Football, like a cinematic masterpiece, is often defined in the hearts of its adoring beholders not uniquely by the leading lights and megastars whose domination of the limelight becomes so commonplace as to be monotonous and mundane, but by the supporting cast; the also-rans; those whose very presence, whether on a football pitch or in that Oscar winning scene, is often forgotten long before the leading stars have stopped accepting congratulations for their roles.
Many of this crew of the nearly famous have attached themselves fondly to my memories over the years. I’d like to think it’s due to my delight in cheering the underdog and remembering the full picture rather than the highlights but maybe, if I’m honest, I’m just a little bit more Robin than Batman, if you know what I mean. I don’t, but I find if you create a deliberately vague metaphor like that and then follow if with “if you know what I mean” then people tend to nod at you and smile knowingly so I leave it up to them to draw their own conclusions, it’s quite a fun game. But I digress, back to the supporting cast.
One of the most fantastic moments of David Beckham’s Manchester United career came on the opening day of the 1996/97 season. United opened away against a Wimbledon side completely unable to compete with the defending champions. This was the day, with his team already 2-0 up and cruising, that Beckham chose to announce himself to the world. Manchester United fans already knew the announcement back to front, of course, Beckham scoring a screamer on the opening day of the season was old news to them, only last time it had been obscured to the rest of the world by a 3-1 loss to Villa and Alan Hansen making himself a permanent laughing stock by announcing on Match of the Day that “you’ll never win anything with kids” at the start of the season when Manchester United went on to do just that. But this wasn’t just a screamer, it wasn’t a 30 yard volley or even one of those classic “he beats one, two, three men, round the keeper, gooooaaall…oh and look, he’s celebrating by running up to the VIP lounge and snorting a line of charlie off some whore’s tits, what a player”. It was a goal so magnificent in its invention and execution as to capture the imagination of everyone who saw it. Receiving a pass from (the legendary) Brian McClair just inside his own half Beckham took control of the ball, looked up and perfectly guided it over Neil Sullivan in the Wimbledon goal and into the net from over half a pitch away. If you watch a video of the goal on frame by frame slow motion you can spot the actual second Beckham decided the shot was on, and from there on in the result was seemingly inevitable. It may not have been the most technically brilliant goal or have come in the most important match but for sheer ballsiness alone it, and its scorer were treated with the reverence they deserved. Plenty that day suggested that we’d just seen a contender for goal of the season on the opening day, only Sir Alex Ferguson (in those pre-treble, pre-knighthood days going simply by the name “Alec”) had the nerve to say what we all knew – there were no contenders anymore, we’d just seen the goal of the season. Signed, sealed and delivered you might as well have awarded the title right then.
But us sidekick watchers often find ourselves remembering things a different way. When I think back to that famous goal I don’t just think of the glorious end of summer sunshine adding to the jubilation of thousands of fans collectively taking stock of what they’d just seen and celebrating it at the same time, I don’t just think of the look of half arrogance upon the young scorer’s face as he turned, arms aloft, to that crowd, spat impudently upon the turf of Selhurst park and prepared to receive the adulation of the footballing world, I don’t even think of the bemused resignation in the body language of the Wimbledon goalkeeper as he picked the ball out of his goal, I think of Jordi Cruyff.
Cruyff was playing his first league game for Manchester United that day after having impressed in the summer’s European Championships and signing for a fee of £4 million (back in the mid nineties that was a reasonably pricey signing which is strange to think of in a modern world where David Bentley is worth more than 4 times that and £4 million will barely buy you some Eastern European goal hanger who played every second Saturday for his pub team). Less than ten minutes previous to Beckham’s wonder goal Cruyff had picked up the ball in a similarly distant position from the Wimbledon goal and had tried the exact same thing that Beckham was to be propelled to stardom for achieving, but luck decreed that instead of sending the ball flying over Sullivan into the net he had sliced his kick wide accomplishing nothing more than giving away a goal kick. Undoubtedly this was the inspiration for Beckham’s attempt in a macho show of footballing one-upmanship minutes later.
I often wonder what would have happened if Cruyff’s shot had found its way more fortunately into the goal and how the future would have shaped up for both players. Would it have presented some kind of butterfly wing, sliding doors kind of scenario where both their careers hinged on that moment? Perhaps Cruyff would have found himself centre stage, becoming the floppy haired pin up of the late nineties and shagging a spice girl as his life, and the media spotlight it attracted, became ever more intense until he ended up being the first male in history to attempt to turn an alice band into a heterosexual fashion accessory and played his days out at some piss poor excuse for a “soccer” club in whatever American cultural wasteland he so wished. Maybe Beckham would have tried hard but ultimately not made the grade at United and ended up plying his trade at some second division team while wanking over a picture of Posh Spice and wondering what might have been. Probably not. One moment probably doesn’t have such a profound influence upon all things to come, at least not a moment as trivial as a shot at goal in an opening day cakewalk. Beckham’s natural talent and incessant determination to be the best would always have shone through in the end and Cruyff was never going to have the ability or mentality to fully emerge from his famous father’s shadow, at least not until he realised that by printing his forename instead of his surname on the back of his shirt he was only confirming the suspicions that filling daddy’s boots did indeed weigh heavy on his mind.
But if it were not for Cruyff’s attempt there would have been no Beckham goal. All the imagination and invention attributed to him were, in fact, misplaced. Even the man who picked the team, the oracle of football management himself, Sir Alex Ferguson, forgot this simple truth years later when, in an interview with David Frost he recalled that famous day and goal and trotted out an entirely false anecdote where it was Beckham himself, rather than Cruyff, who had tried and failed the same feat moments earlier before triumphantly perfecting the art at the second attempt. This is the fate of the supporting cast, it seems. Though their contributions may be important, even vital, they are lucky to even get a mention in the history books and though, perhaps, they may live out the rest of their lives cursing their erasure from history’s consciousness, I quite enjoy the stories of the nearly-made-its.