THE speculation surrounding David Beckham’s departure from Manchester United had been building for weeks. On an extraordinary afternoon at St James’ Park in April 2003, United began to look as if they could cope without him.
Beckham’s Old Trafford future had, from the outside at least, been looking wobbly since February. That was when he had been pictured with stitches to a cut above his left eye, which it emerged had been caused by a boot allegedly propelled across the dressing room by Sir Alex Ferguson following an FA Cup defeat against Arsenal.
By April, a move to Spain was looking increasingly likely for Beckham. In the days building up to the Newcastle game, Old Trafford officials dismissed as “100 per cent untrue” reports that a £38million deal to sell him to Real Madrid had been finalised. The amount was certainly wide of the mark – he would eventually go for £25m.
Beckham didn’t play at St James’ Park due to a hamstring injury. His place on the right hand side of midfield was taken by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – and United ripped Newcastle to shreds.
It was a significant moment in Beckham’s career. Twelve months earlier, he had been the star name in United’s side, although many fans had started to wonder if he was too much of a celebrity and not enough of a footballer. Yet his exit from the club was now starting to look increasingly likely.
For me, it was a significant afternoon too, as it was the first Premier League game I had covered, and my first attempt at providing live updates on a match for a radio station. It’s fair to say I was utterly hopeless, although I would get further chances, and did improve significantly.
My opportunity came about when Key 103, a Manchester-based commercial radio station, asked me to stand in for one of their reporters at St James’ Park. I’d done a little bit of radio broadcasting, and fancied having a go at match coverage, so I said yes.
The station’s sports editor e-mailed me before the game with the following instructions, which remain the best pieces of broadcasting advice I’ve ever received:
1) Sound excited – everybody would kill to be where you are
2) Don’t put on a ridiculous sports voice
3) Tell us what’s happened but don’t bore the pants off us with information about the referee’s family tree
4) Enjoy it!
As a result, my performance was marginally less embarrassing than it might have been. It helped that the game was terrific.
Sometimes, matches can fail to live up to the hype. But this was Manchester United in full attacking mode against a Newcastle side who were so open it was untrue. Jermaine Jenas hit a 25-yarder into the top corner to give Newcastle the lead, yet by half-time, Ferguson’s side were 4-1 up, thanks to one each from Solskjaer and Ryan Giggs, either side of two from Paul Scholes – all in the space of 13 minutes. I did my best to keep up with all of this.
In the gaps between my updates, I was trying a bit of off-air commentary. The idea was that I’d start commentating if a goal looked likely, and the studio could then record these as audio clips and play them out on air later if they were any good. They weren’t. All I’ll say is that it was a good job the commentary was off-air, particularly with the Jenas goal, where I had no idea who the scorer was.
“Oh, outstanding goal,” I shouted. “Brilliant shot… 25 yards… flew into the top corner… goalkeeper had no chance… Newcastle lead… the home fans go wild…”
Just as I was running out of phrases to buy me time to identify the scorer, and was beginning to wonder if I would have to start using some of them twice, I finally figured out who it was. “It’s Jermaine Jenas,” I yelled, when most of my fellow reporters at the game had probably already worked that out for themselves.
Scholes completed his hat-trick in the second half before Ruud van Nistelrooy made it six from the penalty spot, rendering Shola Ameobi’s late goal for Newcastle almost meaningless – and Beckham superfluous, at least in the eyes of those of us in the vast press box at St James’ Park.
I didn’t get to speak to Ferguson afterwards. By 2003, he had stopped doing general post-match press conferences – and as Key 103 didn’t have commentary rights at the time, I didn’t get a radio interview with him either. I wouldn’t have had the nerve to ask him about Beckham anyway.
But I did have my first of only two encounters with the late Sir Bobby Robson, who spoke about the game with an astonishing enthusiasm given that his team had just been thumped 6-2. I was so enthralled by Robson’s analysis, that I almost missed Solskjaer stopping out in the corridor to speak to a pack of reporters. Panicking, I gathered my microphone, raced out and shoved it under the Norwegian’s nose while he was in mid-sentence.
Beckham did return to the United side to help them win the Premier League title. But the rumours of his departure wouldn’t go away. In the summer of 2003, he left English domestic football. For good, it would now seem.