Bridge's high raises stakes for Beattie

Friend's move to the big time puts Champions' League on south-coast striker's horizon
Click to follow
The Independent Football

James Beattie meets the question with the anticipation that has brought him 30 goals in his last 43 Premiership games. "You're fishing now," he says playfully when asked about his attendance at Chelsea's last home game in the Champions' League. His appearance for the goalless tie against Sparta Prague - "It wasn't the best of games" - was, of course, to see his friend and former team-mate Wayne Bridge who left in the summer for £7m. "He talks about it [the move] a lot and obviously he scored the other night [against Besiktas]," says Beattie. "I know he's loving it."

Surely then he also harbours ambitions to play on the same stage - but can he do it if he stays at Southampton? "I think it's quite realistic - but also quite a long way off yet," he says cautiously while admitting to envy. "Hopefully we can see this season if we can do better than eighth [last term's position]. Everyone wants to play in the Champions' League. But at the moment we're eighth." Then, having mulled how his words might be interpreted, Beattie adds: "You've got your headline there now, haven't you? - It says 'Champions' League is Southampton's goal'."

Beattie is getting wise to this media lark. After all he has been hot property for over a year now and is acutely aware how the slightest hint of ambition can be starkly construed - in screaming bold type - as a sign of (a) overconfidence; (b) wanting a transfer; or (c) an attack on others. None of the three apply in the case of the 25-year-old whose footballing education has advanced dramatically over the past, eventful 12 months with an FA Cup final, a tilt at European football and international recognition. All were furnished by his goals - but, it appeared, all were abruptly brought to an end. Arsenal won at the Millennium Stadium, Steaua Bucharest delivered a lesson in the Uefa Cup - and then Sven Goran Eriksson discarded him.

Beattie handled it. He showed a determination, a self-belief, that has marked his career and did not cavil when the Swede eventually turned to him after the Alan Smith fiasco. "I was just delighted to be called up," he says. "I was disappointed not to be involved at first but I got 45 minutes of international football again and, if things had been different, I'd have got my first goal." There's no complaint. "That's the only way you can be. If you start moaning and griping at people, that won't get you anywhere." So what did Eriksson say to him when he was called upon? "He just said, 'Welcome', and that he was happy that I was there."

Setbacks have studded his career. So has the ability shown by "Beats" to beat them. A prodigious goalscorer at youth level, he was signed by Kenny Dalglish for his home-town team Blackburn Rovers when 15, but was discarded five years later by Roy Hodgson. The club secretary made the phone call. Then Glenn Hoddle tried to force him out of Southampton - telling Beattie's father that his son would never make it as a Premiership player. For someone ranked as the second-best swimmer in the country at 14 - a worn-out shoulder put paid to that - it has all been water off his back. Indeed he puts his own steely mindset, which has also enabled him to overcome previously persistent injury, down to the long, lonely hours spent in the pool.

Now Beattie simply personifies Southampton's progress - and, under Gordon Strachan, the team are clearly structured around the powerful striker, playing to his vibrant strengths. "He's big on getting crosses in the box, getting the strikers involved as early as you can," Beattie says. Indeed, Southampton made a blazing start to the season - "the best we've had for 20-odd years" - fuelled by goals from Beattie, including the winner at St Mary's against Man-chester United.

Then it tailed off. "We had a little dip in form," Beattie says. "But it looks like we've come out the other side of it. Hopefully we'll kick on from here." The change came with a lecture from Strachan. "The gaffer said to us, 'Get back to basics, get back to winning games'.".

Strachan, as with many Premiership managers, is a devotee of ProZone - the computer system which analyses every player's performance, from throw-ins to yards run. "He said our stats in the last few games were down and we had to get them back up. Get back to working, hustling teams and putting the pressure on.

"He said we were good last year and he wanted to take us on a step further - but that hasn't worked and we have to try to get back to being, well, good." By basically being more direct - getting the ball in early for Beattie to do what he does best. "Altering the style of play wasn't working. The football was good but the results were not."

Deliciously for Southampton fans, the corner was turned in the Carling Cup victory against Portsmouth - with two Beattie goals - followed by the exhilarating Premiership win against Charlton in which the striker registered two assists. His first goal in the cup game summed up Southampton - an opponent hurried into losing possession, a swift break and early cross... and Beattie scores. "Intercepting, hustling the ball, get the crosses in and finishing," he says succinctly. After the match, he said he had been waiting for such delivery "for six weeks". "More like six months," he now corrects himself.

And yet the goals continued during that period, burying any fears that defenders would be wiser to him this season. "I got off to a good start - seven in nine," he says. "Overall I've now got 10 and that's double figures before Christmas. They say if you can do that then it's good."

Beattie clearly knows his own record. "I've got double figures now in four seasons in the Premier League - and I think that's just my development... or at least that's what people say." It's indisputable, of course. So much so that Beattie - who signed a new contract last season - will have to handle constant speculation on his future. "The interest comes with the goals - and that's it, basically," he says.

Other goals have been set for this season, even if the Champions' League, despite the obvious availability of that fourth spot, given the failings of Newcastle United and Liverpool, may remain elusive. "I think we'll have a good cup run again - whether it be Carling or FA Cup - and hopefully do better than eighth in the League," Beattie says. "The League position is the one that the gaffer wants to improve and if we go one better in the FA Cup that would be fantastic. Then we'll be happy."