to the team's defensive attributes, with the defiant Jaap Stam and his accomplice Gary Neville combining to negate the threat of Claudio Lopez and the excellent Argentinian Mendieta. The goalkeeper, Raimond Van Der Gouw, proved, with an understated performance, that he should be regarded as more than a stop-gap until the return of the injured Mark Bosnich.

Keane's significant influence on the contest were his goal and a talismanic presence. If the man from Cork was otherwise not at his optimum, the fact that he "signed at five o'clock, then had a race to get ready for the game" probably contributed to it. Clearly, it had been a vexing decision, and his lawyer, Michael Kennedy, pointedly referred to the fact that his client could have attracted considerably more elsewhere.

Keane's ability to be Ferguson's ambassador on the field and provide an example to those around him is as crucial a reason for the manager to encourage the United board to go to hitherto unthinkable lengths to retain him as his natural prowess on the ball and when in search of it. Indeed, the Republic of Ireland international readily concedes his shortcomings. "You see world-class players who have a quiet game, but then just turn it on and do something brilliant. But I'm not capable of that," he has said. "I'm not capable of doing something magical. My strength is work-rate and if I don't have that I may as well pack it in."

It says much about the value we place upon the midfield motivator in the British game that it is Keane, rather than a potent goalscorer or an out-and-out schemer, who should command such a vast figure.

Even more so, given the career-threatening injury the 28-year-old has suffered and the likelihood that his powers, before the end of his agreement, will be on the wane. Yet, viewed from any perspective, this represents good business for United because, as his team-mates suggested as one, he is irreplaceable, certainly in the short-term. As Denis Irwin commented: "To get a player of that calibre, I don't think there are too many around in the world. They were talking about £10m, £15m to replace him, but I don't think he is replaceable."

So, Keane, his manager and the fans have been appeased. No one would reasonably argue that, in a free market-driven industry, United had any alternative. But now expectation, from all those touched by the mighty hand of the Treble winners, will be all the greater. Perhaps, more disconcertingly, it will almost certainly influence negotiations within less financially buoyant clubs, as the more unscrupulous agents attempt to use the Keane deal as a means of leverage.

As for Beckham, his existing contract still has nearly three years' duration, and his public stance has always been that his link with the club and its manager will not be severed. Nevertheless, the next 12 months could prove highly instructive in that regard, particularly in the knowledge that Ferguson, who, despite reports of a number of contretemps between player and manager in recent weeks still remains his hugely respected mentor, maintains he will retire in two years' time.

There is also the apparent attraction of Barcelona, and the reported influence of his pop singer wife, whose lifestyle preference indicates that she is happier in Hertfordshire than Cheshire. But it is the hostility of opposing spectators and the extraordinary scrutiny under which he lives that could convince him that he would relish a future abroad. Just what would it cost in salary alone to lure him? If Keane is worth £50,000 a week, how much is a genuine wizard worth?

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