Those fed up with the hype, long before even the first leg, could be forgiven for black-heartedly hoping Beckham isn’t selected; after all, this kind of overpowering DB media circus was precisely what so many of us – Fergie included – were becoming so thoroughly sick of back in 2003. One idiot journalist even wrote in his San Siro match report that, had Becks been a mere sub, it would all have been a “damp squib” – yep, one of Europe’s most glam fixtures, producing a sensational five-goal thriller, would have been as nought in comparison to a benched Becks.
Yet the pull of nostalgia is hard to resist, and the lad has produced a seven-year itch that I am going to scratch anyway. Selling him in 2003 remains one of the key Fergie decisions of the decade, and one that was right, despite so many outraged pundits predicting doom.
Nonetheless, and despite the distaste many of us felt for the Spicey lifestyle he increasingly chose to adopt, most of us now think quite fondly of him.
Certainly, this stadium and/or this competition remain the arenas in which he produced his career zeniths: the European Cup quarter-final in 1999 against Inter Milan, the final in which he was our man of the match, and the England-Greece qualifier which arguably saw him give the most inspired Three Lions display by any player since 1990. You struggle to think of anything he has done since 2003 anywhere near valid comparison.
I vividly recall the first time I truly noticed him at Old Trafford, against Galatasaray more than 15 years ago, when he really was just a floppy-haired kid playing with the grown-ups. He was the best player on the pitch, mainly operating in the centre, gliding effortlessly in Charltonesque style. And when I bumped into Red Issue’s editor afterwards, we gabbled excitedly about what we had seen, like Christmas morning kids instead of the grumpy, churlish pessimists we otherwise are. “A star is born,” he predicted: “aye, and the women are going to love him too,” I added. A pair of responses that encapsulates most of what followed, given the accusation that he could have been so much more had he not been distracted by the effects on the world of his oh-so-marketable charismatic gorgeousness. That said, you’d still probably try to find a place for him in any United XI of the Fergie era, although the fact he would not be a shoo-in tells you something about a lingering sense of underachievement.
The last time we saw him at OT in this competition, he was still wearing Red, coming on brilliantly against Real in the famous Ronaldo match to score twice in what was seen as a Fergie-baiting audition for Madrid. Later in his autobiography, he would write of telling his son about “Daddy’s great night” which did not impress any Red reader who needed no reminding that this “great night” had seen the team eliminated. The solipsism spoke to his narcissism, which never appealed to no-nonsense Northern lads, who will always prefer a self-effacing Scholes to a showy Becks.
Scholes, still doing the business, scored our winner at Wolves to settle a difficult Rooney-less encounter, and he will never have to worry about how he will be received at OT. He was, and is, an Oldham fan, whereas Becks was always a United supporter. Perhaps this demonstrates that it’s not enough just to be a Red to be taken to OT’s heart: you have to behave Red. As existentialists will noddingly approve, your essence is of no interest to us, for it is your existence by which we will define you. Somewhere in all that, the lustre of GoldenBalls had begun to flake. So welcome back: but the calf lives.