WE thought it was all over when Steve McClaren axed him in 2006, according to The Sun.

We thought it was all over when Fabio Capello dropped him at Real Madrid.

We thought it was all over when he went to LA Galaxy.

And even David Beckham presumed it would have been all over had he been forced to leave AC Milan next Thursday and return to California for pre-season training.

Yet now Beckham says he wants to go on playing for England until he is 50.

God save us all!

It may have been a throwaway line but the intention is clear.

Those of us who have been attempting to pension off old Goldenballs will have to put up with him a little longer.

Because he certainly intends to be available for England after the 2010 World Cup.

And why not, he asks?

Especially since his body-fat ratio has reduced drastically during his time at the San Siro and he is feeling fitter than he has for years.

If he plays some part in tomorrow’s friendly against Slovakia at Wembley, he will win his 109th cap — with Peter Shilton’s all-time record of 125 in his sights.

And the burial party — me included — will have to ditch the shovels.

But even Beckham, 34 in May, admitted there had been more than one occasion when he thought his time was up.

Talking at the England hotel yesterday, he said: “When Steve McClaren dropped me after the 2006 World Cup, I assumed I wouldn’t play for England again.

“That really knocked my confidence.

“When the team beat Greece 4-0 in a friendly and started the 2008 Euro campaign well, I thought that was it.

“So to then get back in was extra special.”

Salvation — and a reprieve from the transAtlantic commuting to and from England games — finally arrived with his move to the San Siro.

This, though, was followed by the recent tug-of-war between the Galaxy and Milan.

He admitted: “I was relieved when it was all sorted out. I knew I had to be playing at the highest level

to still be in with a chance of continuing my England career.

“If I had had to get on a plane back to LA then, well, it could have been all over.

“Playing for Milan doesn’t guarantee me an England place but it does give me the satisfaction of knowing I’ve done everything possible to try and make it happen.”

Though Beckham played the whole second half in the recent 2-0 friendly defeat by Spain, his previous four caps had been won on the back of just 27 minutes.

He has now started just one England game in 16 and has not scored for 26.

It was put to him by some bright spark that, perhaps, his time WAS up after more than 100 caps and three World Cups — and that it was an opportune moment to bring on younger players.

Perhaps he was even getting in the way of this development.

Beckham said: “I think the manager is doing that — even with me still in the squad.

“That’s been one of the exceptional things about Fabio Capello. He’s played people like Theo Walcott and I’m not going to complain about that.

“Theo, Aaron Lennon and Shaun Wright-Phillips have been exceptional for their clubs and to see players with this talent coming through — not only in my position on the right — is important.

“And, no, I don’t feel as if I’m getting in the way. I can help around the squad with my experience but I’d like to think it’s more than that.

“I’d hope that, if I come on in a game, I can set up goals from crosses,free-kicks and corners.

“And, as I’ve shown for Milan, the work-rate is still there.”

Beckham has played all 12 games possible, though it has to be said third-placed Milan still trail city rivals Inter by 14 points, while he looked off the pace when his club lost the Milan derby 2-1. Yet he feels his move to Serie A shows he can still play at the top.

He said: “Having always been a confident person, it was important to get that back.

“When I went there I didn’t know whether I was going to play or whether I’d be able to keep up with the pace of some of the players.

“But I surprised myself. Both form and fitness-wise it’s taken me to another level.”

Yet wouldn’t it have been easier all round if, instead of leaving Madrid for Los Angeles, he had stayed in Europe? It would have certainly prevented some of the recent unpleasantness.

And couldn’t he have gone to Milan then? He said: “The offer came in too late.”

Would he have accepted it had it come in earlier?

“Maybe,” he said. “But I was set on going to LA to try something different. I’d finished my career with Real on a high and I wasn’t in the England team.

“And, no, I don’t regret it. It was right at the time.”

So Beckham continues on the road to South Africa and a fourth World Cup to draw level with Pele, Diego Maradona, Uwe Seeler, the two Italians Gianni Rivera and Paolo Maldini, Cafu and Polish defender Wladyslaw Zmuda.

Beyond them on five are Mexico goalkeeper Antonio Carbajal and Lothar Matthaus — with the former Germany skipper also holding the appearance record of 25.

Beckham is currently on 13.

He may well HAVE to play until he’s 50 to catch Matthaus!