David Beckham at Preston: "I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Moyes nearly squashed him"
Young footballers are a paranoid bunch. Even the brashest upstart fears The Real World and A Career Outside Football. So tell a kid on the books at a big club that you think he needs to experience the lower leagues and you can't rule out a teenage meltdown of Carrie proportions.
David Beckham didn't burn down a school in 1995 when Alex Ferguson revealed he was sending him away, but the 19-year-old had concerns about his future.
"I was shocked," he wrote in his autobiography, My World. "I thought it was a sign that a club was trying to get rid of a player." Wise words from Fergie reassured the young Goldenballs that wasn't the case. Next stop: Preston North End in the Third Division.
First impressions are important. So, how to win friends and influence people, David Beckham style? Immediately take over all set-pieces from an established first-teamer in Paul Raynor.
In fairness, it wasn't Beckham's decision. As his father, Ted, later revealed, David told him: "The manager, Gary Peters, stood in front of all the other lads and said, 'This is David Beckham, here on a month's loan from Manchester United – he'll be taking all our free-kicks and corners from now on.' It was so embarrassing."
Team-mate Ryan Kidd confirms to FFT, "Raynor's face was an absolute picture." Still, it could have been worse, Dave: you could've thrown your kit on the floor assuming someone else would wash it. Oh, you did that as well.
The set-piece problem was easily resolved. "I was a bit perturbed," reveals Raynor, "because I was taken off for David to go on [for his debut, as a substitute against Doncaster]. So I was chuntering on the bench, then he went and scored directly from a corner. I had to shut up then."
"I still claim to this day that I got a head on that and put it in myself," says Kidd, now coaching Bury's under-18s. "In those days we got a goal bonus, and because I very rarely scored as a centre-half the extra £50 or £100 was massive. Gary Peters asked, 'Who got that goal?' and before I could say 'Me, gaffer' he said 'Bugger that, it's David's.' If there's any chance I could have that £100 back, I'd be more than obliged."
On this evidence, you'd think Beckham was Preston Enemy No.1. Even while warming up for that match, a fan waved a programme in his direction only to chirp, "Ask Smarty [Allan Smart] to sign this."
However, players and fans took to Beckham. "He remained in our affections over the years," gushes Lilywhites fan Tarquin Scott. "We never grew tired of telling fans of other clubs, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that he learnt it all at Deepdale." Beckham returned the fervour, coming back to watch the club's play-off battle that year and promotion the next. "He was a fully-fledged Manchester United player then but he came to the player's bar and was genuinely pleased to see us," confides Kidd. Beckham even gave his team-mates freebies, his boot sponsor as big a novelty to Preston players as washing kit was to Beckham.
That doesn't mean Beckham's Preston team-mates didn't have some fun at the floppy-haired pin-up's expense. "We were travelling to Exeter and David was reading Match magazine," reminisces Kidd. "He was reading an article about himself: when he scored in Europe and celebrated with Eric Cantona. Raymond Sharp, the Scottish left-back, got hold of this and started reading it out loud to everybody – something along the lines of 'I ran into Eric's arms and it was wonderful'. He embarrassed him to the high heavens! I could see him glowing red but that was the way Sharpy welcomed him into the squad."
Beckham's drive raised a few Lancastrian eyebrows too. Dropped down the divisions ostensibly to toughen up ("He was very scrawny," says Kidd, "and there were lads there who'd chop you in two"), the east Londoner nonetheless worked tirelessly on his technique and those famed free-kicks. "He'd stay every afternoon after training, out there for ages and ages, which got him a bit of stick from the boys," says Raynor, now Rotherham's assistant manager.
It paid off. Having scored directly from a corner on debut, Beckham curled home a free-kick in the next match. "It was the classic Beckham free-kick, over the wall," recalls Kevin McGuinness, photographer for the Lancashire Evening Post. "I couldn't believe what I was seeing. David Moyes nearly squashed him in the celebration." Raynor, erstwhile taker of free-kicks, was in the wall. "My kids don't believe [I played with Beckham] so I show them a photo of that."
But like Beckham's 20-year career, all good things must come to an end, even though the midfielder himself wanted to stay longer. How things had changed in one month. Now, Becks, about that £100...