Why Becks is back

It is a measure of England's desperation, rather than Beckham's skills, that the former golden boy is being brought back into the fold.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

The Beckham circus is back in town. We thought we’d seen the last of Beckham the footballer (as opposed to Brand Beckham, the celebrity marketing operation, which we’ll have to endure for years to come). But, with England’s Euro 2008 campaign wobbling, Becks is back.

In January, when Beckham announced that he would be joining the LA Galaxy, I thought that the 32-year-old midfielder’s career was finished. And I wasn’t alone. No longer part of Steve McClaren’s plans and out of favour with Madrid coach Fabio Capello, it seemed to all the world that Beckham was retiring from top-flight football and winding down his career as a highly remunerated circus act in a third-rate league.

But we reckoned without England’s ineptitude. The team’s abject recent performances have spawned an unlikely ‘Bring Back Beckham’ campaign. While a disjointed England team were labouring to beat the part-timers of Andorra, the travelling fans booed their own players and chanted Beckham’s name. Absence, it would appear, does indeed make the heart grow fonder. It wasn’t that Beckham had got any better – in fact he’d hardly started a game for Madrid all season – but rather that England were getting worse.

Beckham’s reputation among football fans has waxed and waned throughout his career. We went from stringing up sarong-clad effigies in 1998 to praying for his broken foot to mend in 2002. However, by the time Portugal dumped England out of the 2006 World Cup, Beckham’s stock had once again fallen. His latest haircut or tattoo still made frontpage news but he was no longer regarded as the nation’s footballing saviour. When a tearful Beckham limped out of the Portugal game and subsequently resigned the England captaincy, there was no outbreak of national mourning. Similarly, when Steve McClaren left him out of the England squad, there was barely a murmur of protest. Many England fans shared McClaren’s assessment that Beckham’s best days were behind him. The future was bright; the future was Aaron Lennon and Shaun Wright-Phillips. Or so we thought.

McClaren’s decision to freeze out Beckham was a symbolic gesture, which seemed calculated to disassociate himself from the discredited ancien regime of Eriksson. ‘I told David I was looking to change things, looking to go in a different direction, and he wasn’t included within that’, explained McClaren. As I wrote at the time, the subtext seemed to be, ‘I’m not Sven’s bitch’. Beckham could still deliver a mean set piece, but he didn’t have the pace or mobility that the modern game demanded.

Was McClaren wrong to drop Beckham in the first place? Well, yes and no. I think he was right to drop Beckham from the team but wrong to exclude him from the squad altogether. During Eriksson’s tenure, Beckham had acquired the status of an untouchable. As a consequence England had become rather predictable and over-reliant on Beckham’s set pieces. Israeli football agent Pini Zahavi claims that Beckham’s special status had fuelled resentment and jealousy within the England camp. ‘A lot of players didn’t like the “super player” Beckham. They didn’t like his status in the team’, said Zahavi. Whether or not there is any substance to Zahavi’s allegations, it was abundantly clear from England’s insipid displays in Germany that a shake-up was needed.

So yes, McClaren was right to try out something different. Aaron Lennon looked the part while Beckham looked like a washed-up galactico. However, Lennon has subsequently had a disappointing season while Shaun Wright-Phillips has failed to convince. Beckham, by contrast, has enjoyed an improbable renaissance at Madrid. In January Fabio Capello declared that Beckham would never play for Madrid again but he was forced into a U-turn firstly by the intervention of senior players, including Raul and Guti, and secondly by his performances on the pitch.

Beckham deserves a recall on the basis of his current form but let’s not kid ourselves. He isn’t the future of English football, just a short-term fix. McClaren’s decision is an acknowledgement that his punt on youthful mobility and pace hasn’t solved the creativity deficit in the England team. Without a midfield playmaker or quick, one-touch passing game, England have struggled to unlock defensively-minded opponents. This is where Beckham still has something to offer. His crosses and set pieces have got England out of sticky situations plenty of times in the past. Even though he wasn’t at his best in Germany last summer, it was Beckham’s delivery which created the opening goal against Trinidad and Tobago (plus a bit of sly dreadlock tugging by Crouch) and his free kick which sank Ecuador. Even if he couldn’t skin defenders, there was always a case for keeping him in the squad in case a more direct Plan B was required.

The Beckham question has divided opinions. Some see McClaren’s decision to recall the former captain as a retrograde step. ‘Right now, the reworked England midfield is the same one that looked so lifeless in Germany’, complained Martin Samuel in The Times (1). Samuel believes that McClaren should have stuck by his guns but has ‘blinked first’ and ‘compromised a set of very valid beliefs about the way forward for England because they were unpopular and results were patchy’. The Guardian’s Richard Williams, on the other hand, thinks there is is ‘no good reason why [Beckham] should not be lining up on England’s right wing at Wembley’ (2). Personally, I think the debate about whether McClaren is right or wrong to restore Beckham to the side is a complete red herring. The real problem is that, with or without Becks, the England team often appears clueless when it comes to the simple art of keeping possession of the ball. They play like a bunch of strangers rather than a team. Sven couldn’t manage to solve that problem and, so far, McClaren hasn’t fared any better.

Beckham’s short period of exile has only served to underline the dearth of quality at McClaren’s disposal. With Lennon injured he had little choice but to recall Beckham. He isn’t the saviour of English football. Far from it. But in the absence of a new Messiah, the only option was to bring the old Messiah out of the mothballs.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) Sven’s lessons go unheeded as McClaren blinks first, The Times, 30 May 2007

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