Football: Beagrie primed for great leap forward

Bradford's gifted winger will be head over heels today should he score against Gullit's Newcastle in the FA Cup
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THE PATHS of Peter Beagrie and Ruud Gullit finally converge on at St James' Park today, when Bradford City's famously acrobatic winger hopes to somersault into the last 16 of the FA Cup at the expense of Newcastle United. Not so long ago, but for Beagrie's honesty, they would have been on the same side.

In the spring of 1997, injuries left Chelsea short of left-sided players. Frank Clark, then Beagrie's manager at Manchester City, summoned him on transfer-deadline day to explain that Gullit wanted to take him on loan.

Dennis Wise had recommended him to the dreadlocked one, having played alongside Beagrie for England B and against him in club football. The opportunity to return to the Premiership was irresistible. There was just one snag, however.

"I'd been out for a year and a half because of a fractured shin and chronic tendinitis," Beagrie recalled. "When you come back after so long out you often pick up secondary injuries, and I'd got this groin problem. Reluctantly I had to say: `I can't'."

When he eventually left Maine Road, it was to join a Bradford side managed by his friend and fellow son of Middlesbrough, Chris Kamara. Before the end of the season, Kamara had gone and Beagrie was embroiled in Everton's relegation fight after a surprising loan deal that did go through.

Summer saw him back at Valley Parade, where Paul Jewell was restructuring the squad. After a faltering start, Bradford have opened a four-point lead in second place behind Sunderland, with the 33-year-old Beagrie displaying the form which once prompted Everton to lavish pounds 750,000 on him.

At his best, it is easy to see why he would have appealed to a flair- minded Dutchman like Gullit. In terms of technique, particularly the drag- back with the sole, and the body swerve and the flighting of crosses, Beagrie has few peers. But he has also been accused of over-elaboration, and of being a luxury player in the age of the wing-back.

"I've always thought that criticism was unfair. I'm not an arty-farty winger but a player who can get stuck in when necessary. Howard Kendall says he doesn't like wingers, so I had to win him over when he first came back to Everton. I must have done okay because he invited me back last year to provide a service for big Duncan Ferguson.

"You have to be able to battle as well as doing something on the ball, but I feel there's a lot of rubbish talked about `bottle'. There's a misapprehension that it means steaming into 50-50 challenges. It's also about being brave enough to do your stuff, take people on, when you're 2-0 down."

There has been no shortage of managers keen to exploit his ability to get behind a massed defence. Supporters, too, tend to warm to his style, and he looks back on a "fantastic rapport" with the Maine Road crowd. "You have to be a certain type of player to go down well there. It's a big pitch and you can't hide. You must accept responsibility."

Beagrie, remarkably, played for three months with his broken shin in a forlorn attempt to help Manchester City stay in the top flight. "At first I was told it was a matter of playing through the pain barrier. I was playing with injections which I realise now wasn't a good idea. But that's footballers - you'll do anything to play.

"I tried everything to sort it out. I even went to a faith healer. When Brian Horton was manager, he was very understanding, but Alan Ball took over and it's safe to say we didn't get on. He called me a malingerer and said it was all in my mind."

At Bradford, Beagrie has found Jewell refreshingly receptive to ideas from himself and the other senior player, Stuart McCall. Before the season, the pair were delegated by their team-mates to negotiate bonuses. "We thought we'd got a chance of the play-offs," Beagrie said, "so we geared the bonus to a top-10 finish. We figured that if we finished lower, we didn't deserve one."

Now they are chasing the far more valuable prize of promotion to a level Bradford left in 1922. Despite Tuesday's unconvincing win over Crystal Palace, secured from the penalty spot by his 11th goal of the season, Beagrie believes they have the quality to last the pace.

His supply from the flanks has been especially helpful to the 19-goal centre-forward, Lee Mills. "A few eyebrows were raised when Lee came from Port Vale for pounds 1m, but he's got a great touch for a big fella, he's desperate to score and he's brave. You don't have to be perfect with the ball in because he throws himself at everything."

The description could equally apply to Duncan Ferguson, whose absence from Newcastle's attack encourages Beagrie's natural optimism. "We played Leeds away in the Worthington Cup and lost to a flukey deflected goal. That game showed us that when you're on top against premier opposition, you must capitalise. Also that you show them respect, but not fear."

The lack of negativity in Gullit's philosophy was one of the attractions when Beagrie briefly had the opportunity to join him. "People go on about `sexy football', though all he meant was that players should enjoy playing and express themselves, with no fear factor. He's trying to impose that at Newcastle but I think he's realised he might have to change a few faces."

Bradford would be only too happy to hasten Gullit's make-over by exposing their hosts' shortcomings. Moreover, Beagrie is due some luck in cup football: he scored for Everton in both the quarter- and semi- finals of the Zenith Data Cup only to be left on the bench at Wembley, and he has never advanced beyond the sixth round in the FA Cup.

Beagrie admitted, with a sheepish chuckle, that in order to conserve energy he has celebrated some recent goals with the "token gesture" of a roll in the mud. Should the occasion warrant it, however, the great old competition can be assured of an appropriately extravagant somersault.