David Beckham: My Side

David Beckham: My Side

1

Murdering the Flowerbeds

‘Mrs Beckham? Can David come and have a game in the park?’

I’m sure Mum could dig it out of the pile: that first video of me in action. There I am, David Robert Joseph Beckham, aged three, wearing the new Manchester United kit Dad had bought me for Christmas, playing football in the front room of our house in Chingford. Twenty-five years on, and Victoria could have filmed me having a kickabout this morning with Brooklyn before I left for training. For all that so much has happened during my life – and the shirt I’m wearing now is a different colour – some things haven’t really changed at all.

As a father watching my own sons growing up, I get an idea of what I must have been like as a boy; and reminders, as well, of what Dad was like with me. As soon as I could walk, he made sure I had a football to kick. Maybe I didn’t even wait for a ball. I remember when Brooklyn had only just got the hang of standing up. We were messing around together one afternoon after training. For some reason there was a tin of baked beans on the floor of the kitchen and, before I realised it, he’d taken a couple of unsteady steps towards it and kicked the thing as hard as you like. Frightening really: you could fracture a metatarsal doing that. Even as I was hugging him better, I couldn’t help laughing. That must have been me.

It’s just there, wired into the genes. Look at Brooklyn: he always wants to be playing football, running, kicking, diving about. And he’s already listening, like he’s ready to learn. By the time he was three and a half, if I rolled the football to him and told him to stop it, he’d trap it by putting his foot on it. Then he’d take a step back and line himself up before kicking it back to me. He’s also got a great sense of balance. We were in New York when Brooklyn was about two and a half, and I remember us coming out of a restaurant and walking down some steps. He was standing, facing up towards Victoria and I, his toes on one step and his heels rocking back over the next. This guy must have been watching from inside the restaurant, because suddenly he came running out and asked us how old our son was. When I told him, he explained he was a child psychologist and that for Brooklyn to be able to balance himself over the step like that was amazing for a boy of his age.

It’s a little too early to tell with Romeo, but Brooklyn has got a real confidence that comes from his energy, his strength, and his sense of coordination. He’s been whizzing around on two-wheeled scooters – I mean flying – for years already. He’s got a belief in himself, physically, that I know I had as well. When I was a boy, I only ever felt really sure of myself when I was playing football. In fact I’d still say that about me now, although Victoria has given me confidence in myself in all sorts of other ways. I know she’ll do the same for Brooklyn and Romeo too.

For all that father and son have in common, Brooklyn and I are very different. By the time I was his age, I was already telling anyone who would listen: ‘I’m going to play football for Manchester United.’ He says he wants to be a footballer like Daddy, but United or Real? We haven’t heard that out of him yet. Brooklyn’s a really strong, well-built boy. Me, though, I was always skinny. However much I ate it never made any difference while I was growing up. When I was playing football, I must have seemed even smaller because, if I wasn’t with my dad and his mates, I was over at Chase Lane Park, just round the corner from the house, playing with boys twice my age. I don’t know if it was because I was good or because they could kick me up in the air and I’d come back for more, but they always turned up on the doorstep after school:

‘Mrs Beckham? Can David come and have a game in the park?’

I spent a lot of time in Chase Lane Park. If I wasn’t there with the bigger boys like Alan Smith, who lived two doors away on our road, I’d be there with my dad. We’d started by kicking a ball about in the back garden but I was murdering the flowerbeds so, after he got in from his job as a heating engineer, we’d go to the park together and just practise and practise for hours on end. All the strengths in my game are the ones Dad taught me in the park 20 years ago: we’d work on touch and striking the ball properly until it was too dark to see. He’d kick the ball up in the air as high as he could and get me to control it. Then it would be knocking it in with each foot, making sure I was doing it right. It was great, even if he did drive me mad sometimes. ‘Why can’t you just go in goal and let me take shots at you?’ I’d be thinking. I suppose you could say he was pushing me along. You’d also have to say, though, that it was all I wanted to do and I was lucky Dad was so willing to do it with me.

My dad, Ted, played himself for a local team called Kingfisher in the Forest and District League, and I would go along with my mum Sandra, my older sister Lynne and baby Joanne to watch him play. He was a centre-forward; Mark Hughes, but rougher. He had trials for Leyton Orient and played semi-professional for a couple of years at Finchley Wingate. Dad was a good player, although he always used to get caught offside. It took me a long time to understand how that rule worked and I’m not sure Dad ever really got it sorted out. I loved watching him. I loved everything that went with the game, and I could tell how much playing meant to him as well. When he told me he was going to pack in playing regularly himself so he could concentrate on coaching me – I must have been eight or nine at the time – I knew exactly what that sacrifice meant even though he never talked about it in that way.

From the time I was seven, Dad was taking me to training with Kingfisher on midweek evenings down at a place called Wadham Lodge, just round the North Circular Road from us. I’ve got great memories of those nights, not just being with Dad and his mates, but of the ground itself. It was about ten minutes from the house in the car. We’d drive down this long street of terraced houses and pull in through a set of big, blue wooden gates, past the first car park and onto the second car park, which was right next to the training ground. The pitch was orange-coloured gravel and cinder, with proper goalposts and nets, and there was a little bar, the social club, that overlooked it. Beyond that pitch, there were three or four others, including the best one which was reserved for cup games and special occasions. It had a little wall all around it and two dugouts. It seemed like a massive stadium to me at the time. I dreamt about playing on that pitch one day.

Wadham Lodge wasn’t very well looked after back then. I remember the changing rooms were pure Sunday League: mud on the floor, really dingy lighting and the water dribbling out of cold showers. Then there was the smell of the liniment that players used to rub on their legs. It would hit you as soon as you walked in. There were floodlights – just six lamps on top of poles – but at least once every session they’d go out and somebody would have to run in and put coins in a meter that was in a cupboard just inside the changing room door.

As well as training with Kingfisher during the football season, we’d be back at Wadham Lodge in the summer holidays. Dad used to run, and also play for, a team in the summer league, so I’d come to games with him. We’d practise together before and after and then, while his match was taking place on the big pitch, I’d find some other boys to play with on the cinder next door. I’ve had most of my professional career at clubs with the best facilities and where everything’s taken care of, but I’m glad I had the experience of a place like Wadham Lodge when I was a boy. I mean, if I’d not been there with my dad, I might have grown up never knowing about Soap on a Rope. More to the point, it was where I started taking free-kicks. After everybody else had finished and was in the social club, I’d stand on the edge of the penalty area and chip a dead ball towards goal. Every time I hit the bar was worth 50p extra pocket money from my dad that week. And, just as important, a pat on the back.

The other dads might bring their boys along sometimes but, once I started, I was there week in and week out. I’d sit in the bar and watch the men training and then, towards the end of the session, they’d let me join in with the five-a-sides. I was so excited to be out there playing with the rest of them – these grown men – that I took whatever I had coming. I do remember an occasion when one of them came flying into me with a tackle and Dad wasn’t happy about it at all but, usually, if I took a knock he’d just tell me to get up and get on with it. He warned me that I had to be prepared to get a bit roughed up now and again. If he’d been running around telling people not to tackle me all evening, it would have been pointless me being there in the first place. The fact that I always seemed to be playing football with players who were bigger and stronger than me when I was young, I’m sure, helped me later on in my career.

On the nights when I wasn’t at Wadham Lodge, I’d be in Chase Lane Park. We had this secret cut-through to get there: across the road and then four or five houses down from my mum and dad’s where there was a private alley. We’d wait around at the top of it until there was nobody about and then sprint fifty yards to the hedge, then through it and the hole in the fence. I still have one or two friends who I first met in Chase Lane. I went on to school with Simon Treglowen and his brother Matt, and I’m still in touch with Simon now. We decided we got on all right after one particular row about whether or not I’d scored past him in goal. That turned into a big fight, even though Simon’s four years older than me. Fighting: it’s a funny way boys have of making friends. Usually we’d just kick a ball around until it got dark, but there also used to be a youth club, in a little hut, run by a lady called Joan. My mum knew her and would phone up to say we were on our way over. You could play table tennis or pool and get a fizzy drink or some chocolate. There was an outdoor paddling pool at the back that got filled up in the summer. Some days, Joan would organise a minibus and we’d all head off down to Walthamstow baths. There was also a skate ramp by the side of the hut. I suppose my mum knows now that some of my cuts and bruises were from skateboarding, even though I wasn’t allowed on a skateboard back then. The one bad knock I got happened one evening when I fell getting our ball back from the paddling pool after it had been closed up for the night. Joan was still there and she phoned home to tell my parents how I’d got the cut on my head. For about six or seven years, into my early teens, it was a whole world in that park. All those facilities have gone now. It’s a shame. Times change and some kids started messing the place up until it had to be closed down.

My very first close friend was a boy called John Brown who lived just up the road. John and I went through both primary and secondary school together. He wasn’t really a footballer so, when I couldn’t talk him into a kickabout over at the park, we’d play Lego or Gameboy round at one of our houses, or ride our bikes or rollerskate up and down our road. Later on, when I started playing for Ridgeway Rovers, John used to come along to some of our games even though he didn’t play. A few of us, especially me and another Ridgeway boy named Nicky Lockwood, were always up for the pictures and John used to come too; I remember Mum would drop us off at the cinema over in Walthamstow. When we were little, John Brown and I were best mates but I suppose my football took me in a very different direction. John went off and became a baker after we both left school.

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Lucky for me, they loved their football at my first school, Chase Lane Primary. I can still remember Mr McGhee, the teacher who used to coach us: a Scotsman and passionate with it, a bit like Alex Ferguson in fact. Kids used to tell tales about Mr McGhee throwing teacups, cricket balls, anything really, at the wall when he was annoyed. I never witnessed that myself but we were all a bit scared of his reputation, anyway. We had a really good team and used to turn out in this all-green kit. I was playing football with the Cubs as well, which you could only do if you went to church on Sunday. So all the family – me, Mum and Dad and my sisters – made sure we were there every time, without fail.

My parents knew how much I loved football. If there was a way for me to get a game, they did everything they could to make it happen. Whether it was playing or getting coaching, I’d have my chance. I was at every soccer school going. The first one was the Roger Morgan Soccer School, run by the former Spurs winger. I went there over and over again, doing all the badges until I got the gold. Dad was a lifelong United supporter and we started going to watch them when they played in London. My mum’s dad was diehard Tottenham and he used to take me to White Hart Lane. Every Christmas, I’d end up with a United kit and a Tottenham kit, and maybe an England kit from my mum. If it was football – or anything to do with football – I was there.

Mum wasn’t all that keen on football. Her dad was, though, which was one of the reasons I loved being with him as much as I did. Joe was employed in the print trade. For a long time he was over the road from home, at the Stationery Office in Islington. Then he moved down to Fleet Street. He and my grandmother, Peggy, lived on an estate just off City Road, down near Old Street. My dad went out to work early most Saturdays. The rest of us would get on the train at Walthamstow and go down to see my grandparents for the day. We had to get there before noon: Grandad would be off about 11.30 if he was going to watch Spurs. Before leaving, he’d come downstairs and watch me play football in the little park on the estate. I’m sure Grandad remembers those times: he definitely remembers me breaking his spectacles. I was only about six but I was already kicking a ball hard enough that his glasses didn’t stand a chance the time I accidentally caught him full in the face.

Once Joe went off to White Hart Lane, Peggy would take us off to the shops. Sometimes we’d go to the West End but, more often, we’d get the bus up to the Angel and go to Chapel Market. I didn’t mind at all. I had to follow Mum and Nan and my sisters around for a bit, but I always seemed to wangle a toy or something by the end of the afternoon. We sometimes had pie and mash for lunch in Chapel Street as well. Once we got back to the flat, Joe would be getting in from football. Then he’d get ready to go out and do the night shift. Dad would pick us up in Wenlock Street after finishing work and we’d all drive home together.

Once I started to get serious about playing football, Joe and Peggy would come over to us on Sunday morning. Grandad came and watched all my games. I liked him being there: he was softer with me than Dad when it came to talking about the match and how I’d played. Mum wanted to come too, so Peggy would stay at our house. She’d look after Lynne and have Sunday dinner ready when we all came in. Then, Sunday afternoons, we often went down to Victoria Park in Hackney. There was plenty of open space to play football with Dad and Grandad, and there were lots of other things to do as well: a big playground, the boating lake and even a little zoo.

I couldn’t have asked for anything more and I didn’t, but along came Ridgeway Rovers anyway and took over my life. I was seven, so it’s not surprising I’m not sure now how it all happened. My mum remembers me being spotted playing in the park and a bloke called Stuart Underwood knocking on our front door to ask about me. My dad, though, reckons there was an advert about a new boys’ football team in the local paper and that afternoon over at Chase Lane was a sort of trial. Either way, I’m really grateful – and proud – that I was part of that first Ridgeway Rovers team. And the man who set up the team had a lot to do with me making a future for myself in the game.

Stuart Underwood’s a massive bloke. About six feet four, with a big booming voice and this fantastic presence about him. He was a bit of a sergeant major type. I was scared of him at first. He could be pretty tough: no matter how young you were, if you weren’t playing well, in a game or in training, he’d tell you that you were rubbish and needed to do better, instead of just jollying you along. Stuart was honest with you. But he wasn’t one of those dads who stood on the touchline at kids’ games, bawling and screaming. He had this softness about him as well. His own son Robert played in the team, but Stuart seemed like a father figure to all of us. And he had this dream about creating a really good team.

Every single boy just loved playing for Stuart and we had this fantastic team spirit. He’d organise for Ridgeway to play in competitions in Holland and Germany, so we gained the same sort of experience as a professional footballer playing in the Champions League or an international tournament. Other fathers got involved, too. My dad took on some of the coaching. So did a man called Steve Kirby, whose son Ryan played for Ridgeway and ended up playing against me ten years later in the League. Dad was always a fit man and he did running with us, as well as working on our technique. Steve was a bit of a tactician and he used to do positional play, runs off the ball and that kind of thing. A lot of the time, all three of them would be there and we’d split into smaller groups: there weren’t many boys our age who got that much attention paid to their training. The three of them – Steve, Stuart and my dad – used to argue a lot, but it was all in the cause. They were honest people wanting to make the team as good as they could.

It worked. I don’t know where Stuart found them, but we had some really good players: Ryan Kirby, Micah Hyde, who’s now at Watford, Jason Brissett, who was at Bournemouth last I heard, and Chris Day, who was a lanky centre-forward for us but ended up playing in goal for QPR. It was all about the team, though. Stuart Underwood’s son, Robert, was a perfect example. To be honest, he didn’t have great ability to start with but because he worked so hard at his game, he made himself into a good team player. That was credit to him, but it was credit to Stuart and the rest of us too. We never once thought to ourselves: he’s not good enough to be playing for Ridgeway.

Stuart had to have everything done properly. We always had a decent pitch on which to play our home games, like the one at Ainslie Wood Sports Ground, which was just a short walk from home. We trained twice a week. Stuart lived nearby, in Larkswood Road, and there was a park there, with decent facilities, that we used to use. One way or another, Stuart would make sure we had what we needed. When we had important games, like Cup finals, he’d insist on us eight and nine-year-olds wearing a collar and tie. One important rule was that if you didn’t turn up for training in the week, then you didn’t play at the weekend; it was as simple as that. It was a good habit to learn: I always made sure I was there and that I was there on time. I loved the training anyway. Lived for it. But it was also another reason we had such a good team: Ridgeway Rovers always went about things the right way.

With so many boys’ sides, you notice the most talented players. They make a big fuss of the individuals in the team. That wasn’t allowed with Ridgeway: any showing off and you’d be brought back down. It was all about the team. In no time, we were starting to win games ten and eleven-nil and people could see there was something special about us. Professional clubs started watching our players, and I think West Ham asked about me when I was eleven. But Stuart, Steve and my dad had decided that there should be no need for any of us to be involved with clubs until we were older. If you were training with a professional club, the rule was you couldn’t be training with a Sunday League team at the same time. I knew I didn’t want that, I wasn’t ready for it. We all stuck with Ridgeway. I think, in the long run, those rules were why so many of us went on to make a success of ourselves. We learnt about commitment and dedication right from the start.

I had to learn about not playing football too. Because I was smaller than most, I used to get my share of knocks. Dad had drummed into me that, most of the time, the best thing to do was just get up and get on with it, like I’d had to with his mates over at Wadham Lodge. He taught me a lot about avoiding injury as well. As a winger – and because people were starting to hear about me a bit – I often had a defender trying to give me a kick. Dad worked with me on keeping the ball moving, releasing it quickly once it was under control. That still helps me keep out of scrapes as a professional player. And it’s the best way to play. When I was about ten, I did have one layoff through injury: the kind that happens to lots of boys. Running and jumping all the time, especially on hard pitches, ends up jarring knees, shins and ankles. With me, it was my heels: pins and needles at first and then, later, aching during and after games. I tried putting bits of foam in my boots but eventually I had to have a complete break from football. I couldn’t play, I couldn’t train. Couldn’t even have a kickabout over at the park. That was the longest five weeks of my life and, in a way, I’ve never got over it. Having to watch football instead of playing it still has me climbing up walls.

Ridgeway Rovers was a great time for all of us, not just the players. Our families got involved, whether it was washing kit, driving us about, coming on trips or raising funds. That team was together for six years, which meant our families were, too. And you can’t spend that amount of time together without becoming pretty close. I remember Micah Hyde’s dad, Ken, used to have dreadlocks: him and my dad – short back and sides – would be stood on the touchline together on a Sunday for the Ridgeway game. The parents used to organise dinners and Friday night dances to help raise money to pay for the team. Even though it was Dad who took us for training, my mum probably put in almost as many hours on me and my football, despite her job as a hairdresser. She was the only one of the mums who drove, so if there was a minibus run she always ended up with the job. When Dad was out working, Mum would be the one who got me to where I needed to be, when I needed to be there, with the right stuff ready in the right bag.

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Looking back, it must have been quite hard for my sisters, with so much of our family time being tied up with my football. I’ve spoken to Lynne about it since and she says she did feel a bit left out by it all. She’s three years older than me and had her own friends and just got on with her own life. Even so, when we were at school together Lynne would always stick up for me if there was any trouble. One lunchtime at Chingford High, I remember having an argument with an older boy in the dinner queue. He ended up whacking me out in the playground. It was Lynne who took me home. She made sure I was all right and that the teachers at school knew what had happened. Football, though, she didn’t really like at all. We’ve both got our own families now: Lynne and her husband Colin have a girl and a boy, Georgina and Freddie. Even though we don’t see that much of each other because of the kids, I’d say I feel closer to my older sister these days than I ever did when we were young.

It was different with Joanne. I was five when she came along. I can still remember standing in the kitchen at home and my dad coming in and telling me she’d been born and me bursting into tears. I really wanted a brother, of course. But we got on fine: if I wanted her to go in goal in the back garden, she never said no. She just trailed after me all the time: to football, the park, the shops, everywhere. Joanne’s a hairdresser now, just like Mum, and it’s only in the last couple of years, since she started working and I got married, that we’ve stopped being together so much like that. I suppose she had to grow up eventually; and so did I. Sometimes, though, I do miss having my little mate around. I’m sure Joanne misses running around with big brother as well.

Mum always tried to make sure we sat down together to dinner as a family. That was when she and Dad would try and get me to tell them about what I’d been doing at school. I do the same with Brooklyn now. If I ask him, I usually get the same response my parents got with me: nothing. It wasn’t that it was a secret or anything. It’s just how kids are, isn’t it? When I was at primary school, I’d be around to help with meal times at home. I would take Joanne out in the garden or in the front room to play so Mum wouldn’t be tripping over a toddler while she was cooking. When it came time to sit down, I used to have the job of laying the table. Then, at secondary school, I opted to do Home Economics – cooking, basically – because the alternative was a double period of Science. I enjoyed being in the kitchen when I was at home anyway. By the time I was thirteen, if Mum was working, she’d leave me to get dinner ready for all of us. If she was cutting hair at home, I’d make cups of tea and arrange little plates of biscuits for her clients while they were there at the house.

There must have been some kind of mistake, because when I moved on to secondary school – Chingford High in Nevin Drive – it turned out they played rugby instead of football. Lucky for me, our rugby teacher, John Bullock, was tough and disciplined but a lovely man. He was great with all of us and always seemed to have a lot of time for me. He was a fantastic teacher. He died a few years back, on the same night I got sent off against Argentina in Saint-Etienne, but he was the one teacher I stayed in touch with. Even after I first went up to Old Trafford, I used to write to Mr Bullock, as well as go back to see him and the school, which I think meant a lot to him. People have told me since that he really adored me, and just talked about me all the time.

I don’t think Mr Bullock was very interested in football, but there were that many of us boys going on at him, pestering him, that he agreed to give it a go. And everything changed. As soon as we had a school football team, we started winning leagues and cups, which was great for us. It was great for the school, as well. Maybe the football helped me to be happy there. I wasn’t that interested in lessons. I was cross-country champion for the local borough and swam for Chingford High, but there was only one thing I ever wanted to do with my life. I was lucky that I had that drive from a really young age. Knowing what I wanted in the future, what would have been the point in messing about along the way? I got in trouble once or twice for being cheeky, like every schoolboy does. But, most of the time, I kept my head down and did my homework: I used to pop into Alan Smith’s house and his mum, Pat, would help me with some of it. She was really good at Maths, I remember, and Alan was too. He’s in insurance now, working for Rothschild, and I run into him now and again: he’s married and has moved away but he works from an office in his mum and dad’s loft. The important thing was that I never missed a day’s school, unless I was ill, at either Chase Lane Primary or at Chingford High.

If it hadn’t been football, I don’t know what I would have ended up doing when I grew up. I liked Music lessons and, at primary school, they thought I had a decent voice. I sang a solo in the school choir just before I left there. One subject I really enjoyed all through school was Art. Even before I went to Chingford High, I loved drawing and painting. As well as doing it at Chase Lane Primary, Joan had all the stuff we needed for painting inside the hut in the park. On a rainy day at home, I’d spend hours copying Disney cartoon figures out of comics. I seem to remember Donald Duck was my speciality. As I got older, I began drawing cartoon figures that I’d made up myself. Even the artwork ended up coming back to football, though. Once I started playing for Ridgeway Rovers, instead of Mickey and Donald, I started drawing cartoons of games and the other people involved with the team: great goals, complete with Stuart Underwood in the background, his speech bubble describing what was going on in the rest of the picture.

Playing for the school team was the way into representative football, of course, and I was able to play District for Waltham Forest and County for Essex. I’ve been lucky to have such good coaching ever since those evenings over in the park with Dad. Don Wiltshire and Martin Heather, were both great for me as a teenager, though they couldn’t have been more different. Don, who managed the District side, was this solid, well-built man with a deep voice and a way about him that told you he knew exactly what he wanted for the team. When I first started playing for Waltham Forest, it felt like being selected to play for England.

People criticise schools football sometimes, saying it’s all about getting the ball down the other end quickly, using kick and rush tactics, with the bigger kids always being the ones who get a game. All I can say is, it wasn’t like that for me at school, at District or County level. All those teams tried to play. It took me a little while to get into the side because I was so much smaller than most of the other boys my age. But once I had a chance, Don and Martin both used to encourage me, and the rest of the team, to play to our strengths.

Martin Heather was the Essex manager and the exact opposite to Don – or Stuart Underwood, for that matter. All the boys loved him. Martin was also the sort of man that our mums would fancy: quiet, always smart, very well-spoken. He was a very different kind of coach, too. He hardly ever shouted, which meant that when he did you knew he wasn’t happy. He really looked after us. I remember he took us on a football tour to Texas when I was thirteen. I think all the parents had to help come up with the money for it, but Martin organised everything.

It didn’t make any difference to me if I was on Hackney Marshes or at some tournament in a foreign country: either way, I was playing football. Because of that, most of those trips and the travelling just passed me by. For different reasons, it’s still like that for me now: get on a plane, then on a coach, eat, sleep, play the game and then back on the plane and home again. I do, though, remember going with Essex to play in America.

I love the States. I love the patriotism, the way of life. For once, I didn’t even feel homesick. That trip was different because instead of staying together, we lodged on our own with local families. The first people I stayed with were Mexican. Their house was just a couple of steps up from being a shack, to be honest, but they turned out to be really nice people. They had a son who was taking part in the competition. They were mad about football and couldn’t do enough for me. All my Essex team-mates were staying in these huge houses and being driven around in huge cars. We’d just get in the pickup and drive down to McDonald’s for breakfast every morning. I had such a great week with that family: I sometimes find myself thinking about them even now.

Happy at home and playing as much football as I was, there was only one worry in my life: I thought Manchester United were never going to notice me down in London. The Ridgeway policy of young boys not going off straight away to professional clubs didn’t bother me. I was having a great time playing and training with the team and, because of my dad, there was only one professional club I ever wanted to play for. In the back of my mind I just had to trust that, if I got on and worked hard, United would hear about me. What else could I do?

Word got around about the success of Ridgeway Rovers and we got used to the scouts turning up at our games every week. I know my dad was approached by scouts from West Ham and Wimbledon, as well as from Arsenal and Spurs. When the time came to train with a professional club, I had to choose between the two North London clubs, as I couldn’t have gone to United anyway, unless we’d moved up to Manchester. I chose Spurs. Maybe it had something to do with my grandad being Tottenham mad. I remember saying to Mum at the time:

‘Grandad will be pleased, won’t he?’

Tottenham seemed a friendly club; back then David Pleat was the manager. I just felt more at home there. The coaching was good and Spurs had some excellent players of my age: Nick Barmby was in the same group and so was Sol Campbell, who already had this great presence about him. I don’t know what the coaches and the other lads thought about me turning up to train in my Manchester United kit. I wasn’t going to hide the fact that I was a United fan, even though I enjoyed my time at White Hart Lane.

Despite the interest from London clubs, for me it was always Manchester United. I might have ended up being a supporter or playing for them anyway, but I’m sure Dad was the main factor. He was the original Cockney Red. And he was passing the passion on to me even before I knew he was doing it. Dad was ten years old at the time of the 1958 Munich Air Crash. He had already been following United but the disaster turned it into a lifelong obsession for him. I think it was the same for a lot of supporters of his generation. When I was young, we used to talk about the United team of the time: Robson, Strachan, Hughes and the rest. But he used to tell me about the Busby Babes, about the European Cup at Wembley, about Best and Stiles and Law and Charlton. What other club could there have been for me? Here I was, almost a teenager, with people saying they thought I had half a chance of someday making it as a professional player. I don’t know about United born; I was definitely United bred. And what kept me going was the idea that, eventually, I’d get the call I’d been waiting for ever since I’d first kicked a ball.

  Eras of David Beckham’s hair ranked

2

The Man in the Brown Sierra

‘So, what have you got to tell me about this young lad?’

‘What’s the matter, Mum?’

‘Lucky you had a good game today.’

‘Why?’

I’d been playing for my District side, Waltham Forest, away to Redbridge. I must have been eleven. My dad had been working and couldn’t come to watch, so Mum had taken me to the game. The ‘good game’ was probably one of the best I ever had for that team, and afterwards I remember coming out of the changing room with the rest of the boys. Mum was waiting for me. We got to the car park and I put my bag in the back of the car. It was only then that I noticed she had tears in her eyes.

‘Just lucky you had a good game.’

‘Yeah. But why?’

‘That man over there: he’s a Man United scout. They want to have a look at you.’

I can still remember the rush of joy and excitement. There was relief in there too. I burst into tears on the spot, just cried and cried. I couldn’t believe how happy I felt. I’d wondered for such a long time if I’d ever hear those words. He’s a Man United scout. His name was Malcolm Fidgeon. He came back to the house and talked to my parents and explained the club wanted to give me a trial in Manchester. The next thing, a few days later, Malcolm was turning up in his brown Ford Sierra to drive me up north.

I owe Malcolm a lot. He was United’s London scout and the person who took me up to the club and looked out for me until I moved there permanently. I went up that first time and then back for two or three other trials. I loved it, staying up in Manchester for days or a week at a time, playing football and talking about football from morning until night. I did everything I could to make the right impression and worked as hard as I could. Eventually, we were told they’d be interested in signing me. One evening at home, the phone rang and Dad answered it. A minute or two later, he came back in with this look on his face, like he couldn’t believe what he’d just heard. Of course, this was his dream as well as mine beginning to happen.

‘That was Alex Ferguson.’

Everything went quiet.

‘He phoned to say they’d enjoyed meeting you, that you’ve got talent and that they think your character is a credit to you, and to me and Mum.’

And there was more.

‘He said you’re just the kind of boy Manchester United are looking for.’

That was the first contact I had with the man who became the driving force behind my career. Thinking back, for all my worrying about whether they would want me or not, maybe I wasn’t surprised United came in when they did; or that the manager knew who I was. The summer before, I’d already had my chance to play in front of a capacity crowd at Old Trafford.

I was ten years old when I attended the Bobby Charlton Soccer School for the first time. I had seen a feature about it on Blue Peter. Playing football in Manchester? With Bobby Charlton? I suppose Mum and Dad’s only choice in the matter was how they were going to fund it: I think Grandad paid in the end. It was a residential soccer school for that first summer, with hundreds of kids from all over the world staying in the university halls of residence while the students were on holiday. It lasted the whole week and I played plenty of football, but the rest of the time I felt a bit lost. Mum and Dad came up and stayed with relatives near Liverpool, and I was on the phone to them every evening. I had toothache. I was homesick. And the week just passed me by a little.

I was desperate to have another go, so I went back the following summer. Things went a lot better. There were skills competitions on each of the courses, which used to run all through the summer, and the winners each week went through to a Grand Final back in Manchester in December. I made it through to that final and it turned out to be a fantastic weekend, for all of us. Mum and Dad stayed with me at the Portland Hotel in the city centre. I had my own room, twenty floors up, with this huge plate-glass window overlooking the city below. I think they were a bit nervous about that. On Saturday morning, we had to register and then go over to United’s old training ground, the Cliff, for the first part of the competition which was held in the indoor sports hall: ball-juggling, target shooting and short passing. I think I was in the lead already by the time we broke off for lunch.

The second part of the competition was staged out on the pitch at Old Trafford. I was so nervous I don’t think I’d eaten for a couple of days. Mum and Dad were there, probably feeling worse than me. That afternoon, United were playing Spurs, and by the end of the competition there must have been about 40,000 supporters in the ground. I was so excited to be out on that pitch, I wasn’t even thinking about winning. They introduced each of us to the crowd before we did the dribbling and then the long passing. I can still remember when they announced ‘David Beckham’ and said I was from ‘Leytonstone’ – all the Tottenham fans started cheering. Then the guy on the tannoy said: ‘And David is a massive United fan’. All the Spurs fans started jeering and the rest of the ground, the home supporters, began applauding. To be fair, I got a decent reception from both sets of fans when the announcement was made that I’d won.

We went up to the Europa Suite in the main stand where Bobby Charlton was doing the presentation. It was all quite an experience for an eleven-year-old. I know Mum and Dad were very proud; people were coming up to them saying how well they thought I’d done. Maybe, though, it didn’t overwhelm me completely. I think the function was still going on, but I drifted away into a corner because the game had started and I wanted to watch it on one of the televisions. It had been some afternoon. It was some prize too: a fortnight’s training with Barcelona at the Nou Camp in Spain.

I couldn’t wait to get over there. Terry Venables was the Barcelona manager, while Mark Hughes and Gary Lineker were on the playing staff. Me and two other lads were joined by Ray Whelan from the Bobby Charlton Soccer School. The four of us were put up in what looked like a farmhouse – a pretty luxurious one – at the heart of the Nou Camp complex. I think that building had been there even before the football club was and you could sense the history of everything that had happened since: there were pennants and memorabilia on the walls, dating way back, alongside pictures of famous players from Barcelona’s past. This was a place where legends had been born.

The farmhouse was right next to the first team’s training ground, in the shadow of the stadium itself, and we stayed there with the boys from other parts of Spain who were with Barcelona’s youth team. I was still only eleven and saw one or two things that I wasn’t used to from life in Chingford: in the evenings, prostitutes would walk up and down outside, on the other side of the railings, and all the older Spanish boys would be leaning out of the windows whistling at them. We used to have this hot chocolate drink at night that I liked so much I drank two one evening and made myself sick. I went to the toilet, turned the light on and saw a cockroach crawl across the floor. What was I doing here? The football was an experience. And so was the rest of it.

We’d go out every day with Barça’s youth teams and reserve players. The training was amazing. The only catch was that Ridgeway had a Cup Final against a team called Forest United, at White Hart Lane, at the weekend. I was devastated at the prospect of missing that game; there was also my grandad, who was such a big Spurs fan and wanted to see me play there. He ended up paying for me to fly home for the game and then back to Barcelona again. There wasn’t a happy ending, though. Forest United had a young Daniele Dichio playing for them, aged twelve, already seven foot tall and growing a beard. They beat us 2-1 that afternoon. Then I was straight on the plane and back to Spain, on my own and not really sure if I fancied another week away from Chingford.

Barcelona, the football club, was really impressive. The training facilities were excellent, although the young kids trained on a gravel pitch, which I wasn’t used to and didn’t really enjoy. The first team had an immaculate surface to play on, and the reserve team had a 20,000-seater stadium all of their own. We were taken inside the Nou Camp one day. You come up from the dressing rooms, past the club chapel that’s off to one side in the tunnel, and then up a flight of stairs onto the pitch. Sometimes you can’t help yourself: with acres of grass and the stands towering above, I started running up and down, kicking an imaginary football and pretending to be Mark Hughes. What would it be like, to be out there actually playing a game?

All the boys who I was training with were probably sixteen and seventeen. The two lads who’d finished second and third at Old Trafford were fifteen and nineteen. Everybody was really friendly but, at first, it was like: What’s this child with the spiky hair and the funny accent doing here? Once we got started, everything was fine. Obviously, none of the coaches or the other players spoke English but, if we were playing, we could make ourselves understood. It was the first time I’d been in a professional set-up, training with professional players. It opened my eyes. We’d watch the first team most days and, one time, we went out and were introduced to Mr Venables and the players. Of course, I’m quite good friends with Mark Hughes now. He often laughs about that time in Spain: the Barcelona players didn’t have a clue who we were. I still have the photo of me, Mark, Terry Venables and Gary Lineker that was taken that afternoon.

It was an exciting time. I was training with Spurs, and United had let me know they were more than just interested. I went up to Manchester a few times in the holidays, always with Malcolm Fidgeon in that brown Sierra, and hooked up with the team when they came down to London to play. The club in general, and Alex Ferguson in particular, did their best to make me feel a part of it all. The older players, like Bryan Robson and Steve Bruce, gave me some stick about those times once I eventually joined the club. I was at pre-match meals and I’d be in the dressing room after games, helping clear away all the kit. One afternoon, when United were away to West Ham, they invited me to come along as the mascot. I was given a United tracksuit and there I was, at Upton Park, warming up on the pitch with the likes of Bryan Robson and Gordon Strachan. Then they let me sit on the bench for the game. I even spotted myself on Match