It is 20 years since one of the most notorious football dressing room incidents of all time, when Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson kicked a loose boot towards the face of David Beckham.
Both figures were already legends, both at Man Utd and in the Premier League in general, and it didn’t take long for the story to be splashed all over the tabloid front pages.
It is an incident that has never been forgotten and likely never will be, probably because if it seen as the beginning of the end of Beckham’s time at Man Utd.
When icons collide, the tales reverberate through history, and that is very much the case with this one.
The incident occurred after an FA Cup tie against Arsenal in 2003. Ryan Giggs had missed a glorious early chance to put Man Utd ahead and within minutes there were behind.
In the end they lost 2-0 and Sir Alex Ferguson was understandably angry. It was Beckham’s final year with the club, and Ferguson believed his work-levels had dropped. Whether they actually had or not is obviously something that is still debated today.
Beckham left the ground with stitches in a wound just above he left eye, yet he did not suffer the injury on the pitch. So what happened?
There are contrasting stories to say the least, but the short answer is that the wound was caused by a boot that Ferguson had kicked in the direction of Beckham in a post-match rage.
According to Beckham himself, it was all a bit of nothing really. He described it as a ‘freak accident’ and one that was forgotten about relatively quickly.
He claimed the newspapers were responsible for making it an issue, and in fairness there always was a tabloid frenzy over everything Beckham did back then.
“That was blown up out of all proportion,” Beckham explained. “I’d made a couple of mistakes during the game and he came into the dressing room and a few harsh words were exchanged.
“He started to walk over to me and he kicked out at a pile of clothes on the floor. Out came this boot and then I quickly realised how accurate his kick had been as it struck me on the head, but there weren’t any hard feelings.
“It was a complete freak accident. As far as we were concerned. it was forgotten straight away within the club, but the incident made the papers which meant that people started to speculate about our relationship.
“But as far as the boss and I were concerned it was over, done and dusted.”
It’s fair to say that Ferguson’s version of events was vastly different. In fact, every single part of his account directly contradicted that of Beckham’s.
Beckham said it was an accident and the boot was under a pile of clothes, Ferguson claimed it was very deliberate.
Beckham claimed it was quickly forgotten about, while Ferguson says it directly led to the midfielder’s departure from the club as a consequence.
Ferguson also accused Beckham of deliberately playing up to the press to get it coverage, not that the newspapers were responsible for the media storm.
“In his final season with us, we were aware that David’s work rate was dropping and we had heard rumours of a flirtation between Real Madrid and David’s camp,” Ferguson wrote in his autobiography.
“The main issue was that his application level had dropped from its traditionally stratospheric level.
“He was around 12 feet from me. Between us on the floor lay a row of boots. David swore. I moved towards him, and as I approached I kicked a boot. It hit him right above the eye.
“Of course he rose to have a go at me and the players stopped him. ‘Sit down,’ I said. ‘You’ve let your team down. You can argue as much as you like’.
“The next day the story was in the press. In public an Alice band highlighted the damage inflicted by the boot. It was in those days that I told the board David had to go.
“My message would have been familiar to board members who knew me. The minute a Manchester United player thought he was bigger than the manager, he had to go.
“I used to say, ‘The moment the manager loses his authority, you don’t have a club. The players will be running it, and then you’re in trouble’.”
Of course, you are never really likely to get the real story from either person involved in a spat. There is always too much ego and agenda involved.
What were the recollections of the other people who were in the dressing room that night? One of the few to talk about it directly is Diego Forlan.
“Ferguson was not happy because Robert Pires had made a break down the left, Gary Neville was caught too far forward, and Beckham did not cover,” Forlan recalled.
“In the locker room, Ferguson and Beckham began to insult each other. Every insult was worse than the last one and both men wanted to have the final word.
“Then Ferguson left and it seemed that the discussion was over, but then Beckham said something else.
“Ferguson turned around and saw a boot lying on the floor and kicked it toward Beckham. A stud hit him in the eyebrow and he was cut.
“We all saw the blood and thought ‘no, that didn’t happen’ but within a moment both men were getting ready to fight.
“That was when Roy Keane and Van Nistelrooy stepped in to separate them.”
Perhaps the definitive tale comes from the always laid-back Carlos Queiroz. He was Ferguson’s assistant at the time, and he has always maintained it was little more than an accident that just escalated – largely out of little more than dumb luck.
“It’s time to establish the truth behind that story,” Queiroz told Four Four Two,
“Someone once told me that if he had intended to hit Beckham with that boot, Sir Alex’s left foot must be real quality!
“I was there in the dressing room that day and, let’s put things right, it was not a good shot because the boot first hit a table and only after went in Beckham’s direction. Sir Alex, I’m sorry but your left foot was not as good as you think!”