There’s something special about discovering a footballer. I’m not talking about Bob Bishop finding George Best in Belfast or Billy Behan spotting Paul McGrath out in Dalkey. I’m talking about a young football obsessed kid discovering a talent coming up through the ranks and saying, “that’s the guy.”
It might sound delusional. He might have already been on the cusp of his Manchester United career, but I’ve always felt like I discovered David Beckham.
When I was a kid, United jerseys were everything to me. I had the 1991 Adidas jersey but I was too young for it really. The 1993 title winning jersey was merely an early flirtation. The 1994-95 home Umbro kit was my first real love, with that wrap-around-stadium and Eric Cantona’s collar turned up.
It was the jersey I first saw David Beckham wearing for Manchester United. Sparsely enough that first season. Galatasaray at home in the Champions League when he scored and Coventry away when Andy Cole did the business.
Manchester United came to Ireland in August 1995 and Beckham wore that jersey when he scored against Shelbourne. It was enough for me. David Beckham from London was to be our next bonafide star.
Why Beckham? I don’t know. Maybe it was because he was a right footer like me and played the way I thought I played, but I’ll never know for certain.
The following day I went into the Manchester United shop on Roches Street in Limerick and demanded they put ‘Beckham 28’ on the blue and white “Cantona scores a gem at Sheffield United/Kit they put on at half time at the Dell” jersey.
The people working in the shop had no idea who David Beckham was. They did a lot of Giggs, Cantona, Keane and even some Irwin, but no…. Beck-ham? “Is that your own name?” They deferred to my parents. Beckham 28 would cost a fortune. It was the start of those dual-coloured lettering styles meaning double the price. Somehow my parents never flinched. Genuine ‘letting your kid believe in himself’ type-of-parenting.
I realise now that I had jumped the gun, but I had never been so sure of anything in my life.
…and yet somehow, I was right. 1995 was the summer that Ince, Hughes and Kanchelskis were sold. The first league game was the game away to Villa which United lost, but Beckham came on at half time and scored a screamer. While the world decried Ferguson for playing the kids, I had an even bigger problem.
His number had changed. Beckham 24.
But that was only the start. It wasn’t just his number. In the next two years, while I was ruminating about an outdated jersey number, David Beckham went from starlet to celebrated celebrity footballer. League titles. Cup medals. England. Spice Girls. The goal at Wimbledon. Every goal seemed a peach, the type of goal you wished you could score if you were a professional footballer.
Should I have learned a lesson from my outdated jersey number debacle? Maybe, and yet somehow; it happened again. The season of the Wimbledon goal. Another away jersey. ‘Beckham 10’ on the blue ‘losing away to Arsenal’ shirt. Fast forward two months, Eric Cantona retired and we had Beckham 7.
There had been Beckham 28, Beckham 24, Beckham 10, Beckham 7 in the space of two years. It was just not meant to be for David Beckham jerseys and me.
I came to see Beckham 28 as a type of a curse and something I could never do again. Call it irrational superstition but I wasn’t taking any more risks. I could never get Beckham 7 on a jersey. I trusted his right boot with my life, but I knew the minute I got his new number on a jersey that it would mean change and Beckham 7 seemed the end of the line. I had ‘discovered’ him and now I feared hounding him out of United.
While David Beckham changing his number so regularly rendered my jerseys slightly more obsolete each season, as the years progressed, I began to look on that first Beckham jersey with pride. I couldn’t have made a better choice. David Beckham truly was Manchester United to his core. When I see young kids at Old Trafford wearing ‘Pogba 6’ jerseys, I feel a degree of sympathy, knowing that these jerseys will one day be regretted, recycled and dumped.
I’ve never been a gambler. Any time I ever tried to put serious thought into gambling, it went awry. Any score I ever tried to predict was wrong. Nearly any bet I ever placed lost. Except for that jersey. Beckham 28 was the best bet I ever placed.
It may or may not have been the first ever Beckham jersey. Who knows? What matters now is that each and every time I see that blue and white Beckham 28 jersey, I take a small bit of pride. It feels good knowing that for all the millions who cheered his name afterwards, that the kid in the Manchester United shop in Limerick was one of the first in line.