Beckham's debut: 30 years on
We mark the 30th anniversary of David Beckham’s Reds debut with a look back at the night it all began, and the astonishing achievements that followed.
Three decades ago, David Beckham was ushered onto the field for the final 18 minutes of a dimly lit, low-key League Cup second round, first leg at Brighton & Hove Albion. The wiry 17-year-old, who was still nursing a sore head after accidentally cracking it on the roof of the United dugout moments earlier, duly watched on as the third-tier Seasiders scored within 30 seconds of his introduction. United drew 1-1 against their unfancied opponents and, to a man, also drew a scolding from their manager afterwards. Though he performed capably throughout his brief cameo in front of just 16,649 spectators at the Goldstone Ground, it would appear that the evening set a false tone for what Beckham would go on to achieve. But, for all the glitz, glamour and glory that followed, that discreet introduction on the south coast did fittingly underline the type of grit that would underpin a stellar career. Were there ever a poster boy for the benefits of hard work, it would be David Beckham. Plastered across billboards worldwide, the universally-popular ex-Red is arguably football’s most famous figure. Long before he transcended his sport to become an international brand and institution, however, the chiselled, tattooed omnipresence was just a floppy-haired young Cockney living out a dream.
David had already won a Bobby Charlton Soccer Schools contest and had been an Old Trafford mascot by the time he was offered schoolboy terms by both United and Tottenham. He opted to sign for the Reds even though Spurs had offered better financial terms, purely because he already knew he wanted to be a United player. But the fulfilment of an ambition served only to redouble the teenager’s efforts. “The most important thing wasn’t being at United,” he later conceded. “It was working hard enough to make sure they’d let me stay.” As part of the famed Class of ’92, which stormed to the 1992 FA Youth Cup and spawned 13 first team players, Beckham was privy to an unparalleled football education. Flanked by some of his generation’s finest young talents and managed by the brilliant Eric Harrison, his formative years were tough but extraordinarily fruitful. “Some of the football we played, even when I look back at it now, no-one could get near us,” recalled Beckham. “To experience that at such a young age was something that I’ll never forget.” The quality inherent in Harrison’s exceptional young group became self-fulfilling, with hard work underpinning individual efforts as each was driven on by the others’ collective quality. As he vied with the thrilling young right winger Keith Gillespie for inclusion, nobody worked harder than Beckham. He explored every possible avenue to give himself an advantage, including extra set-piece practice which would ultimately make him one of history’s leading dead-ball exponents. It was in such an instance, on loan at Preston North End in 1995, that Beckham raised eyebrows in the football world by scoring straight from a corner on his debut. Previously North End’s corner-taker, Paul Raynor admitted: "I was a bit perturbed because I was taken off for David to go on. So I was chuntering on the bench, then he went and scored directly from a corner. I had to shut up then!”
By that point, the youngster had also scored on his full Reds debut, notching the second goal in a 4-0 Champions League win over Galatasaray, but it wasn’t until the 1995/96 campaign that he cemented his status as a first team regular. Thriving in place of the departed Andrei Kanchelskis on the right flank, Beckham compensated for his moderate pace by with a blend of graft and guile, reaching astonishing fitness levels and honing his delivery beyond compare. Eight goals from 40 appearances represented a key role in the season’s unlikely Double success, but Beckham’s breath-taking rise to the top didn’t stop at the summit of English football. On the opening day of the 1996/97 season, he provided one of the Premier League’s hallmark moments by scoring from inside his own half against Wimbledon. “I hit it and I remember looking up at the ball, which seemed to be heading out towards somewhere between the goal and the corner flag,” he recalled. “The swerve I’d put on the shot, though, started to bring it back in and the thought flashed through my mind: this has got a chance here. The ball was in the air for what seemed like ages, sailing towards the goal, before it dropped over Neil Sullivan and into the net… Eric Cantona came up to me while I was getting changed afterwards and shook my hand. ‘What a goal,’ he said. Believe me, that felt even better than scoring it. It changed forever that afternoon in South London, with one swing of a new boot. When I struck that ball, it kicked open the door to the rest of my life at the same time.” He wasn’t done there. A steady flow of spectacular goals, United’s continued prominence in domestic and European football, plus the small matter of a burgeoning romance with Spice Girls star Victoria Adams, combined to inflate Beckham’s fame to staggering levels.
He became an icon, leading hairstyle and fashion trends both inside and outside football, but that was allowed to happen simply because he maintained his sky-high standards on the field. Alongside Roy Keane, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs – with Nicky Butt always able to slot in seamlessly – Beckham formed arguably the greatest midfield quartet United – and possibly English football – have ever seen. When his red card against Argentina was widely perceived as the reason behind England’s exit from the 1998 World Cup, Beckham was vilified by a nation outside Manchester. His response, typically, was just to work even harder. It resulted in the best campaign of his career, the 1998/99 Treble term, which yielded nine goals, 19 assists and the three biggest honours on offer in club football. “There’s nothing David couldn’t do,” opined Phil Neville, while his brother Gary added: “He was a joy to play with.” The latter’s role at right-back was aided by the defensive diligence which never left Beckham’s game, even as the medals kept stacking up. Success against Palmeiras in the 1999 Intercontinental Cup made him a world and European champion as the millennium ended, and he was a cornerstone of the Reds’ three successive Premier League titles amassed between 1998/99 and 2000/01. During that time, he also became England captain under Sven Goran Eriksson and completed a remarkably quick reversal in stature by becoming his country’s talisman and hero. Less than four years after his dismissal at the 1998 World Cup, Beckham was the chief reason England reached the 2002 tournament, clinching qualification with a stunning injury-time free-kick against Greece at Old Trafford.
By the time he left United in 2003, he had won over a nation and, at club level, had proven himself a worthy heir to Cantona’s no.7 shirt. Moreover, he had also starred in regaining the Premier League title in 2002/03, taking his personal haul to 10 major honours in his seven seasons as a first team regular. Beckham went on to add further success with Real Madrid, LA Galaxy and Paris Saint-Germain over the course of the next decade, while taking his total of international caps with England to a staggering 115, further establishing his legend as one of English football’s all-time greats and one of United’s finest alumni. Standing on the sidelines at the Goldstone Ground – even accounting for the bashing his head had just taken – Beckham could never have imagined the extent of what lay before him.