MANCHESTER, March 9 – Eighteen years after graduating from Manchester United's youth academy as part of the celebrated 'class of 92', David Beckham returns to where it all started on Wednesday.Back then, the midfielder was just one more member of Manchester United’s FA Youth Cup winning squad and still 18 months away from scoring his first goal for the club where he was to make his name.
Fast forward the best part of two decades and the spring of 2010 finds him turning out for AC Milan in the late autumn of a career which has established him as a rival to Tiger Woods as the most famous sportsman on the planet.
Floppy-haired flamboyance has given way to the chiselled elegance of early middle age, but the handsomeness that has helped make Beckham a global icon has not been withered by age.
Few would say the same about his effectiveness as a footballer. Deployed in central midfield, Beckham floundered in Milan’s 3-2 first-leg defeat, prompting United boss Sir Alex Ferguson to publicly question the judgement of his Milanese counterpart Leonardo.
Beckham and Ferugson, of course, have significant history. One of the Scottish manager’s dressing room rages left the player needing stitches for a wound inflicted, just above his eye, by a flying boot.
Beckham did not last long at Old Trafford after that, Ferguson having grown tired of the celebrity circus that surrounded a player who scored 85 goals in 394 matches for him, winning six Premier League titles and the 1999 Champions League in the process.
But the acrimony that surrounded Beckham’s 2003 departure for Real Madrid appears to have dissipated and Ferguson has recently endorsed his former player’s claim to be part of England’s World Cup squad in South Africa later this year, by which time he will have passed his 35th birthday.
Beckham, for his part, has never wavered from gracious acknowledgement of the United manager’s role in his footballing, professional and personal development and, as a result, admits that Wednesday evening is unlikely to pass without a tear or two dropping on to the Old Trafford turf.
"Coming to terms with not being a United player was certainly the toughest thing I’ve ever had to deal with," Beckham said recently.
"The relationship I have with the fans is still important to me. I went through some difficult times but they never stopped supporting me."
With United fans currently engaged in a revolt against the club’s American owners, the Glazer family, and their debt-financed vision of the future, it is a sure-fire bet that Beckham will be cheered to the rafters whenever he appears on Wednesday.
United fans have not forgotten Beckham’s determination, work-rate and love of the club he joined largely as a result of his father, Ted’s passion. It was that family connection that made the 2003 parting so painful.
When you are a Manchester United fan and a Manchester United player, you never want to play for anyone else," he said.
"United were the club I always wanted to play for and I loved every minute of my time there. The thought of playing against them for Real Madrid always gave me that sick feeling because I just missed the club so much.
"Obviously there will be big emotions on Wednesday but I don’t think it will be a problem. I’ve played in a lot of big games."