They think it’s all over    So farewell then,  Sir Alex Ferguson (71), who topped the English Premier League 13 times as manager of Manchester United; and David Beckham, OBE (38), the only UK footballer to hold a top flight league winner’s medal from four different countries (England, Spain, USA and France).

In the 1998-9 season Beckham was part of the Manchester United ‘triple’ team which claimed Premiership, FA Cup and European Champions League titles – a unique achievement in English football; but Beckham left the club in 2003 after a dressing room incident in which a football boot thrown or kicked by Sir Alex, landed in his face.

Now these two faces of football are re-united in retiring from the game simultaneously, at the end of the 2012-13 season.

Beckham has been the David Bowie of British football. Filtered through him – more precisely, mediated in the way he looked so good when playing so well – football fans have been able to access a repertoire of roles, expectations and attitudes which would have remained out of reach otherwise. As Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust enabled young dudes of the 1970s to touch base with androgynous glamour – even if they remained bloke-ish hod carriers underneath a thin covering of Glamrock bacofoil, for subsequent generations Beckham’s successive hairstyles opened up a new range of implied cultural references.

Moving swiftly on from the Curtains he first appeared in (two swirls of hair draped across the forehead beneath a centre parting), Beckham’s 1990s Moptop (short back and sides with a floppy fringe) echoed Brideshead Revisited – the late 1970s tv series which echoed Evelyn Waugh’s post-Second World War novel, which was itself an elegy to pre-war England. His turn-of-the-century Buzzcut re-made Modernism for the lads. The transition from Mohawk to Fauxhawk acknowledged Travis Bickle’s alienation before babyfying it (fluffy on top like a new born chick). Growing-it-long and dyeing-it-blond gave entrée to Kurt Cobain – and with Alice band attached, Kurt could go Continental instead of joining the ‘stupid club’ of 27-year-old suicides.

More recently, the Beckham quiff – so widely imitated that hairdressers are now said to dread customers asking for it – refers back to Bowie himself (in the time of Heroes). But in Beckham’s rendition, Bowie’s slicked-back hair is bottomed out with more of a jaw line, so that today’s ‘hod carriers’ don’t have to disown their less androgynous traits. Instead they can be metrosexual Men’s Health readers: urbane with pecs and Becks.

While Beckham was playing for change in the popular imagination, Sir Alex has been a bastion of continuity. Though not much older than the Beatles, Ferguson comes from that part of their generation which continued to train its hair into shape, straightening out any tendency to wave or curl – still less, letting it grow. Keeping it regular; maintaining discipline. Hence he hasn’t changed his haircut since his own playing days in the 1960s: short, neat, square neck, parted on the left.

Though the face underneath may have moved on – sprinkled now with the red capillaries of old age, the tonsure on top was consistent to the last. But this does not mean conformity as an end in itself; rather, in Ferguson’s way of doing things (and getting them done properly) it has been the basis – the established, no-nonsense basis – from which to go out on the pitch and play for the team to the best of your ability, without personal foibles or stylistic distraction. From the barber’s chair to the manager’s dugout, in the formidable form of Sir Alex Ferguson continuous discipline was the essential precondition for flair and innovation on the field of play.

It’s extremely unlikely that either retiree will have thought about their haircuts in these terms. It’s not necessarily the case that the millions of fans who look up to Beckham and Ferguson will have clocked all these cultural references outright. It is enough for them to be implied, rather than made explicit. What matters is that football manages to stage both continuity and change. In its capacity to address both ends of this spectrum, it really is that ‘theatre of dreams’ which allows supposed dreamers to negotiate their own path between them.

Personified in Becks and Fergie, truly a game of two halves.