It's 1996. There he is, South London sun beating, first day of the season, picking up a lazy pass at the halfway line. Long sleeves, white and grey collar, walking calmly behind the moving ball; head up, tibia like a rubber band, ball flying through the air; Neil Sullivan off his line, hopeless, ruined.
There you are, muddy park, heaving, slate-grey sky, six years old trying to control a ball that comes up to your knees. Sleeves wide as a waistband, name of a local scaffolder in vinyl across the belly, your size four red Umbros hitting the ball as hard as they can; Chris from the next school over off his line, your dad's furious, the ball goes barely ten yards.
It's 1998. There he is, older now, still with those golden curtains, placing the ball down against Colombia next to a hole dug out by a falling Ince. Two metres, five steps, running at about a seventy degree angle. The ball curls around the wall like you've never seen before; the goalkeeper might as well be back in Bogotá, you memorise the celebration.
There you are, older now, stood still in a pristine garden, hair wet and neatly parted in the middle, placing the ball down next to your mum's potted hydrangeas. Two metres, five steps, running at about a seventy degree angle. The size four ball makes splinters of the fence like you wouldn't believe, your dad's heard the commotion while washing his car, swears furiously while you pump your arms in jubilation.
It's 2002. There he is, foot broken two months previous against Deportivo, hair pincered into a bleached-tipped fin, placing down a ball on the penalty spot. All he thinks about is the flicked boot that made him a pariah. For the first time, he looks nervous, gulping air like a winded drunk, lips puckered into a grimace. Whistle, run, ball hit as hard as he can past Cavallero to deliver redemption.
There you are, dead arm from Darren in your science class that morning, hair pincered into a mousey-brown fin, placing the ball down on white paint on gravel. All you think about is the flicked ear that earned the punch. For the first time, you look nervous, breathing like sports day, lips puckered like a kiss. School bell, run, ball hit as hard as you can past Darren and through the window of the cafeteria to deliver detention.
As football fans, it's impossible to not feel our lives somewhat defined by David Beckham. We are, each of us, inextricably linked.
As someone born in the 1990s, I've never lived without him, but there are many others older than me who've also felt their lives measured by Beckham, have felt themselves periodised by the man. Were we to be discovered by future archaeologists—shiny robots with inquisitive circuitry shit-bored of categorising the periods of time these inferior beings inhabited by standard units of measurement—the stretch between August 17, 1996, and May 18, 2013, could easily be referred to as the Beckham Age: his stardom and power colouring every aspect of the most popular sport in the world, coming to define its globalisation and increased commerciality, its excesses, it triumphs. But more specifically, I still think about my life by the eras of David Beckham, like he's the Gregorian calendar of the British school system.
When I started in primary school, when I first picked up a football, he was fresh-faced and becurtained. (My hair was long and Babybel white). When I first got in trouble, he had hair like in Taxi Driver. ("Do you think that haircut makes you look tough, Mr Diss?" "My mum cut it, sir.") When I started secondary school, he had a skinhead with a tramline, like UKG legend MC Vapour. (My head was shaved to the bone) When I decided I wanted to be a writer, he had cornrows and met Mandela. (I didn't do that one, admittedly) When I had my first kiss, he had a scruffy blonde mullet, and my dad wouldn't stop calling him 'Catweazle'. (My hair was a choppy mess, and I didn't even know what the fuck a Catweazle was) When I got my first internship, he was packed off to Los Angeles to dye his hair silver-blonde like Ravanelli. (I certainly thought about it) When I got my first full-time job, he had hair like yer man off Peaky Blinders. (I'd be lying if I said I didn't try it...)
But more so than simple aesthetics, more than just hair, the eras of Beckham embedded themselves in the psyche of those who watched him. We grew up with him when he made that mistake in 1998; fans saw their arse and the folly of empty fury, of chucking beer bottles in Paris and burning effigies in the town centre on the way home, as that soft cunt with the blonde fringe came back bigger and badder and better than ever.
We finally accepted football as a business in 2003, urging Beckham to give Fergie the shove and follow his dreams—and ours—in Madrid. We couldn't wait for him to go to Spain; pure wish fulfilment filtered through the gauze of what late critical theorist Mark Fisher called 'capitalist realism': the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it. Go be a Galáctico, Dave, with your fashionable wife and your flip-flops, while New Labour promises to burn and half a million people are ignored, and we go to war anyway. It's all going to shit, Becks, so go get a tan and do kick-ups with Ronaldo and Figo and that lad with the big calves who hits every free kick into the stands. Go live your life, mate.
We grew up with him in 2007 after LA Galaxy's 'Beckham Experiment' reminded us football in America existed, and we had to acknowledge the passage of time of English football. All those household names now suddenly aged and haggard, deeply creviced men made of bollock skin stretched over old bones, looking out of place in the shifting sands of the modern game.
We grew up with him in 2010 too, when we realised MLS was really a thing and that ignorance really was bliss; it was adorable that ex-Celtic winger Jamie Smith was out there being made to look like Pavel Nedvěd, but enjoyment is about context and who gives a shit as long as they're having fun, right? Who wouldn't want that? Seeing the raft of old stars riding their twilight years out over there felt nice, calming: like when The Undertaker comes back at WrestleMania and, yeah, his hair is mostly boot polish now, and he cuts about the ring like he's a wardrobe two men are trying to move out of a house, but it's nice to see him, isn't it? Look at those kids' faces. Hand on your chest; you can feel your pulse racing.
And you never meet anyone who really hates Beckham—even if they say they do—because they know that David Beckham is really just a mirror. He's a cypher. He's not empty, not a vacuum, certainly not thick—despite what Alistair McGowan's Big Impression and Ali G used to tell us—but there's a reason there aren't many big, juicy Beckham quotes lodged in your brain. For someone who's graced countless magazine covers, sat at endless press conference tables, and whose words have been transcribed literally millions of times: he has said almost nothing. When you Google his name, the three quotes that come up are as follows: 'As a footballer you always want to test yourself against the best', 'Nothing amazes me anymore', and 'Tom Cruise: he's a lot more famous than me'. He knows he has to say something, that the world revolves around his giving back, that we can't stand our deities to not sit there and chat even if we're not actually listening, and he was never evasive in the way that unctuous politicians are wont to do, but there's a reason why your dad likes him as much as your cousin likes him as much as your mum and your weird uncle and your granddad like him: it's because he really did do his talking on the pitch.
Even now, aged into a beautiful steak of a man, somehow more handsome than in his heyday, still racking up digits in his bank account like it's nothing, earning more from sponsorships in his first year of retirement (reportedly around £57million) than in any of his playing years, Beckham's omnipresence in the mainstream media somehow obscures just how class he was with a ball at his feet. So, now, let's forget the sarongs, the haircuts, and the Spice Girls, let's long off the tattoos, diamond earrings, and the money, too, if you can, and think: what is it that made David Beckham so great at football in the first place?
* * *
In early 1995, when David Beckham was a scrawny 19, Fergie sent him to Preston North End, the fourth most successful English club of all time in domestic competition, who were in the fourth tier fighting for promotion, for a four-week jaunt, just for a little bit of experience. They paid him £400 a week, with a bonus of £50 if he got in the match day squad.
There's only so much you can learn sitting on the bench, isn't there? Sometimes you need to sprint about a marsh trying to control a long ball forward from an ageing, angry goalkeeper in the pissing rain away at Halifax while a man who looks like something from The Hills Have Eyes puts you under pressure?.
Preston were attempting to progress back up the leagues by 'playing football', so a fancy winger from United seemed like a safe bet. But, since the club had only just freed themselves of the anti-football shackles of despised manager, John Beck, this kid 'Beckham' showing up had shades of Mr Snrub.
As soon as he arrived, the manager Gary Peters marked his card. 'This is David Beckham,' he said, introducing the teenager to his teammates in the changing room. 'He's here on a month's loan from Manchester United, and he'll be taking all our free kicks and corners from now on.' His team-mates weren't best pleased and gave him plenty of stick in return.
"We were travelling to a game, and David was reading Match magazine," ex-Preston defender Ryan Kidd told FourFourTwo in 2015. "He was reading an article about himself: when he scored in Europe [against Galatasaray] and celebrated with Eric Cantona. Raymond Sharp, the Scottish left back, got hold of this and started reading it out loud to everybody—something along the lines of 'I ran into Eric's arms, and it was wonderful...' He embarrassed him to the high heavens! I could see him glowing red, but that was the way Sharpy welcomed him into the squad."
And in his first game, number four on his back, he scored straight from a corner. They had to shut up, then. It was vintage before vintage. A classic in real time. It was all there: the run, the whip, the bend. It was messy (Kidd maintains to this day that he got a touch on it, bundling it in at the back post), but the goal felt instantly iconic: you had to sit up and take notice of a goal like that, even if it was just to lob a packet of chips at the hapless goalie. A week later, he scored again.
'I don't remember who we were playing,' said Beckham to Sky Sports in 2008, 'but I remember Terry Hurlock was there. I had to stay away from him.' The caveman was indeed there, playing for Fulham in a rascal red and black away kit, and even bagged an assist from a free kick, setting up Duncan Jupp for a screamer that went in off the bar. But it was another free kick that is all anyone else remembers from that game.
Six-foot strawberry blonde ex-Forest, Swansea, Wrexham, Cambridge, Guangdong Hongyuan, Kettering, Ilkeston, and Gainsborough Trinity midfielder Paul Raynor (the man from whom Beckham took over dead ball duty) was fouled by Mark Blake to win Preston a free kick. Standing over the ball, twenty-five yards from goal, ten yards from a fidgeting four-man wall, Beckham had his hands on his hips. There was little of the fanfare that would mark later efforts and only a hint of the swazz he'd later master, but the goal—delicate, looping, deadly—was inimitably him. Tony Lange, the opposition goalkeeper, could only stare as the ball knocked in off the post, turning 360 degrees in incredulity, as the Preston players—including an uncompromising Glaswegian centre back named David Moyes—squashed the young loanee in celebration.
In 2011, the Department of Physics and Astronomy at University of Leicester published a paper by four fourth-year Master's students ingeniously titled 'How to score a goal', which focussed on the concept of Magnus force—named after German physicist Gustav Magnus in 1852—and made ample reference to Becks.
'When an object is rotating in a fluid,' the paper read, 'there exists a thin layer of fluid which is moving with the surface. By considering the air, the football is moving in as a fluid ... there is a difference in the velocity of air at the surface of the football between the upper and lower sides, due to the combination of the angular velocity and the air flow velocity. The difference in velocities causes a pressure difference, thus resulting in a net force. This is the Magnus force.'
The distance a ball bends as a result of this force is related to the ball's radius, the density of air, the ball's angular velocity, its velocity through the air, its mass, and the distance travelled by the ball in the direction it was kicked. Now, David Beckham is not thick, but it can be safely assumed the thoughts vibing through his carefully coiffed barnet were not Magnus-related. This kind of savant sense of egghead shit like Magnus force, Bernoulli's principle, fluid mechanics, drag force, lift force, and calculations of optimal turbulent-laminar transition trajectory are not solely the domain of Beckham, but it could be argued that nobody has ever had a more pronounced grasp of it, scoring 65 free kicks over his career.
Against Colombia, after Ince fell thirty yards from goal, the commentator said: 'This is a good position for England. David Beckham would fancy a piece of this, I'd fancy.' Talking like he'd only heard the word 'fancy' for the first time that day, he fancied right: the 23-year-old certainly did fancy it. Nineteen years later, rewatching the goal, I'm sure you could apply maths to the moment, science to the magic and work out that, yeah, he really fucking Magnus forced the fuck out of that ball, curving it gorgeously past Boca Juniors' Óscar Córdoba to make it two-nil. It was unstoppable.
Now, it's almost taken for granted how good he was from a set piece, but even a decade or more later, the goals still stun. And there were many that you can't help but forget most of them: a spinner against Man City, a curler set a full three yards outside the post to beat Shaka Hislop at West Ham, a screamer against Barcelona, an early dreamboat of a strike against Spurs, smashing one in off the crossbar against Real Madrid leaving Iker Casillas dumbfounded, hitting the postage stamp with an outswinger against Birmingham from the far right corner of the area. Watching the goals now, set to 'Adagio For Strings' in slo-mo, or to a cheesy dance track that sounds like it's from a N64 porno, you're struck by the consistency and the variety, operating somehow at once: They knew what was coming and they still couldn't stop it. The trajectory, flat or looping, could differ but the result stayed the same: If you were a goalkeeper, you were fucked. If you were a goalie attempting to read him or if you were a defender on the line, there to back up your boy in the sticks, you'd might as well not bother. His reputation soon preceded him, and the free kicks would dry up a little in time, but for half-a-dozen years, he did whatever he wanted. He looked at you, then the ball, then back at you, before stepping up to the Nike, his weight on his standing leg, left arm in line with his heart, right arm in line with his gut, in perfect balance, wingspan spread wide, stabilisation even on cut up turf, and struck with his right foot tilted just so, just to get the height without making it spiral into the double letter seats, and it invariably found its way into the net. Go and search for the pictures on Google now: every single body shape at the point of impact, exactly the same. How do you even do that?
Throughout his career he'd score goals—from a dead ball, on the run, casually sauntering up to an expertly timed roll by Paul Scholes—you couldn’t really imagine anyone else scoring. Against West Ham in 2002, running around a beleaguered Tomás Repka onto a defence-splitter from Scholes, Beckham, barely even breaking stride, barely even looking like he's touched the ball, lobs a sprawling David James. It was a masterpiece in economy, in impudence. As chips go, I've never seen one more pure. And yet it's a goal almost matched by another delicate chip against the Irons, six years earlier, where, on receiving the ball at the edge of the area, he fooled Luděk Mikloško, faking to power it before digging a looper out of the muddy Upton Park turf like Seve Ballesteros in his mid-80s pomp. And against Deportivo La Coruńa in the Champions League in 2002 (the away leg before the fateful home match where Aldo Duscher—a name burnt onto Britain's collective cerebellum by tabloid vitriol—broke Beckham's metatarsal), he picked up the ball fifty yards from goal with ten defenders in front of him, took a touch and then curled one away from the furious goalkeeper and into the top left, making it look just as easy as one of his crosses.
Despite the memorable goals, Beckham was a passer first and a scorer second, a player capable of laying it on a plate no matter whether you're Cantona or Dwight Yorke, Raúl or Ronaldo, Landon Donovan or Alan Gordon. His repertoire as combined waiter, chef, and maître d' made for a decent old menu: his corners were flat and fast and his crossing from deep made up for his average pace, using the whip on the ball to beat his man rather than wasting time dribbling. His short game was crisp and clean, with vision up there with the very best. And when you talk about the playmaker as quarterback, it's Beckham who you really think of—receiving the ball from best friend Gary Neville at right back to shoot a sixty yard diagonal to turn defence into the final throes of attack. It's the kinda ball they might call a Hail Mary play in American football, a full-court outlet in basketball, and a hit-and-hope for many in our game, a close-your-eyes-and-thump when you're fresh out of ideas, but with Beckham's knack for accuracy, his unparalleled technique, his mastery of power and fade, there was rarely anything left to chance. Then it was just up to you to finish it...
Like, against Real Zaragoza in the Copa Del Rey. Beckham's Madrid were 6–1 down from the first leg, an utter capitulation against a far inferior team. They went at the second game knowing they had a point to prove. It's funny how the best players thrive on a big stage, isn't it? As if they save a little extra pocket of quality for when the team needs it most, a little baggie of quality as the party starts to go flat at 4am.
Beckham picks up the ball ten yards into Zaragoza's half: one touch to kill it, another to set it a yard in front, and—seeing Ronaldo, a world-class striker relegated to just a very, very good one by knees that despised him, on his bike early to dart between the two centre backs—unleashes a flawless arc of a cross from way, way deep, instantly bypassing two banks of defensive fours, placing it precisely out of the attacking defender's reach, and landing right at the feet of the Brazilian who volleyed it in first time.
Real only won 4–0 to make it 6–5 on aggregate, just missing out on glory as they would do so many times during Beckham's time in Spain. It doesn't even matter that Beckham lost: Beckham's legacy is a mosaic of moments. While the results often went his way, it didn't always matter: twice voted the second best player on earth, these moments are the only thing time won't ever forget...
* * *
I remember when I was twelve or thirteen—back when David Beckham was at the absolute peak of his powers, coinciding with a time when the quality of the Premier League began to rise to fill the gap at football's pinnacle left by Serie A—I ruined four pairs of black leather Base wallabees on our school's concrete football pitch trying to recreate his very particular technique: everything driven, everything played with your instep, trying to get it as parallel to the ground as possible on point of contact. Everyone had heard stories of Beckham's legendary work ethic. —'He'd be out there after training for ages and ages, which got him plenty of stick from the boys,' said Raynor of his time at Preston; 'You need to stop ruining your shoes or I ain't buying you any more,' said my mum of my time at school—and I was determined to get it right, focussing on it every lunchtime. It was not an action Base had in mind when creating the shoe, and my insistence on the Beckham strike started to make the soles fall off so often that I'd soon have to carry a bottle of superglue around with me in my bag (I'm not saying that design flaw is the reason I never quite mastered the dead ball, but it certainly didn't help...)
It was as close a taste to Beckham's kind of lunatic drive to succeed as I've ever gotten, but then again, few professional footballers came close either.
When he was aged twelve or thirteen, David Beckham was told by a coach at Tottenham Hotspur to get real. 'You'll never play for England because you're too small and not strong enough,' the coach said. The coach upset the player, and he vowed to prove this bitter man in a trackie wrong. And then he did. Again and again. Again and again and again, carving his body into iron, not a scrap of wasted muscle, no wasted fat. Maybe the words hurt him more than most: he's always said he's been driven by emotion, owing to what he repeatedly called his 'feminine side' after growing up in a household lead by strong women, his relationship with his dad Ted—a man noted for his relentless drive too, but also his hardness—frosty for much of his adult life. Maybe it's why he allowed himself to be so nakedly emotional on the pitch, so dramatic. He wasn't even supposed to be there.
It's why he always played on a knife-edge, using every single scrap of his being to make up for his inadequacies, paying penance for what he lacked with the hardest running you've ever seen. All footballers have good stamina, and most of them run a lot, but rarely have players run so hard as Beckham: the punishing workout routines he set for himself since he was a young man involved sprinting, sprinting, and more sprinting. It's how he could run full tilt all the time. His face on the pitch was often a mask of pain, especially in later years, boiling in him an anger at keen odds with his Hollywood looks, as he'd drive himself ever more to chase back lost causes and win back every lost ball, running full pelt into tackles, unafraid to throw his entire body at the ball, all gristle and tattoos, to do what needed to do. His desire to win (and quickness to tell anybody who stood in his way to get fucked) became renowned as he won fans over who dismissed him as nothing more than a pop star's husband, but it hurt him more at LA Galaxy when his body was starting to break down and flying into challenges against pudgy nobodies to make up for his teammates' lack of quality saw him rack up injuries (and bookings) by the dozen, but, to the end, his dedication was nothing if not admirable.
When he joined Milan on loan aged 33, club doctor Jean Pierre Meersseman—part of the famed AC Milan lab that specialised in regenerated old footballing fogies—called his physique 'exceptional'. Carlo Ancelotti, then manager at the club, said: 'At the beginning, he was set to train with us for two months, and I didn't even think about playing him... Then I saw how he trained, and I had no choice.' It was a familiar refrain echoed from Man United. Roy Keane maintains that nobody worked harder than Becks in training and his 'father-son' relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson was built around it, too. 'David is Britain's finest striker of a football,' said Fergie, 'not because of God-given talent but because he practises with a relentless application that the vast majority of less gifted players wouldn't contemplate.'
Even as his final games loomed, in Paris at PSG on a short-term deal where he donated all of his earnings to a children's charity, David Beckham still wouldn't jog through games, refusing to play the role of departing hero. He still was spitting blood, eyes bulging, doing doggies trying desperately to hunt down the ball from Barcelona's tiki-taka in the Champions League, still work to be done. Somebody oughta stop this thing... You felt yourself half watching, half looking away: a man tearing himself apart, running himself into the ground. Stay down, Dave, you're beat! Like he's Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, blood all around that chiselled jaw. Beckham still just the boy refusing to listen: too small, too slow, too pretty. Stay down!
After ten games with the club, he left the game forever. Even the Parisians gave him a tearful goodbye.
When he first announced his intention to sign for LA Galaxy in January 2007, Fabio Capello—then Beckham's manager at Real Madrid—said his time in the first team was over. It was another man telling him no. A month later, after four weeks of 'perfection' in training, the notoriously hard-headed Capello changed his mind: 'Intelligent people are those who know how to make good their mistakes,' he told the collected press. He brought the midfielder back into the fray, and Madrid stormed to the La Liga title, with Beckham, ankle ligaments held together with cortisone injections and tape but refusing to give in, at the fore. It was to his first and final trophy in Spain, but for Becks' greatest moment as a player, there would be no silverware.
You know where this is going, where this feature ends. October 6, 2001: England play Greece, needing just a point needed to qualify for the 2002 World Cup. David Beckham had decided it would happen. He was to make sure it happened, dragging—literally dragging, as much as I've ever seen a single man drag the souls of ten, lacklustre others around him? England across the line himself, the ultimate redemption after three years of abuse, after Argentina, Simeone, petulance. After abuse in the street, and in the stands. 'Not all of the fans,' he said, 'but enough that it hurt.' Hurt enough that he transcended physical pain, the boundaries of human will and attainment. He worked like his life depended on it in that match. Maybe it did. He had an endless reserve of energy, and covered every single blade: in a pre-heat map age, he was the map. His heat map was a single red rectangle. It was manic; it was messy, it was beautiful: tackling, tracking, running, running, charging forward as if burning every beer-soaked Our Brave England platitude inside him like coal. But it wasn't enough: the final moments of the game and England were still 2–1 down. England were staying home: straight to bed, no dinner.
And then it happened. Fate, serendipity, luck.
'Confidence is a funny thing,' David Beckham wrote—or had someone else write, more likely—in his self-titled book, released in 2013, a typically beautifully designed monument to his career. 'People often say that you need a lot of luck to win. But, for me, confidence comes down to preparation. When you've practised something so much that it becomes a part of who you are. Second nature. When you have done everything possible to give yourself the best chance...'
Of course it happened. His Hollywood looks, his Hollywood passes, and now this, his Hollywood moment. It happens in a movie, and you roll your eyes. It happens in real life, and you hold your breath. I was ten, walking through Surrey Quays shopping centre when I saw the crowd, gathering in front of the Currys, eyes transfixed on 32" televisions once £699 down to £450 as Beckham put the ball down.
He'd taken a lot of free kicks over the years. Not for United, or Preston, or the youth teams he played for growing up in East London. He must've taken tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of them: in the garden, at school, in the park with his dad. In his head, almost every one of them was to send England into the World Cup finals or to win Manchester United the FA Cup.
He'd go to the local park, place the ball, and aim at the wire meshing over the window of a small community hut. Hundreds of shots, time flying. When his dad got home from working as a gas fitter around town, they'd go to the goalposts together, his old man standing between him and the goal, forcing the boy to bend the ball around him.
'People looking on must have thought we were mad,' Beckham wrote. 'We kept going even when the sun had gone down, playing by the light coming out of the windows of the houses that surrounded the park. My legs would ache, but my dad always told me to keep going, keep fighting, keep striving...'
When he got home, and since he was wasn't allowed a football in the house, he'd practise by kicking around the Care Bears in his sister's bedroom.
All those years, all the broken windows, all the lost balls, all the gnat bites and sore feet, all the Care Bears and all the commitment, all of it for that one moment.
I still remember it; face pressed up against the glass of the shop. You probably do too, wherever you were. It was a moment, the kind that cuts through drunkenness, adrenaline snapping you to sobriety. It's still the only time I've felt it—truly felt it—that thing I've heard so many times: time slowing down...
He placed the ball. Tension rising. Silence in the stadium, Old Trafford, Beckham's home. Silence in Surrey Quays. Silence in the pubs and living rooms. He stepped slightly to the left and began his approach.
'I felt the ball on my boot,' writes Beckham, 'and—in that strange way that sometimes happens in football—I knew instantly...' The ball flew in an arc that'd get Magnus off his seat, a curve perfectly into the top left corner. 'When you get it right, you hardly feel the impact. It is like kicking a feather.'
The silence was replaced by a roar, the stadium erupting, the combined noise of thousands of pubs, groups gathered by radios and around televisions, at your mate's, at your nan's, at this Currys in South London, exploding at once. It was joy, relief, happiness, pain. It was loud. It was really, really fucking loud.
Beckham running for the billionth time that day as soon as the ball left his Predator, off towards the crowd. He jumped up in the air and landed on both feet, arms spread, yelling and yelling and yelling and yelling.
'It was as if all the lingering doubts about me as a player and as a person vanished in an instant,' he wrote. 'I knew that one of the most difficult chapters of my life had come to an end.'
'I was forgiven at last.'