Brian Viner: In the top 10 of all-time sporting greats 'The Beat' will remain an unsung No 1

I didn't watch any of it, but I gather that the top 10, as voted for by viewers gently guided by expert panellists, were Muhammad Ali, Pele, Martina Navratilova, Jack Nicklaus, Steve Redgrave, Gareth Edwards, Lance Armstrong, Ayrton Senna, Lester Piggott and Ian Botham.

So many holes can be picked in this predominantly Anglo-American, wholly modern list that it's hardly worth starting, but most depressing is its numbing predictability.

These "all-time greatest" debates are rendered more interesting when someone unpredictable is thrown into the mix. I'm not talking about Geoff Nulty, obviously. It can't be just for the shock value; there has to be a good reason. But without it, what are we left with, other than the familiar parade of the usual suspects?

That is not to challenge Ali's stature as the greatest of boxers (although some would place him behind Sugar Ray Robinson/Joe Louis/Rocky Marciano). Nor is it to question Pele's status as the most legendary of footballers (although I've heard people argue that Diego Maradona/George Best/Ferenc Puskas was even more gifted). But it certainly spices up a rather dreary banquet to invite someone new to the table.

A few months ago in this space, attempting to write an aria for that most unsung of footballers, the full-back, I invited readers to choose the best they had seen in that position. Several of you named Jimmy Armfield, widely considered to have been the first overlapping full-back, so I phoned Armfield himself, and asked him who was the best that he ever saw.

He could have chosen Carlos Alberto or Paolo Maldini, but instead he went for an old Middlesbrough player of the 1950s, Mick McNeill, who isn't that much of a legend even on the banks of the Tees. Yet I was thrilled both with Armfield's choice and his justification for it; that the greatest players very often don't play for the greatest teams.

All of which brings me to another respected old-timer, Sir Bobby Robson, who revealed in a newspaper interview last week the English player he considered to be the best he had ever played or worked with. That adds up to a pretty dazzling list of contenders, including Duncan Edwards, whose last game for England was Robson's first, as well as Tom Finney, Bobby Charlton and Paul Gascoigne.

But he chose none of the above. "I believe Kevin Beattie was the finest player this country has produced during my time," he said. "He could hit 60-yard passes without looking, from left half to outside- right, and eliminate six players with that one ball. He had strength, he was quick, he was explosive and he could tackle. As a player, I would have hated to play against him."

It is not easy to applaud while holding a newspaper, but I made a decent fist of it. After all, Beattie played in an unfashionable position, centre-half, in an unfashionable era, the 1970s, for an unfashionable team, Ipswich Town. Admittedly Robson was his manager, and therefore biased, but then that made him more aware of Beattie's virtues.

Besides, I am old enough myself to remember what a superb player he was, and it's not too fanciful to say that if Beattie were playing today, then John Terry, Rio Ferdinand and Sol Campbell would be competing for only one place in the middle of the England defence.

Moreover, if he were playing today, he would be earning upwards of £80,000 a week. Instead, he is penniless.

One Saturday afternoon a few years ago, I had the pleasure of his company in an executive box at Portman Road, leased by a friend of mine. I had my six-year-old son, Joe, with me, and Beattie made a great fuss of him, giving him a copy of his autobiography and signing it "The Beat". For at least two years afterwards, my friends were astonished, on asking Joe who his favourite footballer was, to get the unequivocal answer "Kevin 'The Beat' Beattie".

Anyway, I stayed in touch with Beattie, sporadically, and last week called to ask if he had heard what Robson had said.

"No, mate, what's that?" he said. I told him. "Oh, that's very, very nice of the boss," he said. I asked if we could have a chat about it and he said he'd call me back, but instead the call came from a man identifying himself as Kevin's agent.

He explained that Kevin needed to make some money from his few minutes back in the limelight, so what could I offer? Nothing, I said, but I really wished I could. Very often those are empty words. But on this occasion they really weren't.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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