As David Beckham took his leave of Major League Soccer with a second successive championship victory, the question can be begged as to whether the former Manchester United player could have seen out his career at Old Trafford.
The 37-year-old left United almost a decade ago when seemingly in the prime of his career, after a turbulent close to his time in Manchester. Beckham’s relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson appeared to have deteriorated to the point he had to leave, with the midfielder stating last week that he “couldn’t have stayed [at United], it wasn’t an option obviously.”
Ferguson’s decision to dispose of the former England captain may not rank as one of his greatest as United’s manager, especially considering the criticism that has been levelled at his midfield in recent years. It certainly was not of economic benefit, as less than £25m was brought in for the most recognisable footballer on the planet. More importantly, Beckham could have contributed to United’s cause over the years and seen out his career as a one-club man in the mould of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville.
Beckham was influential in the Galaxy side that retained the MLS Cup at the weekend, showcasing his enduring ability to pick a pass with his exalted right foot. His talents have waned no more than his fellow graduates of United’s famous class of ’92. Naturally, Beckham is not the player that he was 10 years ago, but neither are Giggs and Scholes, who both still feature regularly for Ferguson.
United failed to win the league for three years after Beckham’s departure, as Arsenal remained unbeaten for the entire 2003/04 season, and Roman Abramovich’s billions began to be pumped into Chelsea. Two third placed finishes were followed by a runners-up spot before the Reds entered a successful period of three straight league titles and a Champions League victory in 2008.
In the season following Beckham’s move to Real Madrid, Phil Neville was consistently deployed in central midfield, while the likes of Kleberson, Eric Djemba-Djemba and David Bellion shared 60 appearances between them. The following campaign saw the same three players feature in 49 games, with Liam Miller taking to the field 19 times. Quinton Fortune also played in 68 games in this same period, some of which were at left-back. Surely there was a space in the squad for a player of Beckham’s calibre.
Of course, Beckham’s direct replacement was Cristiano Ronaldo, who developed into the best player in the world at Old Trafford. His predecessor in the No 7 shirt however was twice runner-up as FIFA World Player of the Year, and was not only able to operate on the right hand side of midfield, the position that Ronaldo went on to make his own before Ferguson began adopting a more fluid frontline.
The manager did not see Beckham as a central midfielder, despite England’s most-capped outfield player stressing it was his preferred position. It was a role that he performed for Real Madrid, helping them to a league title in his final season, and where he spent the entirety of his Galaxy career.
It is perhaps to Ferguson’s detriment that Beckham was not moved inside during his United days, to play in a role that he filled in the Champions League final of 1999. When some of the shortcomings in United’s midfield over recent years are addressed, and the likes of players such as Kleberson, Djemba-Djemba, Phil Neville, John O’Shea, Alan Smith and Park Ji-Sung have occupied a central midfield position, it is difficult to see how Beckham could not have benefitted United over the last decade.
Beckham will always be judged on the lesser level of competition in the MLS, but he acquitted himself ably at Real Madrid and showed his enduring class with his loan moves to AC Milan. A lifelong United fan, his professionalism and work rate could only have contributed positively to the footballing side at Old Trafford.
As he looks to settle on his final career move, there is little doubt that if Beckham and his manager at Old Trafford could have co-existed in harmony, the midfielder could easily have seen out the remainder of his playing days in a United shirt.
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