A fortnight ago in this space I explained the predicament of 41-year-old Linda Uttley, once a super-fit forward with the England women's rugby team, but now suffering from a rare form of terminal cancer. Last Friday at a hotel in Richmond a dinner took place to raise funds for Linda's care, and a number of readers of this column were moved to make donations, for which I offer my –and, more to the point, her – gratitude.
As an example of the rugby world rallying round in a crisis, the dinner was a triumph. The organisers thought it might raise £20,000 at best; in fact it raised £68,000. Martin Johnson, Fergus Slattery, Jason Leonard and Will Greenwood were there, and Linda's namesake, Roger Uttley, told the gathering that he didn't think they were related, but that there had been an incident on a Lions tour of South Africa some years ago, so you never know. Linda, I should add, is black.
Anyway, by all accounts it was a fantastic event, which finished at 5.30am when the barman declined to serve any more drinks on the basis that guests coming in for breakfast might be disturbed. A proper old-fashioned rugby night.
As a heart-warming story, of course, it comes with the sizeable corollary that Linda is still terminally ill, but let me tell another heart-warming tale, without a gloomy side, except insofar as so many footballing giants of the 1970s, men whose talent these days would yield £100,000-per-week salaries, are now on their uppers.
One such is Kevin Beattie, once a defensive block of granite for Ipswich Town and England, and described to me by his former manager Bobby Robson as the finest English-born player he ever saw; even better than Duncan Edwards and Bobby Charlton. Robson felt certain that Beattie would become the most capped England player of all time. Yet he had acquired only nine caps when persistent injuries finally forced his retirement at 28, and ironically it was Robson who denied Beattie the most glittering of all the prizes won in Ipswich's halcyon years.
In the 1980-81 season, with the team on course for a League, FA Cup and Uefa Cup treble, Beattie broke his arm in the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City. "I'm not being arrogant," he told me on the phone a couple of days ago, "but if I hadn't gone off that day, it would have been us playing Spurs in that year's final." As it was, Ipswich lost 1-0, and with Beattie injured – in fact, he would never play for the club again – their League form faltered too. They eventually finished second to Aston Villa.
Then came the Uefa Cup final against AZ Alkmaar. The managers were allowed to name five substitutes, but could field only one. Beattie begged Robson to let him sit on the bench, even with his arm in plaster, so that he would qualify for a medal. Robson, plotting only how to win a two-leg tie in which his team would prevail 5-4 on aggregate, declined.
"So I commentated for Radio Orwell instead," Beattie told me. "And I have to admit that when the final whistle blew, I felt really, really low. I won't name names, but a few players got medals that night who'd never even played in the Uefa Cup. I went to bed early and the lads couldn't believe it. I was the only one without a hangover next morning, which wasn't like me at all in them days."
Enter Rob Finch, who last year wrote Beattie's biography, The Greatest Footballer England Never Had. Finch thought it disgraceful that Beattie had never been given a medal, especially when he learnt that David Johnson – also once of Ipswich Town, coincidentally – had missed one of Liverpool's European Cup finals, having played throughout the campaign. Liverpool put pressure on Uefa and an extra medal was duly put in the post. Nobody ever did that for Beattie.
Finch started a petition on his website and also contacted Richard Caborn MP, having learnt that Caborn, when Sports Minister, had been instrumental in getting Jimmy Greaves a 1966 World Cup winner's medal. Caborn took up the baton, and emailed the Uefa president Michel Platini, who rather fittingly was in the St Etienne side hammered 4-1 by Ipswich in the 1981 Uefa Cup quarter-final, a match in which Beattie played a characteristically uncompromising part. Anyway, last week Finch received a letter from Platini saying that a new medal would be struck. It is to be presented to Beattie at Ipswich's final game of the season, against Hull City. "It's only taken 27 years but I'm over the moon," he told me. "Apparently, Uefa are having to get the medal sent over from Portman Road so they can make a new one, because they broke the mould."
As they did when they made Beattie.
'The Greatest Footballer England Never Had: The Kevin Beattie Story,' by Rob Finch, is available from: www.cultfigurepublishing.com