Brian McClair once tapped the ball to David Beckham near the halfway line in a match between Manchester United and Wimbledon. It would prove to be the flap of a butterfly’s wings that would precipitate the onrushing typhoon of Beckham’s subsequent career, incorporating as it did Premiership titles, a Champions League victory, the England captaincy, Galactico status, a century of international caps, Brand Beckham, Los Angeles, and Olympic aspirations.
McClair would’ve had the best view of anyone alive that day, as he unwittingly watched Beckham set both the ball and his career on a dramatic trajectory that, some fifteen years later, is only just showing signs of slowing. Of course, there is no telling whether he would’ve become the household name that he did had he not scored that goal. History remembers it as the moment he dramatically booted open the saloon doors of world football to announce that a new gunslinger was in town; In reality, he had emerged for Manchester United the season before, finishing as a league and FA Cup winner, prompting hushed talk of a possible last-ditch call-up for England’s Euro ’96 squad. After the Wimbledon goal, no doubt buoyed by the adrenaline boost to his confidence, impressive goals became his stock-in-trade (He would score twelve goals that season, all from outside the box).
Would he have had the same impact that season had he not broadened the parameters of his self-belief with the goal at Selhurst Park? We’ll never know. Which is why I look back on Brian McClair’s assist with more wonder than I would for just any other inconspicuous two-yard pass. I also wonder how often Beckham himself, if ever, quietly thinks what might have been if McClair had passed it to Jordi Cruyff* instead?
“Hello, Brian McClair here. I’ve just received the ball from a Ronnie Johnsen tackle. We’re two-nil up away at Wimbledon, so all is well. There are minutes left to play. Three points in the bag, a great start tae the season. I nudge the ball two yards to my right, into the path of David Beckham. We all expect big things from…he’s hit it! The ball is just hanging in the air, amazing how time slows down at times like these. If this goes in it will be replayed forever. This goal could be an all-time….it’s gone in! No way! No WAY! Look at that. Unbelievable. Big goalie must be gutted. What a goal though. My assist! Wonder if they’ll cut out my pass from all the replays in years to come? Hope not. Wow.”
(*Cruyff had tried a shot from a similarly audacious range earlier in the match, possibly planting the seed in Beckham’s head, Inception style)