Stan Hey: Football, money and buying sexy underwear

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The Independent Online

The relationship between Manchester United's manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, and his star player, David Beckham, can be viewed as more Cesare Borgia than Victor Borge – not underwear brands, by the way – depending on which football team you support.

If you're against United, the Old Trafford citadel seems awash with night moves, conspiracies, dark rumours and plots for ambush. If you're a Red Devil, you probably think, indeed hope, that the apparent spat is nothing more than another comic interlude in the long-running Fergie-Beckham soap.

This has been a source of jokes for well over two years now, with most of them predicated on Beckham's dimness exasperating Fergie's parental care. You know the sort, as when Becks makes a late-night phone call to his boss seeking help with a jungle jigsaw in which the pieces don't match the picture on the lid, and Fergie turns up to tell him to put the Frosties back in the box.

They're dated now though, aren't they? The relationship has moved on yet again. The early years of Ferguson's protective cloak around the young Beckham, gave way to a reluctant but necessary decision to let the player stand or fall by his own actions.

Beckham succeeded, beyond even his supporters' dreams – he displayed a more mature attitude, and the emergence of a shy, self-deprecating wit and a relish for his role as a home-loving husband, has confounded all the predicted stereotypes. He is unlikely to be out in nightclubs with Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate.

Most importantly, the past year has seen Beckham gain the England captaincy and more than fulfil the role that the symbolic armband demands. His goals have proved crucial to England's qualifying for next summer's World Cup. He has, in the current parlance of the game, "run his socks off".

So Ferguson drops Beckham to the bench to give him a rest, and then leaves him out of the squad altogether, allowing him to go Christmas shopping for exotic lingerie for himself, and quite possibly, his wife.

The Borgia view would be that this is not the sympathetic gesture it may seem. Ferguson is the last in the line of managers who remember the game as a vital transaction of money from working-class fans in exchange for entertainment and drama from footballers who knew they had a duty to perform.

Throughout his time at United, Alex Ferguson has been a ruthless disposer of those players who have, through self-indulgence or technical inadequacy, broken this bond. Beckham's dip in club form, whether related to his England exertions or to plain ennui, has not pleased Ferguson.

The delay in Beckham signing a new contract also contrasts harshly with the unequivocal devotion to the club of Ferguson's favourite, Roy Keane, a player for whom the concept of "not trying" doesn't exist.

The vast power of the modern player is specifically linked to contractual negotiations. This is when they can boost their wages into the £100,000 a week bracket, or let the existing contract expire and leave the club, without a transfer fee, for another. While this contractual lacuna persists, and Beckham remains out of the team, the player's future will be the krill which feeds the vast shoal of tabloid "trawlermen" who follow football.

The Italian transfer "window" opens early in January, and voices inside United, or indeed within the agency that acts for Beckham, may well see this as the prime opportunity for the team to get its long-term investment in the player back. If, as expected, Beckham is voted World Footballer of the Year today, his transfer price couldn't be less than £50m. And that's no joke, whichever way you look at it.

stanhey@aol.com

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