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Pre-stardom Beckham was a hard worker

The David Beckham you see today, the superstar lifestyle and all the trappings of the rich and famous, is in sharp contrast to the young David Beckham of humble origins.

"He was a young kid, very respectful and he worked very, very hard," said Paul Mariner, assistant coach with the New England Revolution and a former England international himself. "You could see he cared about what he was doing and he has carried that through in his career. He had unbelievable role models with Manchester United and the national team and that helped him."

Revolution head coach Steve Nicol recalls Beckham as "not a player who was going to run past you or dribble past you, he was going to pass the ball past you."

Nicol was near the end of his playing career with Sheffield Wednesday when he defended against Beckham for the final time.

"He probably had more pace then but he was all about passing," Nicol said. "He was not the type of player who was going to run at fullbacks but if you stayed off him he was going to deliver balls, so you couldn't stay too far off him."

Mariner was at Preston North End as a part-time assistant coach and worked with Beckham, who was 20 years old and had been loaned to the club during the 1994-95 season. Mariner was impressed by Beckham's focused approach to games and training, plus his dead ball prowess.

"Man United used to farm out a lot of younger players and Sir Alex [Ferguson] sent him to Preston, which was managed at the time by David Moyes, who is now at Everton," Mariner said. "I was coaching the offense, the attack, the midfielders and forwards."

Mariner played 35 times for England in the 1970s and early '80s and won the 1978 FA Cup and 1981 UEFA Cup with Ipswich Town. Mariner capitalized on the crossing and free kick prowess of Dutchmen Arnold Muhren and Frans Thijssen with Ipswich, then concluded his First Division career with Arsenal and Portsmouth.

"When you talk about dead-ball situations," Mariner said, "the two you talk about are Ronaldinho and Beckham, maybe [Francesco] Totti, that caliber of delivering the ball. Coaches are going to tell their team, 'don't give L.A. a free kick 30-35 yards from goal.' He can score on it, he can put the ball on an absolute dime. He spent a great amount of time practicing them. It's a God-given talent but it's also practice.

"The biggest complaint coaches have on crosses is missing the first man and with David Beckham that will not happen -- unless he wants it to."

Mariner and Revolution head coach Steve Nicol emphasize that their players angle crosses around or over the initial defender and both coaches are adept at demonstrating the technique. But how long will it take for Los Angeles Galaxy players to get used to Beckham's pinpoint accuracy?

"We tell players you absolutely have to get to know the other players," Mariner said. "You have to know what Steve Ralston and Pat Noonan and Shalrie Joseph do and, if you do understand how they play, the game becomes easy. Otherwise you are batting in the dark, you think someone is going to take another touch and you are waiting for that."

Mariner did not have a chance to be reacquainted with Beckham at the MLS All-Star game, since he remained in Foxboro to train the Revolution while Nicol and goalkeeper coach Gwynne Williams guided the MLS team.

"There has been a lot of hype," Mariner said, "but [Beckham] is a very level-headed and a grounded person."

Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.