Restoration of old order lets Beckham rule

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Short of a nuclear launch, Manchester United would have been hard pushed to make more of a bullish statement of their re-gathered power than the 5-1 thrashing of Nantes. Had they gone to that length, no doubt they would have chosen David Beckham to press the button.

The strikingly revived relevance of the England captain was certainly neatly coupled with the announcement that after a little foot-dragging the great commissar, Sir Alex Ferguson, had signed up for three more years as the British game's master of winning indoctrination,

While Ferguson's agreement to a deal believed to be worth around £15m was expected, it was still guaranteed to remove a few lingering wobbles in the Old Trafford boardroom. Indeed, some would say that Ferguson's return to a command unencumbered by his self-inflicted status as a lame duck is a gift that the club by and large do not deserve.

Except, that is, in the vital matter of their keeping faith in the manager when his instincts and policies did not yield the quick fix that had been hoped for when he first came down from his lair in Aberdeen. However, from the moment Ferguson fully established his worth – most vitally with the daring and vision involved in breaking up a successful, experienced side and pushing forward with the likes of Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and the Neville boys – the United board put at risk their greatest asset.

They were ungenerous and, in an ironic way at the birth of football as big business, unworldly. They begrudged Ferguson his fame and they stinted on his rewards. When he demanded his right to be the best-paid manager in the English game, he was referred to a plc sub-committee. Did United believe that they had become the richest franchise in sport because of the sale of private boxes and over-priced souvenir shirts? Did they begin to believe that in the modern game the success of a football club no longer flowed directly from the quality of the management of the team?

The good news for United's followers is that all this is academic now, along with any lingering speculation over the cause of Ferguson's rethink, whether it was provoked by the shrewd perception of his wife and sons that he was in danger of becoming a lost soul the moment he stepped away from the action or the increased investment in the club by his stalwart friends and admirers JP McManus and John Magnier. However profound their victories, some men will always need a reinforcement of self-belief, and any amount of admiration for the United manager's achievements doesn't mean that you have to be Sigmund Freud to place him in that category.

What was so evident at Old Trafford this week in the dismantling of Nantes was the conviction brought by the restoration of the old order, and nowhere was this more noticeable than in the relish Beckham brought to his reaffirmation of marvellous skills, especially when applied to a dead ball.

Much nonsense accompanied Beckham's mid-season fall from grace, not least the theory that a professional athlete in the prime of his career might reasonably be deemed drained by a handful of games for England. What Ferguson brought to the crisis was the hard eye of an old, winning pro who had the authority to act on the evidence of his own eyes. Image rights and circus values meant nothing to him, he made it plain. Beckham needed a shot not in the arm but across the ego, and his demotion to the bench for half a dozen games, at a time when the team was fighting to rescue the season, supplied it more tellingly than any number of impassioned homilies on the subject of professional commitment.

Indeed, if we want to put a finger on the point when United's season ceased to implode we can make no better stab than at the time Ferguson decided Beckham's performances no longer justified a first-team place. That message, be sure, went into every corner of a dressing-room which in most cases had to no reason to be overly judgemental on the shortfall in Beckham's contribution. Take away Roy Keane, who, it was too easily forgotten, had battled through injury to do at least as much for Ireland's World Cup cause as Beckham had for England's, and without cost to his performances for United, and the relentlessly hungry Ruud Van Nistelrooy, and the sum of the team's effort was at times pitiful.

Ferguson said so several times and then, more importantly, acted. The result is United's aggressive reappearance in a title race from which they had been dismissed by the unwary and their re-emergence as an at least respectable bet for another triumph in the League of Champions.

None of this gives a God-like status to the reappointed master of Old Trafford. There is no doubt Ferguson contributed to his own difficulties with his unwise announcement that he would leave at the end of this season. It was, as he nursed certain grievances, something that was always going to be smarter to consider rather than declare. It is also true that if Ferguson's recent generous praise of Laurent Blanc does reflect pleasing evidence that the grand old French warrior can still provide a wonderful example of grace and aplomb on a football field, it scarcely diminishes the fear that if United do fall short in Europe over the next few months it will most likely be because of a killing lack of pace at the heart of the defence.

What is equally clear, though, is that in what he might have imagined to be his last rolls of the dice Ferguson dealt brilliantly for Van Nistelrooy and in Juan Sebastian Veron acquired a talent which on its best days is as luminous as any in the world. By signing players of such high calibre, Ferguson may have thought he was making his final statement on the meaning of his reign at Old Trafford. But events now offer a different interpretation. It is that Ferguson reminded his bosses, at a very late hour indeed, that their imperative had to be the signing, and the retention, of the top men, both on and off the field.