“SO David, would you consider becoming one of the Red Knights?” The question must have occurred to those who had access to David Beckham at Old Trafford last night. Manchester United are still a big part of his life, nearly seven years after he left. The green and gold scarf around his neck at full time removed any doubt about that.
What a strange night it was. Most of us thought that Beckham’s role on his first playing return to Old Trafford would be a peripheral one. And in a sense, it was. Left on the bench by AC Milan coach Leonardo, Beckham did not appear until they were 3-0 down, 6-2 on aggregate, with all hope of salvaging the tie gone.
There was an air of the testimonial about the final 27 minutes of last night’s Champions League last-16 tie. An air of school reunion too, as Beckham shared a pitch with Gary Neville and Paul Scholes too. He didn’t disgrace himself, putting in two or three dangerous crosses and having a decent long-range crack at goal too.
Events on the pitch, by this stage, were taking second place to the anti-Glazer protests in the stands. Whoever came up with the idea to use green and gold scarves to demonstrate against the Glazer regime has a genius that any marketing or PR company would kill for. The protest is peaceful, it has its roots in the club’s history and the colours are impossible to ignore.
Take a look at any of the photos from last night’s game. There will be green and gold in there somewhere. Most significantly, those colours hung around Beckham as he left the Old Trafford pitch, almost certainly for the last time.
“I saw the scarf there and just put it round my neck,” said Beckham, showing a politician’s knack for diplomacy. “It’s the old colours. That’s all I know.”
All the same, David, you mustn’t be surprised if every Old Trafford regular interprets your wearing of the scarf as a sign that you Love United, Hate Glazer. In the directors’ box, Avram Glazer could not have failed to note the gesture.
The pre-match suggestions that Milan’s aging team would not be able to cope with United turned out to be accurate. But there was still a degree of irony in the fact that they were undone last night with the help of a 35-year-old right-back.
As Neville got forward to deliver the cross for the opener, it seemed, for a split second, as if someone had turned the clock back to 2003. Gary Neville? An attacking threat again? Then Wayne Rooney climbed to meet the cross and score yet another headed goal, to jolt us back to 2010.
Goodness knows what Sir Alex Ferguson is feeding Rooney on this season. There cannot be another attacking player in the world playing as well at the moment. One explanation put forward for the striker’s wonderful run of form is that he no longer has to play out of position to accommodate Cristiano Ronaldo’s talents. It’s a very plausible argument.
Rooney has been United’s player of the season by a mile. Fabio Capello must pray that he suffers none of the late-season injury dramas which occurred in the build-up to the last World Cup. A fully-fir Rooney could take on the world and win.
His second goal, a deft flick over the advancing keeper while the home fans were still returning from the snack bars, took his tally for the season to 30. Ronaldo got 42 last season. It looks beatable.
Park Ji-Sung and Darren Fletcher tied up a comfortable 4-0 win against a side who looked out of petrol. The home fans took the chance to turn their focus from the team to the owners.
United’s financial concerns – and thus their relatively low spending – have been linked together to form an argument as to why they won’t win the Champions League this season. But a couple of thousand miles away, a Real Madrid side, Ronaldo and all, built for a quarter of a billion pounds were being dumped out of the competition by Lyon.
Having bottomless pockets helps, but doesn’t guarantee success. But if United were to make the Champions League final for a third successive season, it really would be a triumph against the odds. Beckham, it seems, will be cheering them all the way – and hoping that talk of bonds and debts one day become a thing of the past.
For as Beckham knows better than anyone: All things must pass.