Why history beckons Beckham

United's young achiever is hardening his style for the international game. Ian Ridley watches England's future unfold
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The Independent Online
Kevin Keegan once went to scout a player, watched him warm up and then left, having decided the boy did not run properly. With David Beckham, you would want to get out the cheque-book before kick-off. After it, you know that the price, like the meter on a long taxi journey, would be rising by the minute.

Alex Ferguson has a rigid policy at Old Trafford of not lauding young players: keep quick feet on the ground and heads out of the clouds. Beckham would learn from Roy Keane's performance, the Manchester United manager said after the 2-0 victory over Rapid Vienna in the Champions' League.

But it should not prevent others from advancing their admiration for a swiftly developing talent, one whose unhurried gait tells of an awareness which can also be seen in the upright stances of the better Dutch players. Keane may be United's engine but, on last week's evidence, Beckham is showing a robustness to complement his skills.

It was there in his brushing off of a Rapid defender to begin the move for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's goal. And in his persistence for his own, when he committed himself to a firm but fair aerial challenge in the second half and left a meatier opponent lifting himself from the turf.

Allied to it was an array of visionary passing that raised the crowd's heads to the level of his own. When one crossfield pass was a yard too long, the audience still applauded its audacity. The drilled ball inside a full-back for Gary Neville that enlivened the second half made you forget for a while that Eric Cantona was still struggling to impose himself at the level of European competition.

Ferguson has had his doubts about the physical presence of Beckham, its imposition being so important in the high-tempo, high-impact modern game, but he is clearly being won over. Beckham, who could expose a weakened Tottenham at Old Trafford today, now starts in the central midfield place he was born to fill, instead of wide on the right.

United in general, Ferguson in particular, deserve credit for instilling the necessity of application to accompany ability. With Beckham, it probably does not come naturally and one wonders what might have become of the Londoner had he signed for a metropolitan, but less capital, club. So many have silkily flattered and remained unfulfilled.

Glenn Hoddle appears to recognise a kindred spirit. Though more fulfilled than most, scepticism still surrounded Hoddle as a player who could impose himself consistently, and there is a duty to ensure that Beckham does not become similarly viewed. "I would think United have put him on the right diet and will make sure he continues to work with weights," says the England coach. "I would tell the boy to keep on with that. You have got to be physically strong as well as mentally."

Plucked by Hoddle from the doubts over whether he would be a regular starter for United, Beckham made a quietly impressive debut for England in Moldova. Like several other Manchester United players, not just the younger ones, he then appeared overawed by Juventus at the outset of the Champions' League campaign before returning to intimidate Rapid in the same way.

Turin must be forgiven as a learning experience, as must - though with less forbearance - Beckham's yellow card in tackling Dietmar Kuhbauer last Wednesday then feigning injury after an altercation with him. In an England midfield alongside the Pauls Ince and Gascoigne, the burden of expectation should be less oppressive than in Italy; in an England shirt such indiscretions will be less tolerated.

"I don't think you can be expecting him to run a game at the international level just yet," Hoddle said. "That will evolve. He is 21 years of age. Let's just put the fast forward on and put him at 27 or 28 when he is just getting to his prime and, God willing, he doesn't get injuries. Then we might be saying 'Yes, he can run a game'."

Beckham all but did against Rapid, flowing forcefully in United's brisk beginning then producing moments of incision as the pace inevitably slowed. "There are not many players in our league who drop balls behind defences, and in fact they are a dying breed in the world," Hoddle said. "He has got to learn in international football and European games that it is harder to do that. It is easier to do it in the Premiership because defences are that little bit closer to the half-way line. But if you get the movement right ahead of him, I think he can even go up another couple of gears."

With Beckham at the crux, United showed that the high intensity of the English at home can still be a potent weapon in Europe when passion is tempered with planning, heart with head. Bill Shankly was once asked if Anfield intimidated players. "Only bad ones," he replied. United made Rapid's look worse.

Clearly United had drawn some strength, and restored some self-esteem, after the first-half lessons of Juventus. "You guys slaughtered us in Turin but it wasn't that bad," Peter Schmeichel insisted to journalists on Wednesday night. "There were lessons there and everybody has learned them. These young lads pick up things very quickly."

Beckham appeared to. As players came and went in the tunnel post-match, mostly disdainfully without stopping to talk, the open-faced Beckham paused. "The manager brushed up on a few points at half-time," he said. "He felt we had got a bit slack in the last 15 minutes of the first half. Perhaps we did ease off a little bit in the second but we didn't concede a goal. It was just a case of keeping the ball and getting the penetration when we could, which we did in the first half."

If there was a lesson for English clubs in another mixed week in Europe - and German and Italian clubs also suffered one, it should be noted before long-term domestic woes are pronounced again - it was of the enduring value of home pace combined with precision. United illustrated that in patches.

The main disappointments were Aston Villa, patient to a fault. It remains one of the game's flaws - and Villa's - that such unambitious opponents as Helsingborg can frustrate better teams, but still there should have been a way through. The thought occurred during the match that while the wing-back formation may be the vogue, it works best when those players are more than converted full-backs, as is becoming the case in England.

"Our game is played at a quicker pace than most want to play," Hoddle said, "and we are asked to perform our skills at such a quicker pace. There is not a lot wrong with our domestic game, the gap is not that wide. We have the individual players but we have to bridge the gap in tactics. Everyone has to be educated and players have to take them on board. I think it is coming. They are learning off the foreign players.

"In the Premiership, we play open. That's our problem. You have two teams going at it and you can't play like that in international football. Supporters, journalists, coaches and even players can't expect that type of game. You are waiting for the special moments, like Beckham hitting that ball inside the full-back." Back to the boy, and the future.

Every coach has his favourite players, ones he likes to introduce as his imprint and one who is his persona on the pitch. With Graham Taylor it was Geoff Thomas. Thank goodness with Glenn Hoddle it appears to be David Beckham.