- WORLD CUP 2002

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Friday, August 30, 2002
Beckham emerges from a fog of hype
By John Giles

Forget the dubious quality of Manchester United's 5-0 victims Zalaegerszeg, of Hungary, earlier this week. Sir Alex Ferguson certainly did when he produced his broadest smile for the best part of two years - despite another sickening injury to a key player.

Beckham fires home his free-kick
Beckham fires home his free-kick
The United manager would never willingly part with the services of such a consistent trier and achiever as Paul Scholes, but I don't think there was any mystery about the dramatic uplift in Ferguson's spirit.

I believe he thinks Manchester United - and David Beckham - have found the lost chord that has been eluding them for so long - and I suspect he is right.

It's true Zalaegerszeg were exposed as shell-shocked mediocrities just a quarter of an hour into the Champions League qualifying match which could have cost United as much as £40million in European profits had it gone wrong.

But they were the same team that shocked Europe a week earlier with the 1-0 win that plunged Old Trafford back into crisis. The difference was not in the Hungarians' performance, it was in United's and, most dramatically of all, Beckham's.

I didn't think I would ever again look through the fog of hype which has surrounded England's captain for so long and see a performance of such professionalism that it could only be compared to something produced by - I dare to mention his name - Roy Keane.

However shocked you were by Keane's recent violent stream of consciousness, it has to be conceded that no one at United has come within a mile of the Irishman's raging commitment to the Old Trafford cause since the team won their last title the season before last.

Not until this week, that is. Not until Beckham produced the kind of performance that, if it can be maintained over the next few years, might prove him to be a player worthy of numbering among the greats.

Too often Beckham has been living on that cloud of hype. Give or take an inspiring performance for England, the reality is that he has been underperforming quite terribly. Cut through the smokescreen and that fact was implicitly confirmed by Ferguson last season when he left his star of stars out of a series of vital games.

Beckham was supposed to be resting, but Ferguson should have told that to the birds. In reality he had become a passenger and was sloppy in his approach to every aspect of the game.

He always had the talent to flash a reminder of his quality, but it was not nearly enough when United were fighting for their lives as champions and serious contenders in Europe.

Some might agree with BBC pundit Alan Hansen that Beckham's performance against the Hungarians simply represented recovery from the injury which made him such a phantom performer for England in the World Cup.

Another smokescreen. Beckham's effort against Zalaegerszeg was the best body of work I can remember from him since United entered that trough after being handed the 2000/01 title.

It wasn't simply evidence of the return of physical fitness, it was the edge of ambition and thinking which separates great players from the merely talented.

That flowed through every phase of United's triumph. At 3-0, with the possibility of economic disaster squashed, Keane was still doing the hardest thing in football, and the one that all players like least; he was chasing back, making tackles, scuffling for possession.

So was Beckham. He wasn't posing on the job, he wasn't jumping in the air. Instead, he was getting down to the real job and, in the process, looked like a truly great player.

You don't get to be great on random moments of excellence. You do it relentlessly down the years with an understanding of the levels of commitment and industry which have to be achieved.

United - and Beckham - lost that intensity of purpose when the title race became too easy for them in the spring of 2001. Inevitably, it proved elusive when they tried to get it back in last season's crisis.

Now maybe they have stewed long enough in the bitter juices of failure. Now the rage of Ferguson and Keane may be meeting with a more receptive audience.

The key for United is an under-standing of the basic dynamic of a great winning team. It is that everyone develops the mentality of the least able player in the league, who has to deliver all the talent at his disposal.

If the least talented player can do that he has a chance of survival, but only if better players allow him sufficient scope to operate. That, surely, was the lesson of the Zalaegerszeg games.

In the first leg, United allowed the Hungarians to play at their optimum level yet in the second they tore them apart. Why? Because they matched the Hungarian desire nd let their greater ability come into play. They set the tone with their work off the ball and made the most of possession when they got it back.

This truth glowed through Beck-ham's display and his free-kick was simply an additional benefit of great skill. Result: no contest and a luminous Beckham.

Ferguson's smile wasn't about rescuing European income. It was about his belief that he again has a real team. That is a huge bonus. The other is one which he feared might have been lost forever - the possibility of David Beckham turning myth into glorious reality.


John Giles

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