“The big problem for me … he fell in love”
I remember getting a call in my hotel room in Manchester in February, 2003. It was from a radio station that wanted me to go on air to talk about David Beckham’s fraying relationship with the then manager of his club Manchester United, Alex Ferguson. “Why? What’s happened?” I asked. “Apparently Ferguson has cut Beckham’s eye.” It became known as the “flying boot incident.” Ferguson had vented his rage at Beckham after an FA Cup tie against Arsenal and, for some reason, kicked a stray boot, which flew through the air and collided with Beckham’s face. With his typical flair for dramatizing small incidents, Beckham wore his hair fastened back with an Alice band so that the wound – treated with steri-strips – was clearly visible. The professional relationship between the two men had probably been deteriorating for a while, but this was the first tangible evidence. I could only speculate on radio that this was probably the beginning of the end. Ferguson was irritated that the player had become a focus of more media attention than Manchester United. One can only imagine what torment Victoria caused him: it seems she was pulling her husband in many directions, all of them wrong from Ferguson’s perspective. If she wasn’t taking him to Lenny Kravitz’s birthday bash, she was displaying him on the front row of Giorgio Armani’s new launch or introducing him to her friends Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana. For the hard-bitten Glaswegian, it must have been purgatory.
Ferguson’s new autobiography confirms what we all knew about his loss of patience with Beckham, though at the press conference to accompany the book’s publication, Ferguson let slip arguably an even more interesting insight: “The big problem for me [was] he fell in love with Victoria and that changed everything.” Read that again: the big problem for Ferguson was that Beckham fell in love with Victoria. This is exactly the kind of blunderingly insensitive remark that earns Ferguson respect from many people, who regard him as a kind of master of the dark arts of psychology. But is he? He’s a good … no great football manager, perhaps the best there’s ever been, but he can also be boorish, crass and frequently shows no feeling or concern for others. How unfortunate for Ferguson that Beckham met a woman, fell in love, had children and became a celebrity athlete on par with Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. Beckham, writes Ferguson in the book, thought “he was bigger than Sir Alex Ferguson.” The very idea, eh? “The name of the manager is irrelevant. The authority is what counts.” Football fans might argue that successful managers have to be authoritarian in the sense that they need obedience from players at the expense of personal freedoms. But this statement sounds like it comes from someone who can’t bear the prospect of one of his minions having the temerity to challenge him or even occupy other people’s attention. When Ferguson writes, “I could see him being swallowed up by the media or publicity agents.” You wonder what irked him more: the fact that Beckham was distracted by the lure of celebritydom, or that global interest in Posh and Becks, as the couple was then known, eclipsed interest in either the club or Ferguson. There was clearly a clash of egos at the club and, with no prospect of limiting Beckham’s celebrity ambitions or prising him away from Victoria, Ferguson’s only option was to release him. Beckham transferred to Real Madrid within months of the flying boot incident. Ferguson regards this as a “shame because he could still have been at Manchester United when I left. He would have been one of the greatest Man United legends.” We’re all sure he could too. But instead he became just a common or garden global icon.