Beckham poised for United reunion
The firecrackers will crackle as usual in the San Siro on Tuesday night, amid what promises to be an electrifying UEFA Champions League atmosphere. It is AC Milan versus Manchester United. David Beckham versus Sir Alex Ferguson. A reunion to stir the emotions and set the adrenaline coursing.
It is the first time Beckham has come up against his former club since he left Old Trafford in 2003. Trust 'Mr Hollywood' to do so in European club football's most prestigious competition and in a last-16 tie which is so hard to call.
You can be sure the Red Devils fans travelling to Milan will want to see Beckham on the end of a thumping, but they will also recognise the place United hold in his heart. If they didn't then the England international has reminded them this past fortnight.
"Coming to terms with with not being a United player was certainly the toughest thing I've ever had to deal with," Beckham said. "The relationship I have with the fans is still important to me. I went through some difficult times but they never stopped supporting me."
The bad times are well documented. The backlash following his sending-off at the 1998 FIFA World Cup France™. The antipathy of Sir Alex Ferguson towards Beckham's celebrity lifestyle. The famous flying boot in the changing room, which saw the free-kick specialist sporting a steri-strip over one of his eyebrows after becoming an accidental victim of one of the United manager's post-match rants.
There is no doubt relationships were strained, acrimonious even, when he left for Real Madrid in a £25m transfer. But to United fans, so many of whom currently despair at the club's £710m debts and wave their 'Newton Heath' scarves in protest at the the American owners, Beckham is a product of how they wish the club was still run.
He is a shining light of the class of 1992. The class which gave birth to the Neville brothers, Gary and Phil, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and Beckham himself.
No British football club in modern times has nurtured such an array of international talent at the same time from its own nursery. It saved United a fortune and provided a vibrant, talented group of players-cum-fans with a passion for the club and a zest for success.
For a decade or more, Beckham and Co were the heartbeat of United. Without them Ferguson would not have compiled 11 Premier League titles. Nor would he have won the Champions League against Bayern Munich in 1999, a victory which said so much about the team's fighting spirit and refusal to give in.
Beckham's contributions were vital. In 13 years he played 394 times for the club, scoring 85 goals and winning six Premier League titles and a Champions League. One of those goals, of course, was the one he netted from just inside his own half against Wimbledon in 1996, floating the ball over the head of goalkeeper Neil Sullivan.
In many ways it was the goal which made Beckham's name. The goal which announced his swiftness of mind and his ability to strike a football sweeter than just about anyone in the world.
The fans remember that. They also remember a player with a phenomenal work-rate and one whose honesty and desire has seen him overcome so much in the seven years away from Old Trafford.
He won over the doubters at Real Madrid, where he played 116 games and scored 13 goals, seizing the La Liga title in his final season. His time at the Home Depot Center for Los Angeles Galaxy has not been wildly successful, but his determination to prolong his England career from such a distance spoke volumes for his character.
That craving to continue to serve his country, of course, is what took him to AC Milan. It is why Beckham is still a dangerous opponent at the age of 34. Still with the capacity to whip in precision crosses and deliver savage free-kicks.
No longer can he perform as he did for England when he scored the last-minute equaliser against Greece which saw them qualify for Korea/Japan 2002 - a performance which arguably was his greatest at Old Trafford. But he can still make a difference.
Ferguson knows that. So do United's fans. Which is why on Tuesday, no doubt for old time's sake, they will be prepared to applaud his appearance in the famous red and black stripes of Milan, while hoping his reunion is anything but a happy one.