Gary Neville on his best friend: Playing football is Beckham's only driving force
By GARY NEVILLE
Shortly after I made my Manchester United debut at the age of 19, I was sent a pair of football boots by one of the big sportswear firms. And a few weeks later myself, David Beckham, Keith Gillespie and my brother Phil were sent by United to take part at a coaching school in the USA.
The boot was called the Predator and they were new design which had ridges for extra grip on the leather. As soon as he saw them David said: ‘Can I wear those?’ So he took them off me and I never got to wear them again.
On that trip he would spend every minute he could practising with those boots on, whipping in those free-kicks against the underside of the crossbar. He was saying: ‘I want those boots, I need to wear those boots, I can get more feel of the ball with them, I can get more grip and swerve, it makes the ball spin more.’
To me this was a novel concept. But for him it was important. He wanted that edge to create precision from his performance. He wanted to be the best kicker of a football that he could possibly be. In fact, a short time later he signed for adidas because it was the company which made those boots and over the years that company has played a key role in projecting his incredible global image.
When I went to Paris last week to interview David as he announced his retirement from football, there was much to talk about and memories such as that one. But what resonated with me was that when I asked him how he would like to be remembered, he replied: ‘As a hard-working footballer.’
Those words sum it up for me. When people think of David, they often focus on things outside of the game. But in reality he was a footballer, and a brilliant hard-working one at that.
In the years since David made his Manchester United debut, football’s popularity has exploded and the money involved increased exponentially. He has ridden that wave better than anyone and has become the most recognisable individual in football.
However, we should not forget his sheer level of achievement. He played 115 times for England. He had long careers at United and Real Madrid, winning the leagues, cups and Champions League trophies. He won league titles in his late thirties at LA Galaxy and Paris St-Germain.
He was twice runner-up in FIFA’s World Player of the Year, finishing behind Rivaldo and Luis Figo. That award was not voted for by fans. It was voted for by managers of national teams around the world.
Great players are defined by their ability to influence big matches and in Manchester United’s greatest season of all, 1998-99, he contributed plenty: the delivery of his crosses in the Champions League quarter-final against Inter Milan; scoring in the epic FA Cup semi-final at Villa Park against Arsenal, the game in which Ryan Giggs’s goal eventually won the match; scoring at Tottenham on the last day of the season, when we won the league; and the corners for Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in the Champions League final.
In fact, he was our best player in that final and was the outfield player with most appearances that season.
The moment that announced David to the wider world was that goal he scored from the halfway line against Wimbledon on the opening day of the 1996-97 season. And it was no fluke. David was practising it all the time.
In every team you’ll have a player who cannot resist kicking any ball wherever it is. So if we were warming up and there was a ball lying around, I would just ignore it. David would sprint away from the group and try to hit it into the net or on to the crossbar. Paul Scholes was the same.
They just couldn’t resist the temptation. If they were both around, they were a danger, as they were forever attempting to ping balls at you. Even from 50 yards they could be lethal and you would have to keep looking over your shoulder.
I must have played directly behind him almost 300 times for United and England and he made my life so easy, especially in my early years when I was settling into the team, because of his incredible willingness to cover you, to track back and to tuck inside. Our understanding was telepathic.
His energy levels and stamina were extraordinary. He would out-run people on the pitch, not through speed but by wearing them down over 90 minutes.
And the precision of his delivery was unrivalled. You see lots of great crossers but his deadly accuracy, even when running at speed, wasn’t surpassed in his era. It was predictable and everyone in his team knew what he was going to do next.
But even if you knew what was coming as an opposition defender, there was nothing that you could do to stop it. If the cross needed whipping in with spin, he would do that; if it needed driving in, he would drive it and if it needed a soft chip, he would choose that option. His decision-making was exceptional.
That perfection of technique reflects the sheer repetition of striking a ball time and time again on a training ground to get it right.
I have wondered whether that drive was innate or if it had been created by the coaches we all shared. David said that being surrounded by the likes of Nobby Stiles and Eric Harrison, our youth team coaches at United, and then Sir Alex Ferguson, and his assistants Archie Knox and Brian Kidd, you couldn’t be anything but determined.
We were very fortunate. But remember, too, that this was a boy who left his home and family in Chingford, Essex, at 16, to move to Manchester. That shows an inbuilt desire and a mental strength of its own. It’s what brought us together as friends; that shared determination and passion for football.
There was a time at United when I was concerned for him. I wondered how anyone could cope with the attention he received. He was constantly photographed beyond even the usual excesses of celebrity hysteria. He’d be chased everywhere by photographers and everything he did, however mundane, became a story.
I thought that eventually it would sap him of his energy and will to play football.
But his passion for the game meant he always maintained a balance. He was different to me, in that I can become excited about analysing or watching a game. He can enjoy those aspects but what really motivated him was kicking a ball and playing. That child-like desire never left him.
Nothing could illustrate that better than the fact that a few weeks ago I was in a Barcelona hotel waiting to commentate on a match at the Nou Camp in which he was preparing to come up against Leo Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta at the age of 38. Playing football is the driving force of his life. In that probably lies the most important aspect of David’s career.
Of course, David always wanted to achieve so much more than just being a footballer. But he never forgot what propelled him into the public eye. He made sure that the foundations of the image he built for himself were secure.
Every now and then you’ll see a young player come along with talent, and, if he’s blessed with good looks, very quickly he becomes the ‘new David Beckham’.
You will even see it in other sports, where perhaps people are hoping for a ‘Beckham effect’ and will label a new, exciting and photogenic player that way. But often that lasts for a year or two before fading, usually softened by the excesses of a celebrity lifestyle.
For young footballers or sportsmen and women, I would hold David up as an example of someone who was smart at maximising his potential off the pitch, but always balancing that by ensuring he was training to his best and delivering on the pitch.
Today, we’re going to see two other great players retire in Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher and my former colleague, Paul Scholes.
All three have very different personalities but they share a common bond: a passion for football and a determination always to extract the absolute maximum from their ability. It is surprising how many don’t manage that.
In an era when the business of football has become increasingly superficial, when the soap opera that surrounds the sport sometimes overwhelms the game itself and when the demand for instant success from the new money can lead to a relentless series of short-term decisions, it’s good to be reminded of what makes the sport what it is. The world’s most famous football icon wants to be remembered as a hard-working player.
David Beckham feared he would never make the grade at Manchester United until a pep talk from one of England’s greatest legends gave him the confidence to go on and enjoy a glittering career.
Eric Harrison, the most influential coach of Beckham’s career and the first to give him a taste of silverware when he managed the United class of ’92 to victory in the FA Youth Cup, recalls taking a call from a despondent 19-year-old Beckham in early 1995.
‘The club had suggested to David he go on loan to Preston to gain first-team experience and David seemed very down about it. He kept asking if I thought it was United’s way of trying to get rid of him,’ said Harrison.
‘I tried to reassure him, saying I was sure the plan was to accelerate his progress, not end his career at United. I think his time at Preston was a real turning point.’
Although Preston’s team included future United boss David Moyes, it was a more celebrated man who helped Beckham’s self-belief.
‘Sir Tom Finney, one of the greatest English players of all time, was a Preston legend and still watched all of their matches,’ said Harrison. ‘After one game, he took David aside and told him what a great prospect he was, how he thought he was a really good player.
‘When David came back to United and told me about that, he was glowing that someone like Tom Finney had done something like that. I do believe it made a difference and the rest is history.’
Harrison first met Beckham when the shy 12-year-old London boy travelled with his dad, United-daft Ted, to train with the club during school holidays. ‘You could see he had technical ability right away,’ said Harrison.
‘As he got older, you could see the work ethic as well. We trained morning and afternoons. After an hour-and-a-half in the afternoon, other lads would slope off, but David would stay, banging in cross after cross to the keepers.’
Harrison was coach of the best United youth team since the Busby Babes. In 1992, the side that won the FA Youth Cup included Ryan Giggs, Beckham, Gary Neville, Nicky Butt, Robbie Savage and Keith Gillespie. Paul Scholes was on the fringes of the squad.
Three weeks ago, most were present as Harrison was honoured at the PFA Player of the Year awards and he says Beckham was mortified to miss the night because Paris St-Germain were playing.
‘David was sent off for a studs-up challenge,’ said Harrison. ‘It was so uncharacteristic. I think it was in his mind he was missing a get-together with his old team-mates who were so important to him.’
Even in his absence, chat at the dinner included Beckham. Harrison said: ‘I sat next to Sir Alex Ferguson and we recalled how Bryan Robson, the club captain, used to complain about the manager telling him how great Beckham and the younger players were.
‘In the end Robbo was so fed up, he challenged the younger players to a match — first-team versus youth team — and the youngsters won 5-1! Alex and myself still laugh about it. Robbo was tearing about trying to kick anything that moved, and couldn’t get near them.’
Beckham’s achievements on the pitch, 115 England caps, league titles in four different countries, etc, have been well-documented.
Harrison feels privileged to have seen the slightly introverted and conscientious young boy develop into one of the most famous personalities on the planet but he will remember Beckham the man as much as the player.
‘I still receive a Christmas card from David every year,’ he said. ‘It started off just from him, then him and Victoria, and now when you open the card up, there is a picture of him and his family, four lovely children. He’s as proud of them as anything he has done in football.’