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Golden Goal: David Beckham for Man Utd against Wimbledon (1996)

 

It’s 20 years this week since a young midfielder brought the halfway-line goal into the mainstream – and rocketed himself towards superstardom

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golden goal

Goals change games. Occasionally, they change lives. Mario Götze, Toto Schillaci, Michael Thomas and hundreds of others would confirm that – as would David Beckham. Wednesday was the 20th anniversary of his goal from the halfway line against Wimbledon, a fork in the road that led to him becoming a cultural icon first and a footballer second. Probably an ambassador third.

Most goals that change lives do so because of their brilliance and especially their importance. They might win a World Cup or Golden Boot or a league title. Beckham’s came on the opening day of the season, in a match that was already over. The impact stemmed almost entirely from the audacity and originality of the goal. Even Pelé hadn’t been able to do it.

Although players had scored from inside their own half before, Beckham brought the genre into the mainstream – and rocketed himself towards superstardom. “I couldn’t have known it then, but that moment was the start of it all: the attention, the press coverage, the fame,” he wrote in his autobiography, My Side. “When my foot struck that ball, it kicked open the door to the rest of my life.”

The joy of Becks

David Beckham was not born with golden balls. His hero was Glenn Hoddle but he had just as much in common with Kevin Keegan, a self-made great. “From the moment he first laid boot on ball,” wrote Sir Alex Ferguson in My Autobiography, “David Beckham displayed an unbreakable urge to make the best of himself and his talent.”

Although Beckham was a key part of the Manchester United team that won the FA Youth Cup in 1992, he was not high on the list of those expected to make it: Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, the Neville brothers and two other wingers, Ben Thornley and Keith Gillespie, were all rated above him. Nor was he in the England Under-18 squad that so charmingly won the European Championship of 1993. Obstacles that would have broken so many other players had no impact on Beckham; in more ways than one, he spent his United career doing what others said he couldn’t. In the film The Class of 92, Butt says Beckham is “as mentally tough as anybody you’ll ever, ever, ever meet”.

He generally played in the centre of midfield in the youth team, spraying Hollywood passes – and receiving almighty bollockings from the coach Eric Harrison when he got them wrong – and charging optimistically from box to box. Beckham could not only could run all day and all night but wanted to do so: when he was an apprentice at United, living in digs after moving to Manchester on his own at the age of 15, he would train in the morning and afternoon and then turn up in the evening to join in with the schoolboys.

Ferguson eased Beckham into the first team on the right-hand side of midfield, away from the muck and bullets. He made his debut as a substitute in the League Cup at Brighton in 1992, when he was 17, but did not appear in the league until 1995. A series of events that year opened doors for Beckham. Gillespie, a revelation in his early first-team appearances, was sold to Newcastle as part of the deal to sign Andy Cole; the only reason Ferguson let him go was because of the foreigner rule in the Champions League, not knowing it would be abolished later in the year. Then Andrei Kanchelskis moved to Everton in mysterious and sinister circumstances. Darren Anderton turned down the chance to replace him, and Nottingham Forest would not sell Steve Stone.

That left Beckham competing with Lee Sharpe, an unnatural and reluctant right winger, and he was a regular by the end of the 1995-96 season as United overhauled Newcastle’s huge lead on the way to winning the Double. He scored the winner against Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-final and two goals in the 5-0 victory over Nottingham Forest that helped tip Keegan over the edge. There was also a thrilling stamp of class in league goals against Chelsea and particularly the defending champions Blackburn, a chip on the turn that left Ferguson running around the dugout in his suit, eyes ablaze like a man who had seen a trailer for the next 10 years.

Beckham was nowhere near the Euro 96 squad – only the Neville brothers made it from the whole United team, never mind just the Class of 92 – and spent his summer on holiday in Sardinia, eating pasta every day and bathing in the realisation that he was now a bona fide Manchester United player.

While he was away, Karel Poborsky was wowing Ferguson with his performances on the wing for the Czech Republic at Euro 96. He gave Paolo Maldini a serious chasing in the win over Italy and beat Portugal in the quarter-final with that ingenious scoop. “His hair may well get on my nerves if I sign him,” wrote Ferguson in his season diary, “but he can definitely play.”

This is not to say Ferguson did not have plans for Beckham; he was ahead of the rest of the country in his use of rotation, and bought five players that summer – the others were Ronny Johnsen, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Jordi Cruyff and Raimond van der Gouw – to strengthen his pool with a heavy schedule in mind. “It’s about going for the Triple!” he chirped in Sky’s pre-season advert.

Whatever Ferguson’s plans were, Beckham soon altered them. In the Charity Shield against Newcastle, Ferguson named the same side that had started the FA Cup final which meant no place for Poborsky or Cruyff. United slaughtered Newcastle 4-0 and Beckham, both on the wing and in the centre after an injury to Butt, was electric. He made two and scored a fine lob. His joyous celebration might seem excessive given the status of the game, until you remember that Beckham was a football nut who had just scored at Wembley for the first time. In the early part of his career, Beckham celebrated all his goals in the same way, with a boyish smile that reflected his disbelief that he was scoring goals for Manchester United. Innocence is finite; Beckham’s would die within the week

‘The greatest goal of all time’

Six days after the Charity Shield, United started the season against Wimbledon at Selhurst Park. Beckham was trying out some new footwear; having heard good things about Predator boots, he asked Adidas to send him some. The only ones they had in his size had been made for the Rangers midfielder Charlie Miller and had ‘CHARLIE’ embroidered on the red foldover tongue. The United players took great pleasure in taking the piss out of Beckham before the match.

Then they took the piss out of Wimbledon. The game was, as Roy Keane put it, “a stroll in the sun”. Keane, who had just started a six-year period in which he easily was the best player in England, produced a performance of complete authority, leaving Vinnie Jones panting in his slipstream in the build-up to Eric Cantona’s opening goal and creating the second for Denis Irwin. With United 2-0 up and the match petering out, the debutant Cruyff spotted Sullivan off his line and tried to chip him from distance. Had it been on target, he would probably have scored.

The match was in injury time when Efan Ekoku was tackled by Johnsen. The ball came to Brian McClair, who poked it a few yards forward to Beckham near the halfway line. He let the ball run past him, looked up to see Sullivan well off his line, and thought: ‘Why not?’

In August 1996, the information superhighway was in its infancy, so few people knew that a young Rivaldo had changed his own life by scoring from the halfway line in 1993, and that Albacete’s Uruguayan midfielder José Luis Zalazar had done it more than once. Jordi Cruyff remembered Zalazar, and mentioned him in post-match interviews, but the history lesson fell on deaf ears: the story was that a good-looking English kid had done what Pelé could not, and no bloody Albacete midfielder with a foot like a traction engine was going to get in the way of that.

“There’s no argument David Beckham’s unbelievable strike will be the goal of the season,” said the News of the World. “The only debate is whether it is the greatest goal ever.” That may look silly now, but at the time it was a fairly common view. “You have seen the goal of the season already,” announced Ferguson. “I have never seen it done before. Pelé is the only one who came close to doing the same. Nayim? That was a miskick. But Beckham? It was marvellous. A truly tremendous strike. When you have a shot like he has, it will always be worth a try.”

In the 20 years since, every Tom, Dick and Xabi has tried it and many have succeeded. It isn’t a surprise anymore and nor should it be, given the ball-striking ability of modern players. But back then it was a huge thing, which meant a Malcolm Nashish celebrity for the keeper Sullivan. It got worse when, four days later, David Batty also made a Gilbert out of Sullivan by lobbing him from 40 yards. Sullivan kept watching Beckham’s goal on VHS to see if he could have done anything differently. Eventually he got bored and taped over it with EastEnders.

Centre of attention

“Good evening. It’s only 47 days since Euro 96. I still think the Germans were lucky.” That’s how Des Lynam started the first Match of the Day of the 1996-97 season. They were optimistic times in English football; Euro 96 had completed the gentrification and glamourisation of the game that started at Italia 90, Cool Britannia was still going strong, and Fabrizio Ravanelli and Gianluca Vialli – signed from the European champions Juventus – led the list of exciting foreign additions.

The context contributed to the impact of Beckham’s goal. English football was full of brilliant young players and Beckham became the face of that generation. After the match, Ferguson blocked him from doing a Match of the Day interview. He had successfully sheltered Ryan Giggs from the limelight but Beckham was different, and from that moment Ferguson was fighting a losing battle in attempting to control the uncontrollable. When Beckham did his first press conference a fortnight later while on England duty, Ferguson was apparently furious. A few months later, after a team night out at the cinema, Ferguson was appalled to see that Beckham was all over the tabloids - because he had worn a pair of glasses.

“He is a footballer,” Hoddle said at that first press conference. “He’ll get paid the rest of his life, and get acclaimed, for what he does on the football pitch, not off it. Those things spin off because you are playing well on the pitch for the next 10 years, not the next 10 months.” It’s easy to sneer with hindsight, but the comments were entirely sensible – not even Mystic Meg could have envisaged the level of fame that Beckham would subsequently achieve.

At that time, he was just a kid from the East End made good. He was earning £2,000 a week at United and found out England about his call-up on Teletext while at his parents’ house. In the next year he signed a new contract at United and lucrative deals with, among others, Adidas and Brylcreem. And he met Victoria Adams.

The goal did not just raise Beckham’s profile; it gave him a long-lasting injection of confidence and swagger; his part in Poborsky’s gorgeous goal against Leeds at the start of September was indicative of a player who had taken a shortcut from promising to seriously good. He kept trying things, they kept coming off, and the whole thing perpetuated itself throughout one of the happiest seasons of his career.

With the exception of the Treble year, this was easily his best campaign at United. He won the Young Player of the Year award and finished second to Alan Shearer in the senior award. It was also the only time he won the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award at United. But he didn’t, as everybody predicted, win Goal of the Season: that went to Trevor Sinclair for his staggering overhead kick against Barnsley.

Beckham could have had his personal Goal of the Season competition. Few players have ever produced such a portfolio of belters in one campaign: aside from Wimbledon, personal favourites are the improvised chip at West Ham, the rasper against Liverpool and the swirling matchwinner at Spurs. There were also memorable free-kicks and a 98mph volley at Chelsea when he knew Victoria Adams was in the crowd. He met her for the first time after the game.

United won the league with 75 points, the lowest total of the Premier League era. They were distracted by an intrepid run to the European Cup semi-finals, which they achieved despite losing three of their group games. Playing in Europe, said Beckham, was “a bit like learning football all over again”. With Keane and Butt injured for parts of the season, Beckham played many of his matches in central midfield – including big wins over Arsenal, home and away, Porto and Liverpool. Almost everybody saw that as his long-term position. His dynamic running and long-range shooting led to comparisons with Sir Bobby Charlton – from Charlton himself. The subtlety of his passing and his ability to impose himself on games led many to anoint him as the heir to Paul Gascoigne

At that stage Paul Scholes struggled to get into the United team and was slowly being changed from a No10 to a No8 by Ferguson. Beckham was recognised more for his passing than his crossing – occasionally they blended into one, as with the glorious assist against Rapid Vienna in the European Cup) – and it was only the following season, when Poborsky was sold and Scholes became a regular, that Beckham started to become an assist monster on the wing.

There are plenty who think Beckham would never have made a central midfielder. It’s a questionable appraisal. When he played there on a semi-regular basis for the only time in 1996-97, and was still young enough to maraud up and down the pitch rather than sit as a quarterback, he excelled. He was also Manchester United’s best player in that position in the 1999 Champions League final. His defensive awareness and short-passing game needed a little development, but then it’s reasonable to assume they would have developed had he stayed in that position.

The suspicion is that, with his passing, driving runs and indefatigability, his shooting and his desire to dominate games, he would have been a brilliant central midfielder. He was an even better winger, however, and quickly became typecast. There’s a lot of tedious revisionism about how good Beckham was, but there has never been a better crosser of the ball and for most of his Manchester United career he was magnificent. It’s easy to forget that he was runner-up in the Ballon d’Or in 1999 and twice in the Fifa World Player of the Year award.

Though there was and is considerable mutual affection, his relationship with Ferguson became increasingly strained as his celebrity grew. “David was the only player I managed who chose to be famous,” said Ferguson, “who made it his mission to be known outside the game.”

In the second half of the 1999-2000 season he was omitted from a huge game at Leeds after reporting late for training because his son Brooklyn was ill, and then came the first of many front-page haircuts – a shaven head that he unveiled at Leicester. Beckham wore a beanie the night before, even during the team meal in a restaurant, which prompted Ferguson to have his own Tony Soprano moment and tell him to take it off . Beckham declined. The next day Ferguson told him that, if he didn’t take it off for the warm-up, he wouldn’t be playing. “At that stage,” said Ferguson, “I was starting to despair of him.”

Beckham eventually left in 2003, a few months after the dressing-room incident that left him with a cut above the eye. Ferguson was tired of the circus; more importantly, he was content that he had a superior replacement in Solskjaer, who had usurped Beckham during the 2002-03 season. His crossing was excellent, his goal threat greater and his Thomas Müller-like movement suited the way Ferguson wanted to develop his team. United’s lost years of 2003-06 might have been a bit different had Solskjaer not suffered a dreadful injury at the start of the first post-Beckham season.

Ferguson thinks Beckham’s lifestyle denied him “the chance to become absolute top-dog player”. That may be so, though even Beckham probably doesn’t know the extent to which his lifestyle impacted upon his career. And what has happened since brings to mind the old story about George Best and the hotel waiter: Mr Beckham, where did it all go wrong?

In 2016, if you type ‘Beckham’ and ‘Wimbledon’ into Google, the first results you get are about his trip to the tennis along with other celebrities like Beyonce, Cliff Richard and Heidi Klum. His A-list status at SW19 can be traced back to one kick of a ball in SE25, a moment that changed his life forever.

Courtsey theguardian.com