Beardsley bears enduring gifts

Ian Ridley meets the player who commands a rare respect As England prepare for a Wembley test against Uruguay, their precious linkman is still proving that age is no barrier
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The Independent Online
JIMMY HILL may not after all be such a prat, which was the description once accorded him in a moment of ire by Alex Ferguson. For now the bearded prophet's pressing of the case for Peter Beardsley during the wilderness Graham Taylor years has been well and truly validated. Hill's sparring partner during those BBC days, Terry Venables, has duly heeded all those pleas for Newcastle United's thinking, jinking, linking little man to be restored to the England team. "I can't understand why . . ." went the Fred Truemanesque lament by Hill. "Well, Graham's got a difficult job . . ." would come the Venables reply.

At the end of another front-page week for the game, the 34-year-old Beardsley's back pages are an example of how to cope with rejection, how to carry yourself when abused. A request for an interview brought a return phone call within half an hour; Matthew Le Tissier, still smarting at his own rejection by Venables, sent back a message of "ring my agent" to this sympathetic inquirer.

Then there was the Cantona case. The sentence was indeed harsh and unimaginative but there is a moral in Beardsley's words: "I often get called Quasimodo and have done for nine years. But the way I look at it is that if I was in those fans' colours, they would be happy with me. They are only trying to support their own team and intimidate the away team. I know nine out of ten Premier League clubs would want me in their team and so would the fans."

It has not always been so. His career is an example of the switchback that is football, right from when as a substitute for South Northumberland Boys he fetched the pies. He was schooled at Wallsend Boys Club - Alan Shearer was a later pupil - but failed to graduate from Cambridge, Gillingham or Burnley.

Bobby Moncur took a chance for Carlisle, and after a move to Manchester United he went to Vancouver Whitecaps and returned to his native Newcastle to play with Kevin Keegan under Arthur Cox. For a while, his toes twinkled, too, at Liverpool until Kenny Dalglish began to leave him out when confronted by the more direct teams.

He was also left out of Taylor's more direct thinking. The end came on an England trip to Moscow to play the CIS. On the plane, Taylor announced the teams for A and B internationals to the 40-man squad. Beardsley was in the latter.

"If I'd known, I wouldn't have gone," he says. "But I didn't want to say anything in front of the lads. I thought for what I had done for England it was a bit of an insult. The B team is for up-and-coming players or somebody who has had an injury. I was also a bit annoyed that I had to play part of the game on the wing."

It is about the nearest Beardsley can bring himself to outspokenness. He still punctuates his thoughts on Taylor with: "to be fair to Graham . . ." and is even grateful that he was not awarded a 50th cap out of mere sentiment. He did not want people feeling sorry for him. There are, incidentally, not nearly so many "obviouslys" in Beardsley's conversation as his television interviews would lead you to imagine.

After Liverpool - "We only lost one of about 15 when Kenny left me out, so you can't knock him," - his sunny spells with Everton and now Newcastle have convinced Venables of his enduring worth, and one that has been worth the half-century. He accords perfectly with England's latest coach's vision of neat, busy players capable of linking up with fellow attackers and working back to aid defenders.

All through his rejections, Beardsley has taken solace from the comments of those he respects. "It was my dad who kept me going. `Don't worry, golden feet, you'll make it,' he always told me." Bobby Robson, Taylor's predecessor, always praised "my little gem", to the extent that other players in the England camp jokingly referred to him as "Bobby's lad". The Scotland coach Andy Roxburgh once said after being beaten by a sparkling goal: "The bottom line is that Beardsley comes from God."

Just what made that little old ant think he'd move that rubber tree plant? "I've never got too down because I've always thought at every club, without being big-headed, `Well I am better than him or I can do better than him'," Beardsley says. "It always just needs somebody to give you a break. Jimmy Hill was always very good to me. I think what he was saying was that you need to keep some senior players to bring the young ones on."

Venables concurred, age no barrier, and it has helped, he believes, that Kevin Keegan is weaving a similar pattern at Newcastle. "He likes a back four with one holding just in front and five attacking players who can change positions."

He remains the selfless team player that Gary Lineker so enjoyed playing with and one to whom Andy Cole will owe a debt should he win his first cap against Uruguay. Beardsley's goalscoring record has been criticised - 54 caps, nine goals - but it often overlooks his contribution to that of others.

"He has so much stature and commands so much respect," says the Newcastle coach Derek Fazackerley of Beardsley. "People want to be associated with him, they want things to rub off on them. Playing with Peter, even the youngest players who may leave Newcastle not having made it will go feeling they are a better player."

Now that Matthew Le Tissier has been pushed from the picture -though the less easily discouraged Beardsley himself admits to his own failings, notably his "nightmare" 27 minutes in Dublin last month -it seems more probable that the more consistent Nick Barmby will be the long-term successor to the man who was his model in his formative years.

But Beardsley is in pole position for next year's European Championships and seems certain to add to his collection a few more England shirts, which he rarely swaps. Only the Republic of Ireland's Ray Houghton and Scotland's Roy Aitken, personal friends, have received one, along with the German Guido Buchwald after the epic World Cup semi-final struggle of 1990. Beardsley recalls it as his finest moment.

Certainly he has lost little pace, judging by a jet-heeled celebration of his winning goal at home against Arsenal last Sunday. And his trademark "shimmy", which involves feinting with one foot then going past a defender with the other - the subject of a coaching video in preparation - remains a formidable weapon.

"I think I can play for another three or four years," he says, pointing out that although he has had two broken cheekbones, he has had no serious leg injuries and such as he suffers still heal quickly. "I'm no saint but I do look after myself. I don't drink, not that I'm against it but just that I've never liked the taste. And I very rarely go out, except with the wife for a meal on a Saturday night.

"At 34, I know the end isn't too far away and I've got to enjoy it as much as I can. I've got two lovely kids, a nice house, a good home life. I can't ask for more. And it's all come from football. People are now realising what a good life it is. Golfers and tennis players have got it good but being involved in a team sport is something special."

He may not say it but we can: obviously a few fellow members of his profession need to realise it too.