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LIFTING THE LID: Ahead of the opening day of the 2021/22 Premier League season, we caught up with former Manchester United defender Gary Pallister to relive some famous opening days.

“I remember Becks picking the ball up, I remember him hitting it, and I just thought, ‘you cheeky little sod.’”

As players and fans alike prepare for the new Premier League season this weekend, as ever there will be a mix of excitement and anticipation in the air for the start of a new campaign – a sense of feeling that only the opening day of the Premier League season can create.

However, whatever magic goes down on the pitch this weekend, it’s probably fair to say it will struggle to match the moment of genius that came from David Beckham’s boot from the halfway line 25 years ago as Manchester United opened their 1996/97 campaign against Wimbledon.

“I was more or less straight behind him as he hit it,” former United defender Gary Pallister tells BETDAQ. “As I’m watching it, I’m thinking, ‘No…’ because as he hit it you just think that’s got no chance. But you’re looking at the keeper backpedalling and backpedalling, and you’re thinking, ‘No, no…’ and then it hits the back of the net and you’re just amazed.

“You’re astounded, you’re shocked, you’re thrilled, but you’re also looking over and looking at the gaffer and you know if that doesn’t go in then the gaffer is probably going to tear him up a strip for being so cheeky! But it goes in the back of the net and even Becks has got a wry smile on his face. It was the arrival of David Beckham into the footballing world.”

From that moment onwards, there was no looking back for David Beckham as his trajectory from rookie United player to footballing superstar soon skyrocketed.

While Pallister couldn’t foresee the heights that his young team-mate was to scale over the coming years, he wasn’t too surprised that Beckham had had the audacity to shoot from the halfway line given his ability on the United training pitch.

“If you watched Becks in training, you saw the way he struck a ball,” Pallister says. “For me, he’s one of the best, if not the best I’ve ever seen at it. He could strike the ball in different ways, with different dips, and different spins on the ball. He was a great exponent of passing the football.

“That strike against Wimbledon, that summed him up. It had a bit of curl, a bit of dip on it at the end and it was a fantastic goal. I remember Pele trying it at the World Cup in 1970, I think it was, and it missed. And there’s Becks striking it from probably about the same range and it flying into the top of the net. It was funny, it was shocking in the fact of how good it was, but I don’t think we realised the knock-on effects from that and where it would take David’s career.”

Pallister added: “I don’t think Becks even realised the effect that goal would have on him because that started this stellar rise off for him. Nobody was prepared for where it would actually lead to, but that was certainly the start of everything.”

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Pallister had his fair share of dramatic opening-day Premier League fixtures while playing for United.

Just a year prior to Beckham from the halfway line, the Red Devils found themselves 3-0 down at half-time away to Aston Villa on the opening day of the 1995/96 season, eventually going on to lose 3-1.

Watching on, Match of the Day pundit Alan Hansen uttered his infamous line “You can’t win anything with kids…” due to the fact that Alex Ferguson had opted to invest his faith in the club’s younger crop of players, with Gary Neville, Phil Neville, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and David Beckham all involved that day.

United, who had lost the league title to Blackburn the previous season, had seen Paul Ince, Mark Hughes and Andrei Kanchelskis all leave that summer.

“We were 3-0 down at half-time, we’d just let Ince, Hughes and Kanchelskis go…” Pallister recalls. “And if we’re honest, a lot of the senior players were sat there thinking this is going to take us a couple of years now to be back to where we need to be. That’s no sleight on the younger players coming in, because they were all terrific talents, but you’re thinking you’ve got to embrace them into the team, fit them in, get used to them, they’ve got to get used to us. I remember sitting on the bus back thinking it’s going to be a tough season this year.”

As for Hansen’s words, Pallister holds no grudges, though he and his United team-mates had the last laugh as come May they had completed the Premier League and FA Cup double.

“He was entitled to his opinion, we’d just been whooped 3-1,” Pallister says. “It wasn’t a good performance and we got well beat. I’m sure his words would have affected the young kids a bit more because they probably felt a lot more responsible for that game and some of the big signings had left. But if anything, it would have stoked the fires a little bit. You’ve got an ex-Liverpool legend sort of dissing them and saying, ‘you won’t win anything with kids!”

“I’ve worked with Alan Hansen with the BBC and he’s a great lad, I’m not going to pour flames on what he’s said. But it’s one of those quotes that comes back and stings you in the tail. He saw what he saw on the day and thought that team’s not going to be challenging for the title. When you put young kids into the side, you usually wait for a lot longer than we had to wait before they start hitting the heights. He wasn’t to know that these lads were a really special group and they were destined to go on to bigger and better things.”

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As is the case with the opening day of the Premier League season, playing for United was never dull during Pallister’s time at Old Trafford.

But as Manchester City will find out this weekend, given United more often than not opened each campaign as reigning Premier League champions while Pallister was at the club, it made that first game a far tougher affair.

“You knew you were a target, you knew you had a target on your back and everybody wanted to knock you off your perch,” Pallister says. “But you’re aware of that once we started being as successful as we were. We knew everybody was going to raise their game to try and beat us. They were already raising their game because we were Manchester United, but we were Manchester United and Premier League champions, so everybody was going to try and raise their bar even further and commit maybe that little bit extra when they played us.

“We had the resolve and the steel to be able to deal with that. Fortunately, we had a terrific manager and some real strong players in our dressing room that could deal with that pressure. It comes with being a Manchester United player and that’s why some people maybe fold when they go to United because the pressure is a little bit different.”

Pallister added: “But you’d always run out first game of the season thinking, ‘I wonder if we’re still as a good as we were last season? I wonder if I’m still as good as I was last season or will I still be able to perform at the same level as I did last season?’

“I think generally there’s always a little bit of nerves when you’re going out there because you know you’ve seen other teams trying to improve their squads during the close season. You get big-money signings going to the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool or Blackburn back in our day, and you think ‘is this going to make them a better team than us this year?’ The opening day of the season was always an exciting time, but also a time where there was a little bit of doubt and you’re wondering how exactly the campaign will pan out.”

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