David Beckham is briefly lost in his thoughts as he gazes across the gleaming indoor track at the Lee Valley Athletics Centre. He has arrived two hours early for the training session he will oversee with 170 children and, ahead of the hysteria that will inevitably follow, it is a rare moment of calm.
”I was brought up five minutes down the road,” he says, gesturing in the direction of the reservoir that separates this new facility and Chingford Foundation School. ”Kids love stuff like this but, for me, it’s also personally exciting. To see this here now is inspiring. It’s like the feeling when you first get taken to a football match and you walk out and see the pitch.”
Days like this are an increasingly common part of Beckham’s life. After 22 years, 115 England caps and 10 leagues titles across four countries, Beckham is four months into a new chapter as a ”former” professional footballer. You do not need long in his company to understand his priorities. He speaks almost continuously of his own four children but also a wider ambition to inspire young people to lead more healthy lives.
As a player, Beckham’s work ethic was arguably a bigger asset than even his famed right foot and he is approaching his work as an ambassador for Sainsbury’s Active Kids campaign with the usual tenacity. ”It is a big part of what I want to do now,” he says. ”I pick things like this because I know how inspiring it is for kids when athletes from past and present turn up, talk to them and be part of their day.
”I remember how inspiring it was to meet players like Bobby Charlton or Bryan Robson when I was a kid. I still remember Clive Allen showing up when I received a trophy for my Sunday league team.
”As a father of four, I know how important it is to get kids to eat the right things, to drink the right things, to stay healthy, to stay fit, to get out there and get off their Xbox and into a park where they are kicking a football or running around.”
Beckham says that he actively practises what he preaches, and freed from the daily constraints of training, he has become an even more hands-on father. ”I’ve been so busy I haven’t had time to sit down and think about being a retired player,” he says. ”It is strange not having that routine. I have had that same routine for 22 years where I get up in the morning, go to training and I am part of a team.
”What I have enjoyed is being there for the kids more. I take the kids to school every single morning instead of every other morning. I’ve been to watch a lot of football with my kids.
”Two of my boys are Manchester United fans, one is an Arsenal fan. Whenever there is a game I can take the boys to, I love taking them. But kids these days have so many activities over the weekend. It’s hard to do anything other than their activities.”
Those activities predictably still revolve around sport. Brooklyn Beckham has been playing for the Queens Park Rangers under-14 team while Romeo, 11, and eight-year-old Cruz are both on trial at Chelsea. Beckham has caused plenty of excitement already this season when he has joined other parents at matches. So just what sort of touchline dad is David Beckham?
”A frustrated one,” he says, smiling. ”I think most dads are when they watch their children play sports. As much as it is frustrating, it is also so amazing to see them playing and see how happy they are.
”I think we are part of a culture now where usually dads are not allowed to say too much on the sidelines. It is down to the coaches to say it. I am in the background but I love the fact that they are involved in football.”
But surely plenty of advice is offered away from match day? Beckham, after all, played under several of soccer’s greatest ever managers during his career.
”Of course I encourage them,” he says. ”I tell them what they are doing wrong, what they are doing right. Similar to what my dad was. Kids need guidance but it is about striking the balance.
”When I was a kid I thought my dad was a little bit harsh with me at times. Sometimes I needed an arm around me instead of my dad telling me what I did wrong but it obviously worked. That’s a fact – but it’s very hard to be as harsh with your children as you feel your parents were.
”I had coaches tell me what I did wrong and they told me in a way that scared me. I had a Sunday league manager who was like a sergeant major. I had Nobby Stiles, Eric Harrison and then Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. I always had coaches who really told me.”
Watch Beckham interact with schoolchildren and it is obvious that he could excel at some level of coaching. For now, though, any direct involvement in professional soccer is most likely to be as an owner. After helping the Los Angeles Galaxy win consecutive Major League Soccer titles, he retains an option to buy an MLS franchise and Florida is the most likely destination.
When announcing his retirement back in May, Beckham admitted to his friend Gary Neville that he thought, rather than definitely knew, it was the right moment to step from the stage. After all, he had just finished on the high of playing Barcelona in the Champions League and helping Paris St Germain to win the French league. He is 38 and medical staff at AC Milan previously suggested that he could have the physiology to emulate Paolo Maldini by playing into his 40s.
Beckham, though, is not looking back and seems genuinely content with his decision, even if there is some part of him that still believes he could play at the highest level.
”A decision like that, I was always going to second guess myself,” he says. ”I was always going to question whether I was going to make the right decision or not. But I think you always do that as an athlete, you always feel like you can play on when you can’t. That’s the passion behind the athlete.”
That feeling may get a little more intense over the next 11 days when England tries to secure the victories against Montenegro and Poland that would guarantee its participation in next summer’s World Cup.
Beckham has always been the proudest of patriots and remains a clear voice of optimism amid much of the pessimism that has surrounded the national team in recent months.
”I get excited for the England games,” he says. ”I would still love to be out there playing for my country. There is a transitional period. It’s a new manager for England.
”Roy Hodgson has come in and I think he has done a good job. He has a lot of very young players coming into the team and that is great for the future.
”They’ll be fine. Once they have qualified for the World Cup, people can start to get their breath back and start enjoying these games again.”
Are there similarities, perhaps, with the situation exactly 12 years ago when he so memorably scored that injury-time free-kick against Greece to secure England’s place in the 2002 finals?
”They are big games and, as a player, you do feel how much they mean to the country,” says Beckham. ”As a country we are so passionate about our sports. That is never going to change – that is the way we are. But it’s a transitional period. The only way the young players are going to get better is putting them into the situation they are in at the moment.”
Beckham senses that Manchester United is going through a similar period of change. ”There was always going to be that moment when Sir Alex Ferguson retired,” he says. ”Who was going to take over, what was it going to be like when a new manager came in, were they going to be the same force as they have been over the last 20 years? They will be because they are Manchester United. There’s a transitional period that will happen but David Moyes is a very good manager.”
Our talk has already been briefly interrupted as Beckham high-fives any passing children. It is also noticeable that the adult schoolteachers and volunteers are as wide-eyed (often more so) in the presence of Beckham as the schoolchildren. Beckham is simply itching to get out in the middle of the track himself to lead the activities.
”I’m used to being around kids,” he says. ”I know how important this is to kids.
”It was always hard when I was playing to be there on the ground and do the things I can now I’m not a footballer. This was something I was looking forward to once I finished playing. I can physically be here for these days and not just on a video screen. To feel the excitement of the kids and be part of days like this is inspiring for me as well.”
As organised mayhem ensues, Beckham’s own dad, Ted, arrives almost unnoticed and is among the parents looking down from the stands.
He is smiling proudly and you have to assume that his own mind is thinking back 30 years to the countless hours he spent with his son just across the road in Ridgeway Park.
In a small but touching way, there is the lingering sense that Beckham’s life has turned full circle.
© 2013 The Telegraph | This article first appeared in The Telegraph on 5 October 2013.