In the autumn of 1996, I went to interview a shy 21-year-old David Beckham at a restaurant in Manchester.
It was so long ago it was even pre-Posh Spice.
While we were talking, a television on the wall began to show the video "Wannabe" by a new girl group called the Spice Girls.
David was transfixed. “Here, I must say, I do like that one in the black dress,” he said pointing up at Victoria. I slowly shook my head, and told him the ginger one was better looking.
He would of course ignore my misguided advice, and just six months later he and Victoria became a couple.
During this time, Beckham was in the first flush of fame, experiencing what possibly only George Best and Ryan Giggs had before in British football by transcending his sport.
On the way to the interview I saw his face plastered on a massive billboard on the side of the street near Old Trafford.
A Londoner who had grown up a Manchester United fan, he was fulfilling a childhood dream by playing for the club.
I have interviewed other youthful talents enjoying their first run with the team, but the vast majority don’t go on to live up to their talent.
Seventeen years later, it is fair to say Beckham wrung every last bit of talent out of himself.
I mean Beckham the footballer, for what he did on the pitch, rather than the circus that accompanied so much of his later years.
Beckham was never the most talented footballer, never a Lionel Messi, a Cristiano Ronaldo or even a Ryan Giggs. He was never blessed with what the Italians call “fantasia.”
When George Best, Beckham’s predecessor in the Manchester United No. 7 shirt, collected his trophy on his behalf for coming runners-up to Rivaldo in the FIFA World Footballer of the Year awards in 1999, he gave a surprisingly different tribute.
“Beckham didn't deserve to be voted best player in the world,” said Best, as reported by the BBC. “When he can do something else apart from cross perhaps he will…He cannot kick with his left foot, he cannot head a ball, he cannot tackle and he doesn't score many goals. Apart from that he's all right."
While Best’s view was not without merit, the real point is despite these limitations, Beckham still enjoyed an incredible career.
Beckham’s achievements always outweighed his actual talent.
In eight years in the United first team, Beckham won six Premier League titles, two FA Cups and the Champions League.
He went on to win more trophies in Spain, the USA and France, but after leaving United he never managed to repeat the sheer brilliance he showed at Old Trafford.
The best memories of Beckham will always be in a red shirt.
In his 394 games for United, he scored 85 goals and provided a constant supply of moments to cherish: his winner in the 1996 FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea at Villa Park, that goal from the halfway line against Wimbledon at Selhurst Park.
Then there were the wonderful free kicks and crosses, most famously against Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final for Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to score from.
Goals against Tottenham on the final day of the season in the Premier League and against Arsenal in that classic FA Cup semi-final replay kept United’s hopes of the Treble alive.
Though Beckham rarely beat a defender with pace, he was still blessed with vision, an impressive work rate and the ability to deliver a dead ball with stunning pace and accuracy.
As a player, he was probably at his peak during that Treble season in 1998-99.
“That season was the most incredible season any of us, maybe any footballer playing in England, will ever experience,” Beckham wrote in his autobiography. “I don’t think anything will ever match that Treble season. I will spend the rest of my career trying to equal it because that night in the Nou Camp was the greatest feeling I have known on a football pitch.”
Could he have been thinking about his best friend Beckham?
In the decade after he left Old Trafford, Beckham must have wistfully looked at his old teammates Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes and wished he too had stayed at United.
During all his globe-trotting, Beckham never repeated the form he showed at United, but he retires from football as a supreme example of how to get the best out of your talent.
You can follow Sam Pilger @sampilger
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