David Beckham salutes the travelling fans.

Why Beckham was such a popular Red

There was just something about David Beckham that resonated with Manchester United supporters.

It was nothing to do with the megastar celebrity status he would ultimately attain but everything about the way he played football.

He felt like one of us.

A player who was proof that the old adage of practice makes perfect rings true. This is the boy who learned how to master a ball, including the development of a unique technique that would propel his set-pieces into the exact area he was aiming for. The fabled 10,000 hours of repetitive practice probably does not even come close to how long the young Londoner spent on honing his talents.

So good was his ball juggling that he earned a place on a TV show and wowed at the Sir Bobby Charlton Soccer School. Yet all that skill counts for little unless it is married with exceptional physical attributes and Beckham’s stamina was second to none. With a fabulous work-ethic, he was perfect for any midfield and was no slouch, even if some critics inevitably argued he lacked explosive pace.

Video
David Beckham takes a free-kick against Real Madrid.
See 10 of the best of David Beckham's free-kicks.

It did not really matter when he was ultimately starring on United’s right flank. He was quick enough, and sharp witted too, to enable him to beat his man and whip in those delicious, inviting crosses. A centre-forward’s dream as all his Reds team-mates would attest, and Alan Shearer was particularly effusive about Becks’s service with England.

Yet, for all his efforts for his country, including that famous virtuoso performance against Greece, it was his work for his boyhood idols that sticks most in the memory. Beckham gained a reputation rising through the ranks, even being allowed on the first-team bus by Alex Ferguson, but had to fight to even get into a Class of ’92 side that also contained other youngsters who would reach the very pinnacle of the game.

So there may have been some doubts over whether he would hit the top with United but a glimpse of the senior action with a substitute appearance in the League Cup at Brighton & Hove Albion in September of 1992 indicated that he was held in high esteem. It was still two years before he enjoyed a full first-team outing, in a shadow side at Port Vale, before scoring against Galatasaray at Old Trafford in what was effectively a dead rubber.

Just when it seemed he was pushing for a place, he was loaned to Preston North End to cut his teeth in the old Third Division. At 19, this was a test of character, which he passed with flying colours, sparkling in his five games for the Deepdale outfit. I remember chatting to a colleague in one of my early jobs who was a Preston fan and he was saying they’d been urging their players to shoot from free-kicks for years. By then, as an avid follower of the youth team, I was able to tell him that this guy was particularly adept at that skill.

And so it would become apparent that he was an absolutely outstanding striker of a dead ball. He’d already broken into the side towards the end of that 1994/95 season and did enough to convince Ferguson to gamble on the rookie as a replacement for Andrei Kanchelskis, surprisingly sold to Everton in the summer. A move for Tottenham’s Darren Anderton had faltered so Beckham got his chance and scored in the 1995/96 season opener, albeit a consolation in a 3-1 defeat at Aston Villa.

From then on, he would establish himself in the side, help United win the Double (it was his corner that led to Eric Cantona’s last-minute winner in the FA Cup final against Liverpool) and never looked back. Even his sending off at the 1998 World Cup, and the vicious backlash against him that followed, did not derail the single-minded midfielder from realising all his ambitions. The support and affection from all concerned with the Reds helped in that respect, but his mental fortitude was extraordinary as his influence increased.

Not many players are Man of the Match in a Champions League final but he was the best performer on that memorable night in Barcelona as the Treble was clinched. Two perfect deliveries from corners, naturally, and two dramatic goals against Bayern Munich that turned the final on its head. That year, he was also runner-up in the Ballon d’Or.

The raw stats, though, do not do justice to the contribution Beckham made to the cause at Old Trafford. He played 394 times, scored 85 goals (26 of them free-kicks), won six titles, two FA Cups, the Champions League and the Intercontinental Cup. But he always brought a certain something to the team.

A lifelong fan of the club, he gave the impression he would give everything for the badge. Most of us in these difficult football-less times, are reminiscing about the past and perhaps accepting we may have taken the thrill of watching great games and great players for granted. Ask me for what comes instantly to mind when I think of Beckham and it wouldn’t be the obvious highlights – the stupendous long-ranger against Wimbledon, venomous strikes past Liverpool or those goals towards the end of 1998/99 against Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur.  
Video
David Beckham enjoys a fine strike.
Beckham's stunning drive at Spurs starts our countdown of his top 10 goals.
It would be the odd things that stick firmly in the memory bank because they resonate with you at the time. My favourite Becks goal, for instance, is his one past Spurs’ Ian Walker at White Hart Lane, a swerver hit with such conviction and power in 1997 that won us the three points and seemed to confirm just what a game-changer he was becoming.

I liked another winner, his derby free-kick at Manchester City, even if it was one of the few United goals over the past three decades that I didn’t actually see live. Driving in the car around Nottingham, arguing with my then-girlfriend because she’d made me miss the start of the game, I was forced to listen on the radio. All you could hear were the boos and whistles from the Blues fans as he prepared to take a free-kick. The next sound was a gorgeous clink of the ball brushing the woodwork and then rippling the net followed by complete silence. That’s how you shut them up, I thought, and Beckham in a nutshell, silencing the haters.

However, push me on my two best Beckham memories and they are not even goals! I was in the away end at Bradford City and in my seat early, watching from behind the goal as Raimond van der Gouw tried to stop free-kicks from Beckham, Teddy Sheringham and Paul Scholes. The latter two hit some thunderous efforts but their England colleague was just on another level. His set-pieces had such dip and swerve that I was ducking from my position, only for the ball to sharply change direction and go in off the underside of the bar.

It was incredible to witness close up and, at one point, van der Gouw turned to the small smattering of fans to shrug and say: ‘How am I supposed to stop these?’ The incident did provide an insight into what it must be like to face one of our no.7’s set-pieces.
David Beckham and family.
Becks and family with the European Cup in 1999.

The one memory of Becks that stands out for me, though, will have gone unnoticed by most people and just passed them by. It was the first day of 2003 and I was in Edinburgh, missing the usual Old Trafford visit after the experience of celebrating Hogmanay in Scotland.

Now the Reds had acquired a bit of a reputation for suffering New Year’s Day hangovers, due to heavy defeats to QPR and Tottenham in the past. And it looked like this would be one to match my own when Juan Sebastian Veron scored an own-goal after only four minutes. Fabien Barthez then had to be withdrawn due to injury. I’ll be frank – Sunderland were a poor side that year but they held out due to an inspired display by keeper Jurgen Macho, surely the best of his entire career.

It was a typical case of ‘one of those days’ when nothing was going right for us and, with the clock ticking, we still trailed. These were desperate times on a boggy pitch and, if my memory serves me right, Beckham dragged us back into it. There was a moment when he bellowed for the ball from substitute keeper Roy Carroll from the edge of our own box and drove forward furiously.

This piece of play was like watching a kid playing on the park, with it getting dark and the call for dinner approaching. He’d taken it upon himself not to accept the inevitable and he equalised with nine minutes left before Scholes poached the winner at the death. It felt glorious – the narrative that it was cruel on the Black Cats was irrelevant. We’d made it happen. Becks had made it happen. This wasn’t luck but sheer grit and force of will.  

Video
David Beckham.
Watch David Beckham's goal in the Legends game with Bayern Munich.

And that was Beckham all over. He would never stop running or believing he could influence a game. Add that to his exquisite technique and you had a perfect Manchester United player – and one of my all-time favourites.

A lifelong fan of the club, living the dream and determined to give every ounce of energy to help us achieve our goals. Even seeing him score in the Legends game at Old Trafford last year was a special moment and his overall performance in that match only brought back just how skilled he was. 

As time goes on, and particularly with no football currently being played at the moment, it is clear his efforts in the red shirt will always be remembered fondly and with a certain degree of nostalgic pride. 

The opinions in this story are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Manchester United Football Club.

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