As the Manchester United fans filed away from Selhurst Park, they could scarcely believe what they’d just seen.
There was no Twitter to check or video replays to consult; this was 1996. Just the testimonials of people in the ground who all wanted a second opinion. Where exactly did David Beckham hit that ball from?
It would be much, much later when the fans got to see Beckham’s wonder strike again. Not until Match of the Day did we get the chance to see the goal repeated and even then it was in one of the final slots close to midnight.
The show’s producers, evidently aware of the clamour to see Beckham's moment of inspiration after it had been eulogised about on radio and Teletext, kept everyone up late to witness Beckham’s boomer. This was not the first time we’d seen a goal from long-range (Nayim vs Seaman anyone?) but it was the clinical precision with which Beckham executed this most ambitious of efforts which makes it one of the GOATs. Other goals from half-way could have been categorised as a hopeful hack but there was nothing lucky about this. In fact, he almost did it earlier in the same game. The sheer audacity of the lad.
“David Beckham... surely an England player of the future, scores a goal that will be talked about and replayed for years,” opined John Motson.
It was one of those glorious August days at the start of a new season when the kits looked shinier and fans were full of that heady mix of optimism and renewed vigour. Manchester United’s 3-0 win over Wimbledon at Selhurst Park was completely expected but Beckham’s last-minute goal proved to be something of a watershed moment in the youngster’s life.
I was in the away section on a day when the entire ground seemed to be full of United fans as Beckham, wearing his soon-to-be familiar long-sleeved shirt despite the baking sunshine, set his sights on goal from 50-odd yards; I was right behind him as he swung back a hopeful boot with Dons keeper Neil Sullivan left to scurry backwards in vain. The ball sailed under the crossbar like a perfectly hit golf shot and Beckham lapped up the adulation with his arms outstretched.
Beckham has often talked about the goal as his favourite which is saying something given his highlights reel. It was to prove a catalyst for endorsements, sponsorships and his entire life being examined by the tabloids.
Much of the talk before the game had been about Eric Cantona’s return to a ground where he launched a kung-fu kick at a fan in the crowd resulting in a lengthy ban and a speech about sardines. There was also plenty of interest in how Jordi Cruyff would perform in the first game since England had successfully hosted Euro 96.
It was the start of a breakthrough season for Beckham who went on to win the Young Player of the Year Award as well as the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award at United. But he famously didn’t win the Goal of the Season award - that honour went to Trevor Sinclair of QPR for a mid-air scissor-kick cracker against Barnsley.