Why Fergie’s out of favour

spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London), on the David Beckham transfer tiff.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

David Beckham said this week that Sir Alex Ferguson was ‘a father figure’ to him. But like many fathers and sons, the generation gap has made it impossible for them to live together any longer.

Behind the skulduggery and financial shenanigans surrounding Beckham’s impending transfer, the tensions between the England captain and the Manchester United manager embody a British culture clash. This is a clash in which most commentators understandably side with Beckham – see yesterday’s headlines about ‘our England hero’ being ‘Knifed in the Barc’ and ‘driven out’ by the ‘Red Bully’. But it will be a sad day for football when Fergie’s values are driven out of the game.

Despite his enjoyment of fine wines and racehorses, Ferguson’s outlook is still shaped by his roots in Glasgow’s Govan shipyards. He is a man’s man who believes in the collective over the individual, strict team discipline and loyalty to the cause above all else. The question Ferguson repeatedly asks of his pampered millionaire players is ‘Have they still got the hunger?’ (and he is not referring to Victoria Beckham’s eating habits).

On the other side of the divide stands Beckham. Not so much the hardworking-if-rather-overrated player, but Beckham the designer brand, ‘the first great British icon of the 21st century’, as one paper describes him. He is the role model for today’s culture of individualism and lifestyle choice: the footballer who wears a hair band and a skirt, the family man who, according to one academic, is ‘managing to single-handedly change male behaviour globally’ (yes, we even love our children since Becks showed us how), the celebrity prince who spends his summer break on a promotional tour of Hollywood. Now an Old Trafford source is quoted as saying that Ferguson is sick of ‘the David Beckham circus’, believing that ‘he is more interested in being a global superstar than in being a United player’. That might sound a reasonable order of priorities to many today, but in Ferguson’s book, no offence is more grave than getting above yourself.

To the Beckham-loving Big Brother generation, apparently ready to burst into tears in a dispute over teabags, Ferguson is the original Orwellian nightmare, a Tyrannosaurus Red who kicks a boot in his star player’s face and dismisses critics as ‘fucking idiots’ to their faces in the press room.

But, like the past, the football pitch is another country, and they do things differently there. The attitudes and values for which Ferguson is criticised are the very things that have brought United and Beckham such success. It is Ferguson’s old-fashioned passion and refusal to bend that have held his star-studded team in thrall, and last season pushed United past the egotists of Arsenal.

If Beckham’s England had played with the spirit of a Ferguson team, they could have beaten Brazil in the World Cup. Fergie’s problem is not his lack of fashion sense, but of tactical sense. No doubt Beckham will play for more sophisticated coaches. But he is unlikely ever again to encounter a manager willing to give a top team such an effective kick up the collective backside.

About the time that a petulant Beckham was driving past the press with a strategically placed Alice band and plasters to show off his tiny scar from the Battle of the Boot, Glenn Roeder, the West Ham manager, was complaining about today’s ‘more fragile’ footballers. ‘I feel as though I have to walk around with a bit of Sellotape in my pocket to put their egos back together if they’ve been criticised,’ he said. Soon after, West Ham’s sensitive souls were relegated. The old hard man of Old Trafford may triumph in the battle over Beckham. But the new thin-skinned softies are winning the culture war.

This article is republished from The Times (London)

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Topics Politics


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