The Joy of Becks (and Fergie and Scholes): Life based on a love of football

Eras, and specifically the end of them, are declared too often in football. Those of us old enough to remember the 1980s will recall complaints about the lack of characters in the game "these days", as if Mario Balotelli would never exist. But there is certainly something fin-de-siecle about a week which has seen the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, Paul Scholes and David Beckham.

The young Scholes and Beckham grew up in a 1980s chiming with the Thatcherite mantra of opportunity through self-improvement, and although it's a comparison the former shipyard socialist Ferguson may view with dismay it's also one he embedded in the failing Manchester United he took over in 1986. But unlike so much of that decade, there is a great joy in Beckham, Scholes and Ferguson.

Although each man in his own way came to symbolise much more, at the heart of all three is a love of football. For all his gruff demeanour and prickly provocation, Ferguson celebrated every goal his team scored with childlike glee, jumping in the air or clapping maniacally. At the centre of the slick Brand Beckham machine was the small boy who had practised his kicking technique for unimaginable hours alone. And the legendarily undemonstrative nature hid Scholes' one true passion: playing football.

The three were very different in many ways – try imagining Paul Scholes walking up the red carpet with Tom Cruise – but were (ahem) united in their desire to triumph in style. Few managers can have had Ferguson's immense will to win while retaining the equally insistent demand to entertain. The Scotsman mentioned it repeatedly, insisting his teams live up to the legacy of what he habitually referred to as "this great club".

That desire drove Fergie on: there's always the next game, the next campaign, the next necessary victory. "Winning a trophy doesn’t really mean anything to me after it’s gone," he once told FFT. "At the time it’s the most cherished thing. But as soon as it’s over, it’s soon forgotten. Well, not soon forgotten, but it evaporates. Your next step is the important one, and the mentality here is of that nature. The players are brought up, as soon as they succeed, to go for the next thing.’

INTERVIEW Alex Ferguson

Although Beckham quickly became acutely aware of his image, it never stopped him putting in the hard yards on the training ground. Not many people can get Fabio Capello to admit he was wrong, but the Italian would eventually concede that dropping the MLS-bound Beckham from the Real Madrid team was a mistake. Reinstated, the Englishman helped inspire Madrid to the title – and a late doomed bid by the Bernabeu bigwigs to cancel the Stateside transfer.

In many ways, Scholes was cut from very different cloth. (In fact, one magazine surveyed its readers to ask which of the two players they identified with, and went so far as to claim that those who admire Beckham were "reading the wrong magazine".) Scholes couldn't abide the sort of circus that surrounded Beckham – this is a man who told FourFourTwo that "I don’t think I’ve ever acted big-time. I could never jump to the front of a queue or anything like that: I'd be too embarrassed."

But he shared Beckham's love of the game. Playing alongside his England colleague at the end of the last century, with Ryan Giggs and Roy Keane in one of the finest midfield quartets English football has ever seen, Scholes delighted in the joie de jouer: "We had a different attitude… We just went out to score more goals than the other team, home or away, and I loved being a part of that."

ONE-ON-ONE Paul Scholes

That craving for goals, games and glory can manifest itself in different ways. And it's very hard to shake. Having retired too early for a player whose game was based on intelligent reading, Scholes couldn't resist returning to Old Trafford, his only footballing home, for more. Beckham, by contrast, circled the globe in search of new footballing adventures – but again, couldn't get enough. Moving to the MLS's March-to-November season gave him a chance to play for Milan. These loan moves, derided by dullards as money-making shopping trips for the wife, displayed a clear desire to play 12 months per year, if at all possible: Beckham was like the kid who couldn't say no when his mates asked him out for a game.

And if Beckham was trying to prove his fitness and form for England, what's wrong with that? Unlike many of his generation – including, it has to be said, a few clubmates – he has never announced his international retirement. Even when Capello, having picked Beckham for 16 of the 21 England games for which he was available, dropped the 35-year-old as part of an evidently necessary rejuvenation after the 2010 World Cup, a spokesman said "He will always be available for his country, when fit and if needed he will be there".

It seems that Beckham's career is frequently to be judged on England's performances. If that career is consequently to be seen as somehow a failure, then it is partly to do with the expectations placed upon England during his international career, which lasted from the heightened hopes of the immediate post-Euro 96 era to the dashed dreams of South Africa 2010. If England didn't satisfy public demand during the tournaments he appeared in, then it can hardly be blamed solely on Beckham, despite the 1998 red card and subsequent vilification he fought so hard to overcome: he scored at all three World Cups and contributed assists at both Euros.

From the bellowed anthem on in, Beckham never hid his love of playing for his country, and to many he will be remembered in an England shirt rather than the colours of Manchester United, Real Madrid, LA Galaxy, Milan or PSG, clubs for whom he amassed 20 trophies. Perhaps that's because Beckham was somehow supra-club, public property. Perhaps it's because he moved restlessly around in search of football. He was always the boy knocking on your front door, holding a ball and asking if you wanted a game.

"I still look at myself and want to improve things," he told FFT. "I’ve done a lot of things and won a lot in my career, I’ve been England captain, played for Man United, played for Real Madrid, but there wasn't any point when I sat back and thought 'I've made it' because I had always had my dad telling me: 'You haven’t made it yet. You've played 100 games for Man United but you still haven’t made it.' That was the thing about being at a club like Man United: we were brought up to believe that until you retire you don’t look back on your career and think of what you’ve done or the fact that you’ve made it. Until then, until you retire, you’re always trying to better yourself."

ONE ON ONE David Beckham

It's a drive to succeed, for sure, but also to entertain and have fun. Anyone who has ever taken a ball onto a field and marvelled at the possibilities will empathise with that. And while we shouldn't pretend that Their Likes Will Never Be Seen Again – plenty of young modern players and managers exhibit the same love of the game – let's be honest and admit it, even the majority of us who aren't United fans: they will be missed.

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