When Jermaine Beckford accepted the award for League One Player of the Year at the London Hilton this week he appeared a stereotypically flash footballer. Black suit, black shirt, white tie, diamond ear-stud and neck tattoo.
The thought occurred that the 24-year-old had just one decent year in League One under his belt. That maybe he was getting carried away.
Behind the scenes, however, a different Beckford emerged. This is the one who knew how fortunate he was to be carving out a living from the game, who had been in non-League, had been to the cash-point hoping he could draw out a tenner at the end of the week, who had done a series of low-income jobs.
“I've seen the normal, everyday side of life,” said the Leeds United striker. “It does give you a sense of perspective. I've been through times when I've had no money - I've had £40 to last the month and I'm only in the second week. I've had to scrimp and scrape so I know how to deal with things like that. I've done a few different jobs - working for the RAC, in sports shops, in supermarkets, in an office, fitting windscreens - all sorts. Now I've got back into the game I don't want to go back to that so I'm going to give it everything I can. I'll do all that's in my power to make sure that doesn't happen.”
Beckford was on Chelsea's books as a teenager, in the same year as West Ham's Carlton Cole. He was released at 19 but said, “Just being able to play football with guys like Gianfranco Zola was a massive honour. To see how Chelsea are doing now makes me proud and makes me want to be able to get to the Premier League myself even more.”
Beckford went to Wealdstone and began scoring prolifically. In March 2006 Leeds beat off a clutch of clubs to sign him for £45,000. However, he struggled to establish himself even when Leeds began to slide down the Championship and asked to go on loan to Carlisle, then Scunthorpe. While at Glanford Park he scored eight goals in 18 appearances including a spectacular strike against Rotherham which won the Football League's 2007 Goal of the Year award. Scunthorpe went up, to the Championship, just as Leeds slid out of it.
The transfer embargo meant Leeds were unable to buy in strikers for much of the close-season so Dennis Wise resisted bids for Beckford instead giving him the chance to lead Leeds' assault on the 15-point penalty imposed for going into administration. Beckford has responded with 17 goals to lead the division's scoring chart.
“It's been a manic season,” he said, “an interesting ride. We've had loads of downs but also we've had unbelievable ups as well, for example clawing back the 15 points that we were deducted. Catching the first team above us was an unbelievable feeling. And also being top of the league. Nobody ever thought we would be able to do that and we did it, we proved a lot of teams wrong. Those were good things - unfortunately we've had quite a few bad losses where we've dropped points and ended up where we are [8th]. I feel like everything happens for a reason so hopefully we will be able to get back a couple more points, get in the play-offs and then reach for the automatic spots.”
Beckford admitted it was difficult to sustain momentum once Leeds stopped moving through the field like Lewis Hamilton going past the backmarkers at a GP. But he adds ”I think it was more the case that one or two players became complacent, myself included. We're kicking ourselves for that now.”
There has also been a change of management, and playing style, after Wise moved to Newcastle. New manager Gary McAllister, said Beckford, “wants us to get the ball down a lot more. It's not going to happen immediately, but it is happening, slowly but surely. I'm part of the change and I'm enjoying it. I'm looking forward to seeing the end product.”
Today Leeds are at home to Bournemouth, who have also gone into administration and been deducted points. “Losing points is a real kick in the teeth,” said Beckford. “There should be a better way of dealing with it. It's basically the League saying they don't want you in the division, they want you in the division below. It is bad enough going into administration. Everybody was worried- we all have mortgages to pay and stuff. And to have 15 points taken away left us with a mountain to climb. It looked ridiculous when you saw the table and still does. We should be a lot higher than we are.”
Another huge crowd, for League One, will be at Elland Road today. “The support this season has been absolutely phenomenal,” said Beckford. “To be a League One club and have a 32,500 attendance is unreal. It shows massive support although it means every team that plays us treats the match like a cup final.” With 12 such 'finals' to go Leeds, who are still contesting the points deduction, are two points off the play-offs, and 12 adrift of automatic promotion. If the lawyers do not get the 15-point sanction lifted Beckford and his team-mates will have to do it on the pitch. “Getting the points back would be great, but we're taking it upon ourselves to get us back to where we belong,” he said.