Youth and early career
Having signed for Manchester United as a trainee on 8 July 1991, Beckham was part of a group of young players, including Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville and Paul Scholes, who were coached by Eric Harrison and guided the club to win the FA Youth Cup in May 1992. Beckham scored Manchester United’s second goal in the 30th minute of their 3–1 first-leg win of the final against Crystal Palace on 14 April 1992. In the second leg on 15 May, Beckham played a full 90-minutes of the fixture which ended 3–2 in favour of Manchester United and 6–3 on aggregate. Beckham’s impact led to a first-team debut on 23 September 1992, as a substitute for Andrei Kanchelskis in a League Cup match against Brighton & Hove Albion. Shortly afterwards, Beckham signed as a professional on 23 January 1993.
Manchester United would again reach the final of the FA Youth Cup, where they would face Leeds United. The first leg was played on 10 May 1993, where Beckham featured in Manchester United’s 2–0 home loss and was substituted off of the field for Robbie Savage. In the second leg on 13 May 1993, Beckham played the entire fixture of Manchester United’s 2–1 defeat, which gave Leeds United a 4–1 aggregate score. Beckham would also receive honors with the club’s reserve-team, when the squad would win the league in 1994. In September 1994, Beckham went on to gain his first full appearance in the club’s first team against Port Vale in a League Cup fixture. On 7 December 1994, Beckham made his UEFA Champions League debut, scoring a goal in a 4–0 victory at home to Galatasaray in the final game of the group stage. However, despite the victory they finished third out of four in their group behind FC Barcelona.
Preston North End (loan)
He then went to Preston North End on loan for part of the 1994–95 season to get some first team experience. He impressed, scoring two goals in five appearances, notably scoring directly from a corner kick.
Return to Manchester United
Beckham returned to Manchester and finally made his Premier League debut for Manchester United on 2 April 1995, in a goal-less draw against Leeds United. He played four times for United in the league that season, as they finished second behind Blackburn Rovers and missed a third successive Premier League title by a single point. He was not in the squad for the FA Cup final with Everton on 20 May, which they lost 1–0 and were left without a major trophy for the first time since 1989.
United manager Sir Alex Ferguson had a great deal of confidence in the club’s young players. Beckham was part of a group of young talents Ferguson brought into United in the 1990s (known as “Fergie’s Fledglings“), which included Nicky Butt and Gary and Phil Neville. When experienced players Paul Ince, Mark Hughes, and Andrei Kanchelskis left the club after the end of the 1994–95 season, his decision to let youth team players replace them instead of buying star players from other clubs (United had been linked with moves for players including Darren Anderton, Marc Overmars, and Roberto Baggio, but no major signings were made that summer), drew a great deal of criticism. The criticism increased when United started the season with a 3–1 defeat at Aston Villa, with Beckham scoring United’s only goal of the game; however, United would recover from this early season defeat and the young players performed well.
Beckham swiftly established himself as United’s right-sided midfielder (rather than a right-winger in the style of his predecessor Andrei Kanchelskis) and helped them to win the Premier League title and FA Cup double that season, scoring the winner in the semi-final against Chelsea and also provided the corner that Eric Cantona scored from in the FA Cup Final. Beckham’s first title medal had, for a while, looked like it would not be coming that season, as United were still 10 points adrift of leaders Newcastle United at the turn of the new year, but Beckham and his team-mates had overhauled the Tynesiders at the top of the league by mid March and they remained top until the end of the season. Despite playing regularly (and to a consistently high standard) for Manchester United, Beckham did not break into the England squad before Euro 96.
“It changed my life. The ball seemed to be in the air for hours and it all went quiet. Then the ball went in and it just erupted. I was on cloud nine. I just wanted to shake everybody’s hand and be out on the pitch for an hour.”
At the beginning of the 1996–97 season David Beckham was given the number 10 shirt that had most recently been worn by Mark Hughes. On 17 August 1996 (the first day of the Premier League season), Beckham became something of a household name when he scored a spectacular goal in a match against Wimbledon. With United leading 2–0, Beckham noticed that Wimbledon’s goalkeeper Neil Sullivan was standing a long way out of his goal, and hit a shot from the halfway line that floated over the goalkeeper and into the net.
When Beckham scored his famous goal, he did so in Adidas Predator shoes custom-made for Charlie Miller (“Charlie” embroidered on boots), which had been given to Beckham by mistake. In a UK poll conducted by Channel 4 in 2002, the British public voted the goal No.18 in the list of the 100 Greatest Sporting Moments. During the 1996–97 season, Beckham became an automatic first-choice player at Manchester United helping them to retain the Premier League championship, and was voted PFA Young Player of the Year by his peers.
On 18 May 1997, Eric Cantona retired as a player and left the coveted number 7 shirt free, and with Teddy Sheringham arriving from Tottenham Hotspur as Cantona’s successor, Beckham left his number 10 shirt for Sheringham and picked up the iconic number 7 shirt, famously worn by club legends George Best, Bryan Robson, and Eric Cantona, and subsequently by Cristiano Ronaldo. Manchester United started the 1997–98 season well but erratic performances in the second half of the season saw United finish second behind Arsenal.
In the 1998–99 season, he was part of the United team that won The Treble of the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League, a unique feat in English football. There had been speculation that the criticism that he had received after being sent off in the World Cup would lead to him leaving England, but Beckham decided to stay at Manchester United.
To ensure they would win the Premier League title, United needed to win their final league match of the season, at home to Tottenham Hotspur (with reports suggesting that the opposition would allow themselves to be easily beaten to prevent their deadly local rivals Arsenal from retaining the title), but Tottenham took an early lead in the match. Beckham scored the equaliser with a curling strike from 25 yards out into the top left corner of the goal and United went on to win the match and the league.
Beckham played in central midfield in United’s win over Bayern Munich in the 1999 UEFA Champions League Final, since United’s first string centre-midfielders Paul Scholes and Roy Keane were suspended for the match. United were losing the match 1–0 at the end of normal time, but won the trophy by scoring two goals in injury time. Both of the goals came from corners taken by Beckham. Those crucial assists, coupled with great performances over the rest of the season, led to him finishing runner up to Rivaldo for 1999’s European Footballer of the Year and FIFA World Player of the Year awards.
Despite Beckham’s achievements in the 1998–99 season, he was still unpopular among some opposition fans and journalists, and he was criticised after being sent off for a deliberate foul in Manchester United’s World Club Championship match against Necaxa. It was suggested in the press that his wife was a bad influence on him, and that it might be in United’s interests to sell him, but his manager publicly backed him and he stayed at the club. During the 1999–2000 season, there was a talk of a transfer to Juventus in Italy, but this never happened. Beckham helped United retain the Premier League title in 1999–2000 by an 18-point margin – after being pushed by Arsenal and Leeds United for much of the season. United won their final 11 league games of the season, with Beckham scoring five goals during this run, with his last goal coming from a swerving shot from the edge of the penalty area in their final home game against Tottenham Hotspur.
By the early 2000s, the relationship between Ferguson and Beckham had begun to deteriorate, possibly as a result of Beckham’s fame and commitments away from football. In 2000, Beckham was given permission to miss training to look after his son Brooklyn, who had gastroenteritis, but Ferguson was furious when Victoria Beckham was photographed at a London Fashion Week event on the same night, claiming that Beckham would have been able to train if Victoria had looked after Brooklyn that day. He responded by fining Beckham the maximum amount that was permitted (two weeks’ wages – then £50,000) and dropping him for a crucial match against United’s rivals Leeds United. He later criticised Beckham for this in his autobiography, claiming he had not been “fair to his teammates” Beckham had a good season for his club, though, and helped United to win the Premier League by a record margin.
“He was never a problem until he got married. He used to go into work with the academy coaches at night time, he was a fantastic young lad. Getting married into that entertainment scene was a difficult thing – from that moment, his life was never going to be the same. He is such a big celebrity, football is only a small part.”‘ – Alex Ferguson speaking about Beckham’s marriage in 2007.
He was a key player in United’s third successive league title in 2000–01 – only the fourth time that any club had achieved three league titles in a row. He scored nine goals that season, all in the Premier League.
On 10 April 2002, Beckham was injured during a Champions League match against Deportivo La Coruña, breaking the second metatarsal bone in his left foot. There was speculation in the British media that the injury might have been caused deliberately, as the player who had injured Beckham was Argentine Aldo Duscher, and England and Argentina were due to meet in that year’s World Cup. The injury prevented Beckham from playing for United for the rest of the season and they missed out on the Premier League title to Arsenal (also being knocked out of the Champions League by Bayer Leverkusen on away goals in the semi-finals), but he signed a three-year contract in May, following months of negotiations with the club, mostly concerning extra payments for his image rights. The income from his new contract, and his many endorsement deals, made him the highest-paid player in the world at the time. Despite the injury, 2001–02 was arguably Beckham’s best season as a United player; he scored 11 goals in 28 league games, and a total of 16 goals in 42 games in all competitions, the best of his career.
Following an injury early in the 2002–03 season, Beckham was unable to regain his place on the Manchester United team, with Ole Gunnar Solskjær having replaced him on the right side of midfield. His relationship with his manager deteriorated further on 15 February 2003 when, in the changing room following an FA Cup defeat to Arsenal, a furious Alex Ferguson threw  or kicked a boot that struck Beckham over the eye, causing a cut that required stitches. The incident led to a great deal of transfer speculation involving Beckham, with bookmakers offering odds on whether he or Ferguson would be first to leave the club. Although the team had started the season badly, their results improved greatly from December onwards and they won the league, with Beckham managing a total of 11 goals in 52 games in all competitions. He was still a first-choice player for England, however, and was appointed an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to football on 13 June 2003.
Beckham had made 265 Premier league appearances for United and scored 61 goals. He also made 81 Champions league appearances, scoring 15 goals. Beckham won six Premier League titles, two FA Cups, one European Cup, one Intercontinental Cup, and one FA Youth Cup in the space of 12 years. By this stage, he was their joint second longest serving player behind Ryan Giggs (having joined them at the same time as Nicky Butt, Gary Neville and Paul Scholes).