The Brian Viner Interview: Beardsley seeks the right opening

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The Independent Online

SIXTEEN SUMMERS ago, in Canada, I watched Vancouver Whitecaps playing Golden Bay Earthquakes. In the early 1980s the North American Soccer League was like a semi-retirement home for European footballers, and in Vancouver there existed what amounted to a Leeds United pension scheme, with Johnny Giles as coach, and Peter Lorimer, Terry Yorath, Ray Hankin and David Harvey on the playing staff.

SIXTEEN SUMMERS ago, in Canada, I watched Vancouver Whitecaps playing Golden Bay Earthquakes. In the early 1980s the North American Soccer League was like a semi-retirement home for European footballers, and in Vancouver there existed what amounted to a Leeds United pension scheme, with Johnny Giles as coach, and Peter Lorimer, Terry Yorath, Ray Hankin and David Harvey on the playing staff.

The player who shone that evening in Whitecaps Stadium, however, was a diminutive 22-year-old Geordie - Peter Beardsley. He twisted and turned, hurried and scurried, and generally made everyone else on the synthetic pitch look, well, synthetic. Indeed, in my own youthful enthusiasm, I wrote to Howard Kendall, manager of my beloved Everton, to say that I had spotted a player of exceptional talent. It turned out that if he'd taken any notice, he could have saved himself the best part of a million quid.

Sixteen summers and nearly 700 English league appearances later - most recently for humble Hartlepool United - Beardsley is serving his coaching apprenticeship in the heart of the England camp. He has been working with the Under-16s but last week Kevin Keegan invited him to train with the senior squad. "The pace has upped just in the past three or four years," he says. "I look at Owen, Fowler, Kevin Phillips, Kieron Dyer, and their pace is frightening. Robbie, I think, is a great, great player. In many ways he's been a bit forgotten because of Michael, but I like him so much, rate him so highly."

It is sometimes said that England have never adequately replaced Beardsley just behind the front line, in the so-called "hole" between midfield and attack. The man himself is flattered by such talk, but rejects it. "I think it's unfair on Teddy Sheringham," he says. "He's got great vision and great touch for a big fella, and he's got a better goal-scoring record than I had. Teddy doesn't charge about here, there and everywhere, but that's because he has such a good football brain." Of all the current England players it seems to me that it is the tireless Paul Scholes who is most reminiscent of Beardsley. "Yes and no. It was just me and Lineker, whereas Scholes plays behind two up front. But yeah, he gets box to box. I think he's a brilliant player."

Yesterday I phoned Beardsley to conclude a chat begun last Wednesday at the Burnham Beeches Hotel in Buckinghamshire, where the England team were staying in preparation for a crucial pair of Euro 2000 qualifiers. He was in the dressing-room following Saturday's 6-0 demolition of Luxembourg and reports that the players "were buzzing at the end. Absolutely buzzing. It really was a case of bring on Poland." As a devoted Newcastle United fan, former player, and aspiring member of the St James' Park coaching staff - which we will come to anon - he was especially delighted with Alan Shearer's hat-trick and the scintillating 45-minute contribution from young Dyer. "I was pleased for him. But I was really pleased for Kevin, too, because it was a very brave decision to play him in that way and he was criticised for it."

Keegan is Beardsley's mentor, role-model and, not to put too fine a point on it, idol. "He's different class," he says. "I remember waiting to pick my wife up from a shopping mall and the news coming on the radio that Kevin Keegan had signed for Newcastle. I was so delighted. And as team- mates I learnt so much from him in terms of effort and enthusiasm." Were they friends off the pitch? "Not really. He was very close to Terry Mac [McDermott] and he was 10 years older. If you look at Man United now, the Beckhams and Scholeses and Nevilles... I wouldn't have thought they'd be mates with Teddy Sheringham. Besides, you couldn't go out with Kevin in Newcastle. He was a god. I've never seen anything like it. If the team got the train down to London, he'd be signing autographs literally from the time it left the station to the time it arrived."

Subsequently, however, the pair have become good friends. "I'd honestly say he's like an older brother to me now," adds Beardsley. "Anything I want to do, anything I've got on my mind, I talk to him. He's special. When he took me down to Fulham I lived with him for five months in his flat near Harrods. I did the cooking, actually. That was my job. And when we're all up north we go round to his house to see his horses. He's great with my kids, takes them out on quad bikes and that. The man's just different class." Beardsley shakes his head in awe. His most cherished goal, he adds, was for Newcastle against Brighton in the 1983-84 promotion season. "It was Kevin's last game, that's what made it so special. He scored, Chris Waddle scored and I scored. Mine was five minutes from the end. I played a one-two with Kevin, then chipped it over Joe Corrigan from 18 yards."

Beardsley scored 222 league goals for 10 clubs, not to mention a fair few for Vancouver Whitecaps, including a hat-trick against the San Jose Earthquake team containing a rapidly declining George Best. "I've seen quite a bit of George lately, I love the man," says Beardsley, who dispenses praise as he once dispensed defence-splitting passes, with almost casual abandon. Criticism comes less naturally, and I am unable to draw him on his reportedly cool relationship with Kenny Dalglish, his manager at both Liverpool and Newcastle.

"People think that it was Kenny who wanted me to leave Liverpool, but it was Graeme Souness who sold me," he says. Indeed it is Souness, if anyone, who comes closest to a Beardsley thumbs-down. Why did Souness sell him? "Dunno. You tell me. He didn't say, just said that he was getting rid of me and that I could go to Everton. But that worked out well, because I didn't have to move house and I had two of my most enjoyable years at Everton. We weren't close to winning anything, but Howard Kendall was magnificent, a knowledge of football second to none, and Colin Harvey was a great coach."

On the basis that Beardsley, an intelligent man, has played for some of the best managers in the game and doubtless absorbed their methods, it should not be long before he is himself measured for the proverbial sheepskin coat. There can't be many men so fundamentally devoted to the game; witness the way he has kept on playing in the lower divisions long after most of his old England contemporaries have retired, the remarkable Stuart Pearce apart. Imagine Gary Lineker, for instance, trotting out in the blue and white of Hartlepool?

"Some people say I shouldn't have dropped down, but I enjoy playing and if someone even now asked me if I wanted to play in the League, I would. The trouble is that I'm sometimes seen as a threat. Mick Tait, the manager of Hartlepool, unfortunately lost his job three weeks after I went there. It was offered to me but I wouldn't take it, that's not my style. When I went to Bolton a lot of people said that Colin Todd thought I was maybe a threat to him in some ways. Chris Waddle had a similar experience. When you're a big name you have to be careful because the chairman might be thinking of you as a player-manager."

Ideally, says Beardsley, he would not start his management career on the lower foothills of League football. "If a lower club came to me and said, 'you've got five years to do it your own way and bring some kids through,' then I would take a chance. But at that level you don't get five years. They give you a year, and whoever you are, things can go wrong in a year. I've spoken to Chris Waddle a lot [about his misfortunes as Burnley manager] and by his own admission he bought and sold too quickly. Also, managers don't lose their jobs for no reason, so wherever you go it means there's a problem at the club. You need time to assess the situation, but you don't always get it."

It is no secret that Beardsley yearns to start his management career at St James' Park, as assistant to Bobby Robson or even in a lesser capacity - he's not particularly proud. "I've spoken to certain people at the club, they know how I feel," he says. Did he manage to buttonhole Robson at Wembley on Saturday? "No, there were too many people round him. But whatever happens, I love and adore the man and I think he'll be brilliant."

A cynic would point out that he thought Ruud Gullit would be brilliant, too. Engagingly, at a time when football men with 20-20 hindsight are saying it was a marriage doomed from the start, Beardsley readily admits that he thought Gullit would work wonders at Newcastle. "I thought he did a fantastic job at Chelsea, and at Newcastle, to be fair, he bought better than he is given credit for. Domi is a class player. So is Duncan Ferguson. OK, Maric hasn't performed. But don't forget that he bought Kieron Dyer."

All the same, Newcastle are stuck in the mire. And to extract them, many fans favour a managerial dream ticket of Bobby Robson and Peter Beardsley. Which, whether or not Beardsley gets the call, must be immensely satisfying for a lad who once stood on the Gallowgate terraces idolising Malcolm Macdonald and "Jinky" Jimmy Smith, not even daring to dream that he would soon embark on a career which from humble beginnings (when Bobby Moncur signed him for Carlisle United from Wallsend Boys Club the transfer fee was a set of shirts) would embrace a World Cup semi-final.

That, despite the result, was the England game Beardsley enjoyed most. "I had a great personal performance," he recalls. "I took the second penalty after Gary Lineker and walking up to it I knew I was going to score. Sometimes you have the feeling you're going to miss but because of the way I'd played I knew it was going in. It was the same as Alan Shearer's penalty on Saturday, only it went a bit higher." Would that his old mate Chris Waddle's penalty had gone a bit lower. But then what's the point of agonising about the past when there's so much future to agonise about? Not, of course, that Beardsley has any doubt that England, motivated by the different-class Kevin Keegan, will do the business in Poland tonight.