Still football crazy after all these years

Peter Beardsley has been, seen and done most things, but he still can't want for Monday's game with Manchester United. He told Glenn Moore why
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He stayed behind for extra training, he collected up the cones and markers, and, with Les Ferdinand, he was still signing autographs long after most of his team-mates were showered and changed. Newcastle may be on the brink of one of their most important matches in their recent history but, for Peter Beardsley yesterday, it was business as usual.

When Alex Ferguson suggested Newcastle will crack under the pressure of the title run-in, it was not Peter Beardsley he had in mind. Alone among the Newcastle team to face Manchester United at St James' Park on Monday night, he already has an English championship medal in his locker - two of them. He also carries the bitter memory of twice finishing second. He has been there, done that, and always with a certain style.

Thus, while the club has adopted an out-of-character siege mentality this week, Beardsley remains unaffected. An interview request was readily agreed to, with the proviso, made almost with embarrassment, that Kevin Keegan would have to grant permission first.

Keegan trusts his captain and, having finally left the pitch at Durham University's Maiden Castle complex yesterday, Beardsley was able to explain how Monday's match excites, rather than intimidates. "I can't wait," he said. "If you cannot look forward to this there is no point in being in the game. If someone told me at the beginning of the season: 'You will be four points clear at the beginning of March, playing the second-placed team to go seven clear', I would have been delighted.

"It becomes more enjoyable as you go on. At my age [35] everything is a bonus, and I am in a position everybody would like to be in - captain of your home-town club, going for something like this."

A draw would be acceptable to Newcastle but Beardsley is well aware of the danger of settling for a stalemate in advance.

"The two years I won the title with Liverpool, we did so quite comfortably. The close one was when Arsenal won with the last kick of the season. We did not need to win the game, they did. They took a few risks and got away with it. In many ways it is better chasing than being in the lead. We can afford a draw on Monday but we are not a team to go looking for one. Especially at home: we have won 13 out of 13 and we are looking for 19 out 19."

Beardsley has a particular incentive to do well. He came late to stardom - rejected by Gillingham and Cambridge, he had a spell of unemployment and then worked in an engineering factory. Carlisle discovered him at 18 and he also played for Vancouver Whitecaps before, in 1982, he appeared to have broken into the big time. Manchester United, impressed by Beardsley's display against them in a tour match (including a goal in 13 seconds - after United had kicked off) signed him.

However, in a frustrating season he played just one game, a League Cup tie against Bournemouth, before Ron Atkinson allowed him to return to Canada. It was another two seasons before, at the age of 23, he was to play in the top flight with Newcastle. Beardsley maintains he gets on well with Atkinson, but believes he was never given a chance.

"It is always special to play against Manchester United but not in the way it is with Liverpool and Everton, where I played in the first team. A lot of the Manchester United fans probably do not remember I was there. But it is the biggest club in the country, the place is special and the people are - Brian Kidd, Norman Davies [the kit man]. People who were there when I was there."

From Vancouver Beardsley joined Newcastle, then Liverpool, but he never forgot the early years. "Working in a factory helped me realise how lucky I am. Now the money is coming in I am able to look after my family better than I was able to be looked after. I appreciate what I have got."

He is in no hurry to let it go, either. Last week Beardsley was Newcastle's best player in the 3-3 draw with Manchester City. Prompting and providing, his skills stood comparison with David Ginola and Faustino Asprilla. He remains in Terry Venables' plans and, with Nick Barmby suffering a loss of form, may yet be a key player in England's Euro 96 challenge.

"I am hopeful rather than confident, I want to be there but I am not convinced I will be - he [Terry Venables] has so much choice. It will be like a mini-World Cup.

"I am trying to stay a part of it as long as possible. Because the game has got quicker the older players, who use their heads, can stay in the game longer. The likes of Gordon Strachan and Ray Wilkins, who have clever brains, make the ball do the work." The latter pair make much of their devotion to diet - but Beardsley is fuelled by natural fitness and enthusiasm.

"I have never drunk alcohol [he does not like the taste] but I eat what I want. When we go away on a Friday night, I always have chicken soup and roast chicken, other than that I eat what the kids at home eat. I think it is because I train the way I do. When I pack it in I may have to be careful, I eat a fair bit of chocolate. I have been lucky with injuries - I have not had a serious operation.

"The enthusiasm is the easiest part of the game. It is easy for anybody to run about and chase people. The kids in the dressing-room keep you young - you have to be on your toes otherwise they take it out of you. I would miss that atmosphere more than anything."

With Asprilla coming in to partner Les Ferdinand, Beardsley played in a more withdrawn role against City. Keegan has long envisaged Beardsley further prolonging his career by making such a move, but the player himself is less keen.

"Ideally, I would rather be up front but we have such a good squad now you have to be happy to play anywhere. Many people would give their right arm to be in my position, wherever it is in the team. The boss knows I will accept it and make the most of it. Last week I felt I played really well there. It sounds big- headed but I did not give the ball away many times, and I was always there trying to help.

"I do not know what will happen on Monday. Rob Lee will be back so, whether he alters the balance and plays four at the back or leaves out a midfielder, I do not know. He has some decisions to make. He will not tell us until seven o' clock on Monday night. That is always the way - he did not tell us on Saturday until two o'clock.

"I do not know how the game will go. I have a horrible feeling it will be an anticlimax. Everyone is talking about the game of the season - and in terms of what is at stake it is going to be - but it might not be what people expect. If is a 4-4 draw everybody will be delighted but I have a sneaking feeling it could be a 1-0.

"They have got to be positive and, when I have seen them away from home on Sky, they have been. They have so much pace in the side. They can adapt to any situation - hopefully, with so much depth in the squad, we can as well.

"[Eric] Cantona is on a different planet, he is that special. It is nice for me that people say he plays the same role. It is a compliment to me if people say we are on the same level.

"I think he and Coley [Andy Cole] will be the top pair in the country next season. We will see the real Andy Cole. He will have settled in - he has just had a baby, which takes some getting used to - and he and Cantona will have the whole season together."

By then Beardsley hopes to be playing in the Champions' League. "That would be unbelievable, especially for the fans. It means so much up here. We have not won the League since 1928, We have not been to Wembley for 20 years. To lift the Premiership trophy as the captain of this club would be special. The first trophy is always the hardest to win."

First, however, there is Manchester United to deal with...