Football: Dream night for a dream player

Beardsley is returning to Newcastle, and so is Keegan. But just for the memory. Simon Turnbull reports
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The Independent Online
ON WEDNESDAY lunchtime the talk in the visitor centre at Newcastle Breweries was of Kevin Keegan's return to Tyneside. It was all very deja vu. In the same establishment, seven years ago next week, Keegan made his unexpected return to Tyneside, forecasting an avalanche of success as the new manager of Newcastle United. "It'll be like a snowball rolling down a mountain side," he told the assembled press corps. "Once we gather momentum, nothing will stop us." But something did stop Keegan's Newcastle: a combination of Peter Schmeichel and the Gallowgate End crossbar on 4 March 1996.

"For 45 minutes at St James' Park last night Newcastle United played like worthy champions," the Northern Echo reported the morning after the match that turned the 1995-96 title race. "But if the Premiership trophy does not come to Tyneside in May the memory of that champagne first-half play will forever haunt Kevin Keegan and his team of uncrowned kings." The history books show that Keegan's cavaliers never did make it to their promised coronation, that their destiny was indeed decided the fateful night Schmeichel held out in the siege at St James' and Eric Cantona stole off with the points.

Now that the snowball has stopped gathering momentum, and Newcastle United have started simply going downhill, the vision of Philippe Albert smacking his free-kick off the top of the Gallowgate End goal is enough to have Geordies everywhere hitting the bar with a vengeance. Not Peter Beardsley, though - not in the metaphorical sense, at any rate.

Even in his trophy-winning days at Anfield he preferred to celebrate with a can of Lucozade rather than a glass of Lambrusco. It may be ironic that his benefit match has been organised by Newcastle Breweries but the occasion of honouring the teetotal Tynesider affords an opportune time for sober reflection on the intoxicating Keegan era at Newcastle United. When it all ended in acrimony two years ago Keegan said he would only return for one thing and Wednesday night he comes back for it: to play in Beardsley's testimonial.

"It's fantastic news," Beardsley said, Keegan's appearance having been confirmed as he sipped his coffee at the brewery bar. "I know how much it will mean to the fans because Kevin did a great job in turning Newcastle United around. That game against Manchester United probably did cost us the title. But that's football. There's no point looking back and thinking what might have been. What pleases me about that time at Newcastle is the excitement we gave to the fans. The club very nearly went down to the old Third Division four years previously and what the players and Kevin gave to the fans was special. I think the fans appreciate that."

They certainly do. And, while pining for the cavalier days of old, the Toon Army have come to appreciate how central a figure Keegan's captain happened to be in them. Newcastle have missed Beardsley pulling the strings on the pitch as much as they have missed Keegan pulling them from the sidelines. The fulcrum of the attacking team that Kevin built by the Tyne was the local lad who starred alongside him in Newcastle's promotion-winning side of 1983-84.

So highly did Keegan rate Beardsley he told a little red and white lie to get him back to St James' Park in the summer of 1993, telling Sir John Hall and the rest of the Newcastle board that Sunderland were poised to sign him from Everton. And so highly did Beardsley rate Keegan he turned down the offer of pounds 1,000 a week more from Derby County, on the promise of the match staged for his benefit on Wednesday, to return to his home-town club. Watching Beardsley in the three seasons that followed brought to mind the tribute Donny Davies, the one-time doyen of football writers, paid to Raich Carter, the inspiration behind the last title-winning team from the North-east, the Sunderland side of 1935- 36. "It was said of Whistler that he mixed his paint with his brains," Davies wrote. "That is what Carter does with his football."

The same could be said, without a splash of embellishment, of Beardsley in his second, gloriously vivid spell at Newcastle. It is simply impossible to imagine anyone ever having performed with such supreme artistry in black and white. Scheming in the classic inside-forward role like a grandmaster of the chess board, always that vital move or four ahead of his opponents, Beardsley brought the best out of himself, the best out of Andy Cole and the best out of Keegan's Newcastle. He was the probing heartbeat of the team. And he conjured many a wondrous goal out of nothing; stunners that won the day at Norwich, QPR, Crystal Palace, Tottenham and Everton spring instantly to mind.

"That was probably as well as I ever played," Beardsley mused. "It was certainly the most exciting time of my career. We qualified for the Uefa Cup in my first season back and to play in Europe like we did against Antwerp and Bilbao was just brilliant. I'd never played in Europe before. It was a magnificent experience."

It will remain Beardsley's great unfulfilled ambition that he never won a trophy with his beloved black and whites, though he has not done badly for a Longbenton lad who started his working life sweeping metal filings on a factory floor and who was rejected as a teenage trialist by Gillingham and Cambridge. Via Carlisle United, Vancouver Whitecaps, Manchester United (on extended trial), Newcastle (twice), Liverpool, Everton, Bolton and Fulham, Beardsley has joined the playing staff at Hartlepool United with a collection of 59 England caps, two championship medals and an FA Cup winner's medal.

Last Tuesday night, the day after his 38th birthday, he could be found defying time and the tide at Victoria Park, pulling the midfield strings for 120 minutes, helping Hartlepool into the last 16 of the Auto Windscreens Shield at Preston's expense. "I just love playing," Beardsley said. "I'd like to get into coaching and management eventually but at the moment I just want to play. I'll see how I get on until the end of the season and then decide what to do next."

First, though, Beardsley goes back to St James' Park. The Select XI in which he plays against Celtic includes not just Keegan but Kenny Dalglish, Ruud Gullit, Andy Cole, Paul Gascoigne and Alan Shearer, too. It is a dream of a team for a dream of a player. As the Toon Army will assuredly proclaim, and as Newcastle United have discovered to their cost these past two seasons: "There's only one Peter Beardsley."


Three who might be

Matt Jansen: Like Beardsley, the 21-year-old Cumbrian started his career with Carlisle. And the pounds 4.1m Blackburn Rover has modelled his game, as a schemer in the "hole" behind the front two, around the former Brunton Park prodigy, who happens to be his hero. Blessed with similar balance and close control, he has the same perceptive eye for an opening, and for goal too. Robbie Blake: With his low centre of gravity and his shimmying style, the 22-year-old Teessider has been likened to Beardsley as he has come to prominence in Bradford City's ascent of the First Division table. In his Darlington days he had Ron Yeats, Liverpool's chief scout, following his form at Feethams. Has overcome a weight problem, and a lean spell, to re-emerge at Valley Parade. Joe Cole: The emerging Hammer is something Beardsley never was: a red- hot teenage property. Beardsley was rejected by Gillingham and Cambridge before Bobby Moncur gave him a chance at Carlisle. At 17 Cole is already a Premiership player. He remains slight of build but not of talent, with his silken touch on the ball, his darting runs and his youthful swagger.

One who should have been

Nick Barmby: The young man Terry Venables groomed as Beardsley's successor in the England team has not yet grown old. At 24, time still remains on the Evertonian's side. Having been out of the national team picture for two years, though, and been a peripheral figure in the Premiership, Beardsley's former England room-mate has a good deal of lost ground to make up.