From a swing of the foot at Selhurst Park to becoming one of the most visible footballers in history. Amit Katwala revisits the season that Beckham took off
It could have been Jordi Cruyff.
Just before the goal that catapulted David Beckham into global stardom, the Dutchman - who was making his Manchester United debut - had his own shot at the spectacular. On 80 minutes and with United holding a comfortable 2-0 lead against Wimbledon on the opening day of the 1996/97 Premier League season, Cruyff spotted goalkeeper Neil Sullivan - who was really pushing his luck that day - off his line.
With the keeper stranded, Cruyff’s effort drifted off target. Beckham’s, 10 minutes later, did not.
So much has been written about that moment, but there are two images that stand out. The first shows David Beckham, promising talent and member of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Class of 92 - looking down at the ball with his right foot pulled back ready to strike. He’s wearing adidas Predator boots with ‘Charlie’ embroidered on the tongue. They were a prototype model that had been made for Rangers midfielder Charlie Miller. It was probably the last time Beckham had to borrow a piece of kit.
When my foot struck that ball, it kicked open the door to the rest of my life
“I couldn’t have known it then, but that moment was the start of it all: the attention, the press coverage, the fame,” he writes in My Side, his autobiography. “When my foot struck that ball, it kicked open the door to the rest of my life.”
The second image, taken moments later - after the ball had sailed 57 yards through the August sun to hit the back of Sullivan’s net without bouncing - shows Beckham about to be mobbed by his teammates. He’s wearing a wide, smug, grin - it’s the look of someone who believes they can do anything, and has just been proven right. This is David Beckham the icon.
Beginning of a legend
Yet to fixate on that moment is perhaps doing Beckham an injustice. Undoubtedly, it helped build his appeal as a global star. Alex Ferguson said that Beckham was the only player he ever managed who actively set out to gain the trappings of fame, although when this writer spoke to Beckham in 2013 - a surreal experience, like doing an interview inside a fragrance advert - he denied that was the case.
“I never wanted to be a star,” he insisted. "I never wanted to be famous. I just wanted to be a footballer. I wanted to be a professional footballer and I wanted to play for Manchester United and play for England. Obviously, though, I have been very privileged – and I am very proud of everything that has come with that.”
Ferguson - perhaps with an inkling of what was to come - banned Beckham from talking to Match of the Day after the game. The goal, which lost out on goal of the season to Trevor Sinclair’s stunning overhead kick - might have put Beckham on posters and on the front of magazines, but it’s only a small part of his footballing journey.
As a youth player, and a member of United’s famous class of ’92 Beckham stood out as one of the few who didn’t come from Manchester. In the 2013 documentary about the team, his teammates remember the nicknames they had for him when they were apprentices at Old Trafford. “Alright treacle?” grins Ryan Giggs, while Gary Neville chips in with ‘Flash Cockney’ and ‘Pretty Boy', although you suspect that’s what he thinks about most people.