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United’s readiness to sell Becks reeks of ruthlessness

Whatever else might be said about Manchester United’s readiness to sell David Beckham, it testifies to the strategic courage of Sir Alex Ferguson. A courage previously demonstrated, you might add, in the lashing out of a pounds 28 million transfer fee — a club record that may never be broken — on Juan Sebastian Veron. Or his decision to replace Jaap Stam with Laurent Blanc, whom lesser mortals than the United manager foolishly believed had become too slow to perform at Premiership or Champions League level.

To be fair — or, as Ferguson would put it, behave myself — he has displayed such astuteness in the transfer market over so many years that the odd error can be afforded. His successes include Eric Cantona, Peter Schmeichel, Roy Keane, Steve Bruce, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and even Ruud van Nistelrooy, from whom a weaker manager might have shied after the Dutchman suffered a terrible injury when training with PSV Eindhoven. By comparison, Ferguson’s misjudgements have been petty cash.

So perhaps we should be careful in questioning the wisdom of his most spectacular gamble. But, if I were a United supporter, I should find an uncomfortable resonance in the words of Ted Beckham.

“David doesn’t deserve this,” said his father. “He is absolutely gutted about what is going on, but now it’s out of his hands. At the end of the day, if the club wants to get rid of him it will. Obviously loyalty doesn’t mean a thing in football. It’s a ruthless, ruthless game.”

There are, of course, degrees of ruthlessness — a respected member of my own humbler profession was dismissed last week with compensation Beckham the Younger would not accept as half a day’s pay — but it can certainly be an ugly game when the agents move in and the dirty tricks are performed.

For United to agree a fee with a candidate for the Barcelona presidency was disgraceful. As Gordon Taylor of the Professional Footballers’ Association has rightly asserted, it would have been an unacceptable way of behaving towards a Third Division journeyman, let alone the England captain.

An England captain, moreover, whose skill and commitment have done much to keep United at the forefront of English and European football, one who conducts himself impeccably and provides a model of politeness and who, given that the allure created by his heady cocktail of virtues has caused him to receive invitations from the likes of Nelson Mandela and Kofi Annan, is entitled to be asking himself why he should want to work for a bunch of barrowboys. And yet he does still want to play for Manchester United. Or did.

There are two sides to most stories and a seething Ferguson, it is understood, insists that Beckham is far from innocent in this estrangement. Any notion that Ferguson and Beckham might be able to co-exist in a relationship of creative tension was dispelled when the player was left out of key matches against Arsenal at Highbury and Real Madrid at Old Trafford, where, despite his springing from the bench to score twice in an inspirational if all too brief display, Ferguson’s heart declined to soften. It had often been melted by Beckham’s talent in the past, but no more; Ferguson had lost patience.

Why' True, there has been a widening rift between the men because of Beckham’s maritally-enhanced development into a celebrity, transcending football. Even his so-called holiday in California looks more like a round of marketing engagements. But, while Ferguson may not be alone in finding it irksome that the lad should seem permanently wired up to a publicity machine, Beckham is old and wise enough to make such a choice; most of his predecessors (not to mention George Best, arguably Old Trafford’s most glamorous hero of all time) had far more damaging faults.

Perhaps Ferguson felt the pursuit of fame was affecting Beckham’s football. We shall see if there is more to be revealed by Beckham the footballer, but the potential for embarrassment, from United’s point of view, is vast. To an extent they have already diminished themselves as a club, not merely by the manner in which they have done business but by their readiness to trade at all. In an ideal world, big clubs should not sell home-grown heroes at their peak.

Imagine what you would think of Real Madrid if they tried to flog Raul to United. Imagine what their supporters would think. Imagine what Raul would think. And there, basically, you have it.

The episode, however, is clearly not just about United, and those who might benefit from it include Beckham — once his pride has been repaired — and England. He has the option of staying with United and keeping fit with the reserves in readiness for his 12 or 15 international appearances a season, which would make him England’s freshest player over the next two years. Then he would be a free agent — just after his 30th birthday. But Beckham’s advisers, SFX, are unlikely to favour such a course. If we operate on the assumption that neither Milan nor Barcelona can match the attraction of Madrid, a move to Real might prove the final blessing fate intends to shower upon a golden career. For it should not be forgotten, amid all the glitter and flashbulbs and the tawdry talk of money and agents, that Beckham loves and cares about football and yet has still to be granted the privilege of playing as he wishes.

Typecast by the sumptuousness of his crossing, he has increasingly roved. Recall his brilliant contribution against Real and, before that, his dazzling one-man show for England against Greece at Old Trafford. But Ferguson has no more been convinced than successive England managers that he deserves to be both designing and giving a cutting edge to their team in the style once demonstrated by Michel Platini. That is how I have always seen him: as England’s echo of Platini.

Those who sneer that he cannot beat a man have not been watching — it can be done with a pass — and those who say he is not quick enough should count the free kicks he earns in the positions where he wants them. And he should be scoring from open play as well as dead balls.

But listen to lips more eloquent than my lap-top.

“David Beckham,” we are told, “is a footballer in exile. He should not be playing on the right of midfield. He should be in the centre — that is where he belongs. In my opinion there is no better striker of the ball than David Beckham. He is a football artist and should be playing in a position where he can produce his best.”

Beckham could not have put it more precisely. The words would have been kinder on his ear than even the sweet music of his own dear wife. And who uttered them' Jorge Valdano, elegant scorer of a goal that helped Argentina to win the World Cup final in 1986 and now, more pertinently, sporting director of Real Madrid.

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