Fergie gives Beckham the boot
This week has witnessed an extraordinary rupture between Wayne Rooney and Manchester United that appears almost certain to lead to his departure from the club, but it is not the first time that Sir Alex Ferguson has fallen out with one of his leading stars. In 2003, tensions with David Beckham were exposed following a dressing-room incident and, inside four months, the most famous footballer on the planet had joined Real Madrid.
Was it an innocent trip to work or a perfectly-orchestrated PR ambush? When David Beckham left his Nether Alderley mansion in February 2003 - tape firmly in place over the gash that had sliced those expertly sculpted eyebrows and his injury brought into sharp relief by the long blond hair that was scraped back with a strategically-placed alice band - a camera shutter closed and an image was captured, an image that would lay bare a fierce dressing room rift that ripped the most marketable player in football from the biggest club in England.
Beckham, perhaps more than any other player before or since, was a master of exploiting images, but this one was different. The England captain was not smiling vacantly as he endorsed another product, grinning as he clutched his pop star wife on a red carpet or roaring with delight as he embraced a team-mate. He was scowling, his famous visage soiled by an injury inflicted by none other than his own manager, Sir Alex Ferguson. It was a face that launched a thousand headlines, and a photo that gave rise to a million words, all of which pointed to a truncated future at Old Trafford.
The infamous cut was caused when Ferguson kicked out at a stray boot in the dressing room following an FA Cup defeat at the hands of Arsenal and inadvertently struck Beckham. However, the incident itself was the culmination of a growing rift between the pair, and Ferguson's ever-growing frustration with the celebrity lifestyle both enjoyed and cultivated by a player who was capitalising fully on the exposure a career at United afforded him.
That career took flight on August 17, 1996, when, on the opening day of the new Premiership season, Beckham spotted Wimbledon's Neil Sullivan off his line and projected himself into the national consciousness when scoring from the half-way line. A superstar was born, and if any further indication were needed that Beckham would sweep to global fame, a cursory look at the singles chart would provide an overwhelming omen. Sitting on top of the charts on that very day was a debut song titled 'Wannabe' from a new girl band - Posh Spice and her cohorts had just exploded.
Sarongs, World Cup disgraces and endorsements all followed, but after the turn of the millennium, and as the cult of his celebrity developed, Beckham's status as a global personality became a bone of contention within Old Trafford; it was suspected that here was a player challenging the notion that no one is bigger than the club. A visit to Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen in 2002, along with the rest of England's World Cup squad, particularly angered Ferguson, who felt the player should be concentrating on getting fit for United. By now, Beckham was sensing a "chill in the atmosphere" and in his autobiography, My Side, later admitted that "the gaffer had had enough. I'd grown up as a person and he didn't seem to like what I'd become".
The occasion of an FA Cup fifth round tie against Arsenal on February 15, 2003, saw relations plunge to a new low. After Ryan Giggs had memorably missed a wide-open goal and efforts from Edu and Sylvain Wiltord had seen United's closest rivals come away from Old Trafford with a 2-0 win, Ferguson was fuming. Betraying his roots as a former striker he kicked a boot lying on the floor of the changing room. It smacked into Beckham's head, and after details of the altercation were leaked to the press, The Sun led with the headline 'Fergie Decks Becks'.
Political discourse was even infiltrated by the controversy. Responding to tough questioning on events in Iraq, Tony Blair responded: "I have got a stack of football boots under here you know!" What had become the hottest of hot topics would not disappear quietly, not with Beckham making that now infamous trip to training, and a subsequent jaunt around Manchester, during which his injury was fully on display.
As the Manchester Evening News reported, the tension inherent in the relationship between player and manager was "vividly illustrated by Beckham's willingness to show off the wound caused by Sir Alex kicking the boot at him in a post-match tantrum. The England captain strolled defiantly along Manchester's most prestigious shopping street, knowing he was being photographed."
Ferguson attempted to play down the controversy in a press conference prior to a Champions League tie against Juventus on February 18. "Contrary to reports," he said, "David Beckham did not have two stitches - it was a graze which was dealt with by the doctor. It was a freakish incident. If I tried it 100 or a million times it couldn't happen again. If I could, I would have carried on playing."
An apology, though, was conspicuous by its absence and Beckham's advisors did little to quell speculation that something was afoot. Using evocative language, a statement from the Beckham camp appeared to contradict Ferguson's version of events. It read: "David did not want stitches at first, but two hours after the game, blood was still dripping from the wound and the club doctor visited David's house and fixed two steri-strips to stop the bleeding." Beckham added: "The dressing room incident was just one of those things - it's all in the past now."
Just one of those things? The true magnitude of the incident was only revealed when Beckham published his autobiography, having joined Real Madrid four months later. "There was a boot on the floor. He swung his leg and kicked it," Beckham wrote. "At me? At the wall? It could have been anywhere, he was that angry now. I felt a sting just over my left eye, where the boot had hit me. I put one hand up to it and found myself wiping blood away off my eyebrow. I went for the gaffer. I don't know if I've ever lost control like that in my life before. A couple of the lads stood up. I was grabbed by Giggsy first, then by Gary (Neville) and Ruud van Nistelrooy. Suddenly, it was like some mad scene out of a gangster movie."
Despite Beckham playing the role of Christopher Moltisanti to Ferguson's Tony Soprano, intra-family feuds were suspended for the time being as United continued their challenge for the Champions League and the Premier League. Eventually, though, the life would be firmly choked out of Beckham's United career.
The death rattle was sounded in April, when United took on Real Madrid in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. Beckham was incensed to be left on the bench for the second leg, although he appeared as a substitute and scored two goals as United were defeated 6-5 on aggregate following a remarkable hat-trick from the Brazilian Ronaldo. Arriving home following the tie, Beckham later wrote of how he wanted to wake his children and tell them of "Daddy's great night" - a phrase that would rankle with United supporters for some time, given the club had exited the competition.
Beckham also wrote: "I put the television on: Manchester United versus Real Madrid ... the free-kick and scrambling my second goal. The free-kick I'd missed. But then the camera cut away to the gaffer's reaction and my blood ran cold. His face told me everything I needed to know. His rage, his frustration: and it was all Beckham's fault. Maybe you needed to have lived through the past six months to really understand what was obvious to me: It's over. He wants me out."
The point of no return had been reached. After winning five Premier League titles, two FA Cups and the Champions League, Beckham was now available to the highest bidder.
While incoming Barcelona president Joan Laporta had made the signing of Beckham central to his election manifesto, and although United announced an agreement with the Catalan side, it was Real Madrid who won the race for the most recognisable sportsman on the planet, prolonging their galacticos philosophy in the process. The Old Trafford youth graduate and leading member of the 'Fergie Fledglings' was gone.
Reflecting on Beckham's departure in 2007, Ferguson made no attempt to disguise his disgust for the celebrity trappings that helped drive a wedge between the two men. "He was never a problem until he got married," Ferguson said. "He used to go into work with the academy coaches at night time, he was a fantastic young lad. Getting married into that entertainment scene was a difficult thing - from that moment, his life was never going to be the same."
Neither was his relationship with his former mentor.
What happened next? United filled the No. 7 shirt by signing a young Portuguese winger by the name of Cristiano Ronaldo, ensuring they would not miss Beckham one bit. After moving to Real, Beckham suffered frustration with the Spanish giants before finally winning the league in 2007 and promptly joining L.A. Galaxy. He eventually returned to Old Trafford with AC Milan in the Champions League in March 2010, but came off the bench in a 4-0 defeat.