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Friday, June 20, 2003

PREMIER REPORT

Ferguson had enough of Beckham circus


LONDON -- So where did it all go wrong for David Beckham and Sir Alex Ferguson?

Christopher Davies

Despite the nicey-nice politically correct platitudes from both parties about each other as Beckham left Manchester United for Real Madrid in a £24.5 million deal, the split between player and club was acrimonious rather than amicable.

If there is a time when the relationship started to sour it would probably be October 2001 when Beckham's last minute free-kick against Greece, ironically at Old Trafford, ensured England's qualification for the 2002 World Cup finals.

In football there are moments of destiny when a player can be remembered as a hero and this was one of them. With a place in the World Cup finals at stake Beckham delivered and Beckhamania went into overdrive.

Two days later Ferguson was enjoying a day at the races watching his horse Rock of Gibraltar and his mood soured when asked about Beckham's goal.

"You lot [the media] have gone over the top as usual," said Ferguson though the historic goal could hardly be suppressed into four paragraphs at the foot of the page.

"It's all about selling papers. You don't care a damn about us, you don't have to pick up the pieces, pick a team and bring your players back to earth."

These are the words from the man described by Beckham as a "father figure" but who has the mother of all tempers, as a flying boot in the direction of Beckham's forehead was to prove 18 months later.

It is often said that Manchester United is bigger than any individual which may be the case with respect to players, but not the manager who has made his club the dominant force in English football over the past 10 years.

Team Beckham -- the player, his wife and the image -- had, in Ferguson's mind, grown out of control. While no one could ever say Beckham's lifestyle has affected his performances, Ferguson felt it disrupted the club -- Old Trafford wasn't big enough for the both of them and there was only one winner in this particular personality battle.

Beckham doesn't drink, doesn't smoke, trains as hard as any professional and there has never been the slightest whiff of scandal surrounding the midfielder, which is certainly not the case with a number of other United players.

The official line is that everyone wishes everybody else all the best and thanks for everything, but the reality is not quiet as rosy.

Apart from Team Beckham's ever growing profile, in Ferguson's view, the manager believes United needs to change its style if it is to win the Champions League.

Beckham may be the best crosser of a ball and free-kick specialist in the Premiership but he does not go past players as, say, Ryan Giggs does.

Ferguson wants Brazilian forward Ronaldinho at United because he fits the new pattern the manager is looking for. Fergie has Rio Ferdinand at the back and he wants a Brazilian in attack.

There is also a murkier side to the transfer and it is understood that United is angry that Beckham has come out of the saga as more sinned against than sinning.

There is a belief at Old Trafford that representatives of the player have been speaking to representatives of Real for a few months despite public denials that Beckham was Madrid-bound from all parties.

So when United agreed to a deal worth up to £30 million with Joan Laporta as the 40-year-old lawyer made his bid to become president of Barcelona, it was no more than tit-for-tat.

There was never any chance of Laporta, elected as president last Sunday, being able to deliver Beckham for a number of reasons, notably that Barca is heavily in debt and SFX, the player's management company, would not speak to the Catalans out of principle because the agreement with United was made without its knowledge.

The Beckham trump card helped Laporta win the election, it notified the rest of Europe the England captain was effectively transfer-listed and it enabled Real to score a significant "victory" over its rival.

Jorge Valdano, Real's sporting director, said: "We were never nervous about not getting Beckham.

"He was always interested and this meant the agreement was closed faster. What happened in terms of Barcelona's president being chosen meant the deal was closed faster than it would be. A record, in fact."

It meant Real paid a lower fee than the one United had accepted from Laporta. It also guaranteed that when Real visits the Nou Camp next season, Catalan feelings will be higher than ever before, which is saying something -- the Madrid side now has three "traitors" in Luis Figo and Ronaldo (both ex-Barca players) plus Beckham (who snubbed Barca).

Barcelona must ensure new, top-level security measures are in place for the match otherwise a visiting player could be hurt.

Before the brickbats of Barcelona, Beckham will return to Old Trafford on Sept. 10 when England plays Liechtenstein and he can expect a rapturous welcome home. More immediately, United fans will expect Ferguson to bring in adequate replacements with Ronaldinho for starters.

Ferguson has earned the right to be trusted -- his record at United underlines how he very rarely gets it wrong -- so however unhappy the Old Trafford faithful is at the departure of a player who was as big a Reds fan as any season ticket holder, it will back the manager's judgment because it has proved so sound in the past.

This correspondent first learned that Real wanted Beckham last February, yet there have been a stream of denials, notably the "never, never, not now, not ever," quote by the Spanish club's president Florentino Perez on April 30.

Perhaps he recalls the words of Richard Nixon's press secretary Ron Ziegler after the Watergate scandal -- "all previous statements are now inoperative."

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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