17th August 1996. Selhurst Park. Manchester United playing out a routine 2-0 win against Wimbledon FC. Efan Ekoku gets the ball by the centre circle, he is routinely dispossed before Brian McClair pokes the ball to a young, floppy haired midfielder called David Beckham.
He calmly lets the ball roll in front of him for a few paces before looking up, notices the Wimbledon goalkeeper Neil Sullivan is off his line, and carves the ball into the back of the net.
This was the goal which sparked a remarkable career which finds Beckham, now retired for over five years, still at the height of fame and success.
It is well documented that Beckham, along with the likes of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt, graduated from the Manchester United academy in 1992. However, it was this goal which really thrust Beckham into the spotlight. He sparked a fervour across the country as the line between footballer and celebrity started to merge more than ever. Owing to his very public relationship and then marriage to Spice Girls star, Victoria Adams and the way the press lauded this power couple of ‘Posh and Becks’.
In many ways the most remarkable thing about that goal against Wimbledon is that it was widely insignificant to the game. United were winning comfortably, it was the first day of the season and everything was going as it should be. Most of the iconic goals we remember impacted and won games. Be it Mario Gotze winning Germany the World Cup or Zinedine Zidane in the Champions League final the goals which go down in history are the ones which win matches.
Equally, Beckham is not the only person to ever score a goal from that sort of distance. Xabi Alonso scored two goals from a similar distance against Luton and Newcastle whilst he was at Liverpool and even Charlie Adam got in on the halfway line goal action against Chelsea in 2015. But despite all this we still revere and talk about this Beckham goal all these years later. It is because of the audacity with which he scored it. The utter disregard for Neil Sullivan’s dignity. This was a boy announcing himself onto the world stage in the most emphatic fashion.
As a footballer David Beckham wasn’t particularly quick, or technically gifted or even strong. But what he could do is kick a ball absolutely wherever he wanted it to go. Whether that was a 60-yard diagonal pass to a teammate or into the back of the net from inside his own half he was a master at kicking a football. I hope I am not underselling Beckham here, but the essence of his game was in fact simplicity. ‘I have the ball. I want the ball to be there. I’m going to kick the ball there.’ It is this simplicity which enamours us so much to him. Everyone who has ever kicked a ball has purposefully or not tried to recreate a moment of Beckham’s genius. The curling free kicks, the fizzing crosses and even the humble crossbar challenge have been seen in every park and playground up and down the country.
There are not many celebrities who have faced such support and love and equally such criticism as David Beckham. After being sent off for lashing out at Diego Simeone in the 1998 World Cup Beckham was made a scapegoat for England’s failure. Fuelled by certain parts of the press the vitriol and anger which Beckham received would be enough to make most people want to leave the industry. This included the Daily Mirror printing a dartboard with his face in the centre and a London pub hanging an effigy of him. He persevered though, kept his head down and carried on doing what he did best, playing football.
In many ways this moment of anger and stupidity made him even more relatable. At the end of the day he is like any of us. He gets angry and lashes out there is not anyone who can say they haven’t wanted to do the same even in the most casual of kickabouts let alone in a knockout match of World Cup.
Beckham was redeemed in 2001 when he scored the sublime free-kick against Greece which ensured England’s qualification to the World Cup the next year. That goal is in many ways the most significant of his career. To turn himself from villain to hero in such emphatic fashion was, and still is, unprecedented. It’s a story which would not seem out of place in cinemas. The poetry and narrative seem almost implausible. Yet all around the country, in pubs and living rooms, people celebrated that goal and celebrated the man who scored it.
Beckham could be considered one of the first truly modern footballers. It is pertinent that his career started at the dawn of the Premier League. The new shiny Premier League with all its money and pizazz was the perfect place for David Beckham to lay down his marker. After 11 seasons in Manchester he reached the peak of footballing celebrity when he was signed by Real Madrid as a Galatico. This sparked a new era in Beckham’s career as he took the brand abroad, and enjoyed huge success winning four La Liga titles back to back. Beckham’s career also took him to Los Angeles, Milan and Paris.
Perhaps the most interesting portion of his career is his time at La Galaxy. The MLS played its first season in 1996, just 11 years before Beckham moved there and was still widely a mystery to Western football fans. The fact that Beckham was the first person to really put the MLS on the map shows his, or his advisers perhaps, business acumen. The contract he signed was remarkable. It gave him the option to buy any MLS expansion franchise in any market other than New York City for the fixed fee of $25million when he stopped playing in the league. This was an unprecedented clause in a player’s contract and shows just how valuable David Beckham is to any brand.
This illustrious career came to an end in Paris. Beckham signed a 5-month contract with Paris Saint-Germain and announced that all his wages would be going to a local children’s charity. It seemed fitting that this most cultured of footballers should end his career in the most cultured of cities. This was not a testimonial though. The legs might have gone a bit as the years were catching up with him, but he still had that eye, and vision. In his final match he assisted Blaise Matuidi from a corner before being substituted to rapturous applause. The moment got to Beckham and he couldn’t hold back the tears. It was a remarkable and emotional end to an incredible career.
To tie this all back to where it started with that 21-year-old scoring against Wimbledon FC it would have been impossible to predict there and then where Beckham’s career would take him and the fame he would garner along the way. However, regardless of the celebrity aspect of his career and the commercialisation he will forever be remembered as that fantastic talent who even amongst supremely gifted players managed to stand above them. He is what we all wanted to be when we were children, he is so much more than a footballer yet also at his very essence that is all he is. He is every child in the playground, every slightly hungover person in a park on a Sunday morning, everyone who has ever kicked a ball.
I got in touch with Brian McClair, the man who with his pass to Beckham made this all happen. When I asked him what was going through his head at the time he simply replied: ‘David what the f### are you doin??? … great goal!!! … oh no Scottish goalkeeper…’
David Beckham was a world-class footballer, go on to YouTube and watch the compilations. Please. And whilst you’re there watch the goal which started this all. 17th August 1996. Selhurst Park. The young David Beckham picks the ball up in his own half, sees Neil Sullivan off his line, winds back the right foot and let’s fly.
The rest, as they say, is history.