Before the fame: David Beckham’s formative years at Manchester United

Before the fame: David Beckham’s formative years at Manchester United

‘Brand Beckham’ is a phrase synonymous with a man who has built an empire on the back of a glittering sporting career. Its’ reputation is further enhanced through his partner in marriage Victoria – a 1990s British pop sensation turned fashion designer and entrepreneur. The pair’s combined persona has seen them conquer the world, becoming one of, if not the most famous couple on the planet. It’s a remarkable rise from humble beginnings, but perhaps as shocking is that the fact the first page of a Google search of his name yields no football related results.

Other than the documentation of his career on Wikipedia, the web search is littered with social media accounts, links to numerous books, and stories about his latest fashion ventures. It’s hard to comprehend when you consider his achievements on the field, yet it’s clear to see Beckham has transcended and surpassed the mere realms of the beautiful game. However, it’s this appetite for a celebrity lifestyle channelled through his tunnel-vision of becoming a professional footballer, that led him to succeed at Manchester United.

Beckham enjoyed a career spanning 21-years, earning 115 International caps and winning six Premier League titles, two FA Cups, a LaLiga title, two MLS Cups, one Ligue 1 title and a Champions League crown. From kicking a ball around Ridgeway Park to becoming a treble winner in 1999 and embedding his legacy Stateside, this a career that should be remembered and celebrated for pure footballing aesthetics. This the story of Manchester United player David Robert Joseph Beckham, the footballer.

Born and raised in the East London suburb of Leytonstone, Beckham spent his formative years in England’s capital playing football for nothing more than sheer enjoyment and cathartic release. He would spend many hours kicking a ball around the shrubbery of Ridgeway Park with his father David Edward (Ted) Beckham.

A football fanatic himself, Ted had high hopes for his son, with David being the middle sibling in a family of three – and the only boy. He went on to coach him for his first ever club, Ridgeway Rovers, imparting onto him his own coaching knowledge but perhaps most significantly, his adoration for the family club Manchester United (his middle name Robert coming from Ted’s admiration of Sir Bobby Charlton).

Beckham reminisced in an interview in 2007 about how he was mocked at school when expressing his ambitions of a professional career in football: “They said ‘what do you want to do when you’re older?’ I’d say, ‘I want to be a footballer.’ And they’d say, ‘No, what do you really want to do, for a job?’ But that was the only thing I ever wanted to do.”

The youngster’s talent quickly became apparent with trials at Leyton Orient and Norwich City coming in swift succession. It was North London-based Tottenham Hotspur, however, that managed to tempt a young Beckham to sign for their school of excellence. During this time, he would represent Brimsdown Rovers where he would continue to excel, winning the title of the club’s under-15 player of the year in 1990. The youngster looked destined to climb up Spurs’ youth ranks before turning out for the Lilywhites’ senior side in years to come. Funny how quickly things can change.

Most 14th birthdays is comprised of eating cake, spending time with friends and family and opening presents such as a new phone or bike. Beckham spent his in a corporate box wearing a shirt and blazer before being handed a tie. This wasn’t just any tie – it had a complete red surface broken only by one adorning emblem: the crest of Manchester United Football Club. Beckham had spent the afternoon in the company none other than Sir Alex Ferguson. He and the great Scot chatted at length over dinner before enjoying some belated birthday cake.

Fergusson was aiming to coax Beckham into signing on as a schoolboy for United and hoped to convince him of the benefits of doing so. In truth, it took little persuasion. He was a boyhood United fan who had always dreamed of playing in front of the Old Trafford faithful, hearing his name echo around the iconic stadium. The only hesitation he held was the need to move away from his East London home and start a new life up in Manchester. After some deliberation, the Beckham household decided the pros far outweighed the cons and he signed on the dotted line.

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After impressing as a schoolboy Beckham shone in the Red Devils’ youth academy, helping lay claim to the FA Youth Cup in 1992 alongside the likes of Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and the Neville brothers. A young Beckham scored in the first fixture of a two-legged final against Crystal Palace, which saw United victorious 6-3 on aggregate.

His performances in the cup run led to a call-up to the first team, where Beckham make his senior debut as a substitute against Brighton in the League Cup. Another cup appearance against Port Vale would follow – along with the former academy product making his Champions League bow – however, to cement a more permanent place, he’d have to take his skills out on loan.

Preston North End were the benefactors after an agreement was struck, and manager Gary Peters jumped at the chance to take the shy 19-year-old on loan. At first, the young Londoner was sceptical: “I thought it was a sign that a club was trying to get rid of a player,” he stated in his book My World. But Sir Alex’s thinking when sending him to the third division proved quite the opposite.

The month in Lancashire shaped Beckham’s early career. He was exposed to first team football and given the responsibility for set-pieces. Any young professional would have been excused for feeling the pressure, but not Beckham. He rose to the challenge, scoring two goals in five appearances including one directly from a corner.

The player, now back in Manchester and reinvigorated from his time just north of the city, was ready to make his league debut. A 0-0 draw with Leeds United in 1995 was the second time he had stepped onto the hallowed turf for a first division match, after representing United as a mascot nine years earlier. He would go on to play a further four times for United in the 1994/95 season, which ultimately ended in disappointment with the side losing the Premier League by a solitary point to Blackburn and being bested 1-0 in the FA Cup final by Everton.

The 1995/96 campaign would start in a similarly underwhelming vein as the Red Devils lost 3-1 to Aston Villa, and although Beckham got United’s goal, the fans and media alike were far from impressed. With Ferguson offloading experienced personnel in favour of entrusting youth, Beckham saw game time aplenty and it wasn’t long before the naysayers and doubters became firm believers. The team took the league crown come May and brought the FA Cup back to Manchester too.

The next season saw Beckham score the second most iconic goal of his career (I’ll get to the first later). With United leading 2-0, he spotted the Wimbledon goalkeeper Neil Sullivan off his line and attempted an audacious halfway line shot which soared over the helpless keeper and came crashing down into the back of his net. David Beckham had truly announced his arrival on the Premier League stage. He went on to help his team retain the league title and collected an individual accolade of PFA Young Player of the Year.

This was also the season where the now 21-year-old broke into the England set-up. From his debut against Moldova in 1996, he grew into a first team regular for his country and appeared in every qualifying match en route to the 1998 World Cup finals.

Having scored a sublime free-kick – which were fast becoming a natural trademark of Beckham’s – against Colombia in the group stages, England would progress through to the last-16, where they met Argentina. It is here that one of Beckham’s most ugly scenes on a football pitch ensued. After being fouled by the now Atlético Madrid boss Diego Simeone, he retaliated by kicking a leg out at El Cholo, which subsequently led to his dismissal. England saw out the minutes but were later eliminated on penalties.

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The next big chapter in his illustrious career came in 1999 when, in the space of just a few days, Manchester United would complete an unprecedented English treble. After first winning the Premier League, where he would score a final day equaliser against Tottenham on the way to securing the title, and then the FA Cup, United contested the Champions League final against German giants Bayern Munich.

Trailing 1-0 in the 90th minute, Beckham would deliver two corners that were duly converted by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Teddy Sheringham to send Manchester, and indeed most of the country, into euphoria. His performances also saw him finish runner-up in FIFA’s World Player of the Year vote.

The Reds would go on to capture both the 2000 and 2001 Premier League trophies with ruthless efficiency. Beckham, now a vital cog at the heart of United’s well-oiled machine, scored 15 goals across the two campaigns, registering 31 appearances a piece both years. In 2001/02 he found yet another gear and, despite losing the title to Arsenal, took his personal performances to an all-time high. He recorded 16 goals in all competitions, which would later prove to be the best goal-scoring season of his professional career.

The most iconic goal of his career arrived on 6 October 2001, while in action for England. England trailed Greece 2-1 with the game fast approaching its conclusion. The Three Lions needed at least a draw to ensure qualification through to the 2002 World Cup, but things were looking bleak.

However, in typical fashion, up stepped David Beckham. As he had done against Bayern Munich two years earlier, the United man produced a moment of brilliance. Over 25-yards from goal, Sheringham had won England a free-kick. Beckham bent it – like only he could – into the top corner. The vilification he had suffered at the hands of supporters after the 1998 World Cup had vanished. From zero to hero, Beckham was once again the country’s idol. 

After a successful summer, which saw Beckham captain England to a respectable quarter-final showing, where they were beaten 2-1 by eventual winners Brazil, he returned to Manchester to find his longstanding United bridges beginning to ignite.

Sir Alex Ferguson had become tired of his off-field antics with wife Victoria and had lost belief that football was the driving force behind the star’s decisions anymore. The bridges went up in full flames in 2003 when a locker room altercation led to Beckham needing stitches after a boot was kicked in his direction by the manager. Despite this, he would go on to see the season out and help the team to his sixth Premier League title.

He would leave United in the summer of 2003 for a fee of €35m. He became a Real Madrid Galéctico and was now at a club that met the ambitions of his new-found worldly image.

The rest is history and has seen Brand Beckham firmly establish itself at the pinnacle of celebrity culture. However, it remains important to remember and praise David Beckham the footballer, long before he became David Beckham the multifaceted superstar. He possessed a right foot and mentality that escalated his social mobility far beyond the field of football, but to Manchester United fans of the 1990s, he’ll always be that kid from the Class of ’92 who helped take Manchester United to heights they had never experienced before.

By Charlie Carmichael @CharlieJC93

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