Beckham's air of humility testament to Ferguson's valuable lessons in early United life
Alex Ferguson will sit down for a Champions League press conference today and wish he was anywhere else. Cleaning Mike Riley's car, polishing Arsene Wenger's boots ... anything but talk about David Beckham.
"Christ, three seconds," the Manchester United manager grumbled when he walked straight into a question about the former United payer in Milan three weeks ago. He was no less sour on his way out: "There's another 30 minutes of my life wasted."
Ferguson's cantankerous attitude may be understandable given that being interrogated incessantly about Beckham's haircuts, wife, England performances and world player nominations was part of the reason he jettisoned him in 2003.
However, it risks skipping over one of his greatest legacies at Old Trafford, something as impressive as filling the trophy cabinet throughout more than two decades.
It is Ferguson's achievement in turning United into not merely a football club, but an educational establishment; in producing not just better footballers, but better people. And Beckham, despite being cast out, is more than happy to add his glowing testimony.
Speak to Beckham about his formative years at United and he will talk, as will any of those who have come through the youth ranks, about the lessons repeatedly drummed into them: humility, respect for elders, desire, determination, loyalty, good manners. Ferguson demands them from the club's young players even if, in the frenzy of competition, he is not always able to live up to those values himself.
This all came to mind the other day when a fascinating observation was offered by a senior England official: he could differentiate clearly between the players of Chelsea and United. One group had a swagger around the camp, a confidence that sometimes seeped into cockiness. Those from the North West, he said, were more humble and respectful.
It is the difference between Ferguson's United and Chelsea, where managers have been chopped and changed, sometimes almost at the whim of the squad, and respect for authority eroded. The players have power because many of them were lured for huge contracts and money is what binds them to the club. If contracts are not improved, they make threats.
Manchester City will be next to suffer from this loss of power to the dressing-room after creating their own inflationary spiral. A player such as Shaun Wright-Phillips has seen what others are earning. Now he wants the same.
At United, no one doubts who is the boss. No one questions who will win the arguments. They know that there is only so far they can push their luck, their behaviour or their demands for better pay.
But it is about more than shouting; it is about nurturing young players so that they have the character to thrive when they make it into the first team. It is a system born of stability and longevity, something attempted only at those few clubs where they plan beyond next week.
They do that at United, where Ferguson still involves himself in developing the youth, telling young aspirants that it is not success that should make them proud, but hard work.
He will instruct them to respect their rivals. "Don't ever think you're above a challenge. It's not right," he will say. "Arrogance is not a quality, it's a hindrance to success."
In a fascinating interview recently, he talked of his paternal pride and his joy when those young players uphold the best values. He smiled as he revealed a text from Cristiano Ronaldo: "I miss you so much". But he also talked about how Wayne Rooney's humility was not to be taken for granted in a cossetted age.
"He's a one-off in terms of the modern type of fragile player we're getting today, cocooned by their agents, mothers and fathers, psychologists, welfare officers," Ferguson said. "Rooney's a cut to the old days."
Ferguson cannot give players hunger; that must come from within. But he can find the right characters and help to shape them. He did that with Beckham and might have continued doing so had the player not fallen for a Spice Girl and the glamorous lifestyle that came with her.
In Ferguson's eyes, Beckham took his eye off the ball. Beckham disagreed, vehemently at the time, but he acknowledges now that Ferguson was a second father to him, passing down values that have helped to shape the rest of his career. Perhaps the rest of his life.
Given half a chance, back in Manchester with AC Milan for tomorrow's second leg of their Champions League round-of-16 tie, Beckham will talk about how some of Ferguson's greatest work has been done far away from the first-team pitch, teaching teenage boys what it takes to reach the top.
Even as his former manager smiles and changes the subject, Beckham will speak as he was taught to all those years ago -- with humility and respect. (© The Times, London)