Can Beckham's best friend revive the Cosmos? (cont.)
Then Glenn in 1996 got the job as England manager, so he offered me a position within the England medical staff, which meant I could do Chelsea and England together. So I accepted that, and my first squad was David Beckham's first squad. David was a young kid from London, his mum was a hairdresser and my mum was a hairdresser. We came from the same kind of background. Our dads were working-class men and we just hit it off immediately as friends. We had the same kind of banter and mentality, I think.
We became very close, and at France '98 I kind of became a confidant to him throughout the tournament because he was having a rough time being away from his family and he didn't have a good start to the tournament. We used to sit up at night talking about everything and trying to help him, and then I would go out with him in the afternoon when he'd practice his free kicks and put his big music box on. We would just talk and I'd go and collect the balls for him. Then he goes and scores against Colombia with his first free kick. I've still got his shirt from that goal in my office in London on the wall.
After that, we then had what I think for him was the defining moment of his life. The Argentina game. When he got sent off, Glenn Hoddle turns to me on the bench and calls me and says, "Go with him." So as he's going to be sent off, I walk onto the pitch, put my arm around him. I was a lot slimmer then and had hair. And I walk off with him and we got to the tunnel. The FIFA rep said you're not allowed in the dressing room because under FIFA rules if you've been sent off, you have to sit and wait in the drugs room in case you're one of the players to be tested. So we went in there and he literally broke down, completely crying in my arms like a baby.
He kept saying: "Why me? Why does this happen to me?" I kept saying, "I don't know why you, mate, I don't know why you. But it just seems to happen to you. I don't know why."
Then when we came back from the World Cup, you talk about media trying to destroy a young kid. They were burning effigies of him being hung outside the grounds, there were bullets sent to his mum's letterbox with his name on them. There was a complete exaggeration, because in England we just get carried away with thinking we should win the World Cup every time.
I think [after that] he closed ranks and had four or five people around him that he totally trusted, and I was one of those. That friendship led to him becoming godfather to my son. I'm godfather to his eldest two. When he renewed his vows, I was the best man for him. Football became secondary and the friendship became the primary. I was offered general manager of Chelsea and declined because the guy who had the position had held it for 22 years, and if I'd taken it, as Luca Vialli requested, they would have sacked the other guy. I didn't think that was the right thing for me to do having been with him for nearly 10 years.
Luca left and asked me to become the director of football at Watford, which was an interesting project for me. I was only there a year. The club was in a much worse financial position than they portrayed. They took a complete gamble on Luca, and after Christmas worked out that they weren't going to get up, so they pulled the plug on [the project] two years short of what they should have done.
I had just appointed Ray Lewington as manager of Watford, and David then called me and said, "Look, I'm going to split with SFX [his management group]. Would you consider you and your wife moving? I'm going to go to Real Madrid next summer and leave Manchester United. Would you come and live in Spain and just run my world?" I said, "OK, fine." And I can say this with my hand on my heart, I never took a penny of commission out of David. Ever. I took the same salary I was on at Watford. I said, "Look, it's not about money. I'll help you for a period, get your life sorted back out and then there will be a time when I step away."
I managed him for five years. Lived in Spain, loved it. Had the pleasure every day of going to the training ground and watching Zinédine Zidane, Ronaldo, Raúl, Roberto Carlos, Luis Figo. The dream team. Other than maybe Franco Zola, watching Zidane in training was the best part of my career. And just Real Madrid as a club, the stadium and the atmosphere and the way the city comes to a standstill when it plays, I loved it.
Then in David's career, Steve McClaren became England manager. David was one of the Florentino Pérez signings, so with Real Madrid's presidency changing, Ramón Calderón didn't want to re-sign David. I had worked with [AEG head] Tim Leiweke building the [Beckham] academy in London, and Tim had made no secret of the fact he wanted David to come to the Galaxy. Tim worked for two years with me to bring David to the U.S. That combined with Simon Fuller's program with managing Victoria and Simon's commercial team doing David's commercial work. As Simon's role became more prominent in David's management, from my point of view, my involvement in management wasn't as necessary.
There came a point where the England players asked me to manage them. David wanted me to move to L.A., and my wife and I didn't want to. Our baby had just been born, so I said to David, "Now is the right time for me to step away." I didn't want to cause him any conflict within the football world. I'm the football [adviser], the commercial world was 19 Entertainment. And rather than put David in a position of conflict, it was right for me to step away. So I chose at that point to extricate myself from it. I still speak to David regularly, and he'll ask my advice on whatever. But the friendship comes first and will always come first before business.
SI.com: Clearly you've worked your butt off in this journey you've had. Do you ever get frustrated that people seem to think that, Oh, it's all because he's connected to David Beckham?
Byrne: No. I've come to expect it, because David is who David is. The public persona of David is not David. The real David is a really nice kid from central London whose mum is a fantastic lady. I still see his mum probably two or three times a month. She comes to our house and his sister still comes around and cuts my hair and my wife's hair. They're integrated into the family. I organized David's granddad's funeral for him. Forgetting who David is publicly, we are best mates. Therefore, if people associate me with being David's man, then there's nothing I can do about that. I look at that as an honor.
SI.com: In a lot of ways, is it sort of out of your control what people might think?
Byrne: Yeah. In every interview I'm asked about David. Is David involved in the Cosmos? Is David going to be involved in the Cosmos? And I sit here and go, On my son's life, we have not approached David to be involved in the Cosmos. If that should happen in the years to come, who knows? But right now, because of the franchise option he has [to own an MLS expansion team at a below-market price], everybody thinks two and two together and comes up with seven. The reality is he has another year on his existing Galaxy contract. I said to Tim [Leiweke], "We're never going to be disrespectful to Tim by trying to approach David about any of that." David's got his own management now, and I have nothing to do with that. So I don't get aggrieved if people link me to David. I was a big part of his life. I still am. It's natural in some cases.
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