Peter Beardsley – Geordie Legend, Loved in Liverpool

PETER Beardsley has recently been in the news for the wrong reasons, amid claims of racism and bullying in his current role as manager of the Newcastle United under-23 side, but go back 30 years it was a much different story for Beardsley the then player. A forward known for his guile, skill and work-rate and who was once described by Gary Lineker as ‘the best partner I could ever have’, and in a piece recorded for the National Football Museum, as ‘unselfish and creative’. As happy creating as he was scoring, a player who would fit perfectly into the number 10 role in the modern game, he found himself in the right place at the right time when he arguably hit his peak following a transfer to the dominant force of the English game back then, Liverpool, in 1987.

Beardsley, rightly so, has always been considered a Newcastle United legend given he was born in the city, had two lengthy spells with the club as a player and – until recently – had been involved there on the coaching side since his playing days finished. It would be his days in the red of Liverpool though that brought him the major honours his undoubted talent warranted, but his route to success was far from straight forward.

The Geordie legend started off, as many other stars of north-east football have – at Wallsend Boys Club, fellow alumni have included the likes of Alan Shearer, Steve Bruce and current Manchester United club captain, Michael Carrick. Newcastle United actually had the opportunity to sign the 18-year-old Beardsley from Wallsend for nothing back in 1979 but he didn’t impress in a trial match and was snapped up by Carlisle United instead, then under the charge of former Newcastle legend, Bobby Moncur. The Cumbrians were in Division Three at the time (now League One) and with Beardsley’s help made it into Division Two, to give the young forward, an early taste of success in his career. By the time promotion was sealed Beardsley had already been sold, in something of a bizarre move back then, to the North American Soccer League side Vancouver Whitecaps – a forerunner of the current MLS team of the same name. They loaned him back to Carlisle to help them seal their promotion, and then loaned him out again, the following year, to a Manchester United side then under the charge of Ron Atkinson. The young Beardsley clearly didn’t impress ‘Big Ron’, making only one appearance in the League Cup for the Red Devils before heading back to Canada.

It would be at Newcastle – where else – that Beardsley would finally make a real breakthrough, then manager Arthur Cox spent £150,000 to bring the forward home in 1983. Cox teamed him up with a Kevin Keegan in the last year of his playing days and another talented young Geordie attacker, Chris Waddle, to leave the Newcastle faithful salivating as the attacking trio fired the club to promotion to Division One, the Premier League in modern parlance. Beardsley was prolific during this period but in the days before the media saturation we have now it was only really when he broke into the England team in 1986 that he really came to the country’s – and Liverpool’s – attention. To be precise it was his performances in the World Cup of that year that brought him to prominence after England’s poor start in that tournament saw manager Bobby Robson turn to the partnership of Lineker and Beardsley and immediately changed the national side’s fortunes in the tournament, turning a possible group stage exit into a quarter final appearance, that could have been more had it not been for the deception and brilliance of Diego Maradona.  

Beardsley returned to the north-east post Mexico and had a poor season by his standards, scoring just five goals as Newcastle struggled to a 17th place finish. The forward’s contract was running down and not surprisingly the club wanted him to sign a new one but with his new-found prominence at international level his head was turned elsewhere, with Liverpool and Manchester United both interested. Alex Ferguson stated in his autobiography that they had a £2 million bid turned down by then Toon boss Willie McFaul, who seemed so determined not to sell to the Old Trafford club that he allegedly told Ferguson even £3 million wouldn’t have been enough. It was then with undoubted enmity that the Scot saw a lower bid – £1.9 million, a British record fee at the time – accepted from United’s bitter rivals, Liverpool.

Beardsley arrived at Anfield at something of a transitional time for the club from an attacking point of view having lost their prolific forward pairing of Rush and Dalglish. Record scorer Rush had moved to Juventus – temporarily as it transpired – and Dalglish to semi-retirement as he decided to concentrate on the management side of his player-manager role. The club already had a ready-made replacement for Rush in the form of John Aldridge and with the arrival of the mercurial Geordie they had their Dalglish replacement. Beardsley’s England team-mate, John Barnes also joined that summer, giving the Merseysiders a formidable look about them once more, and they didn’t disappoint.

The front three were prolific, Aldridge leading the way with 26, but Beardsley wasn’t far behind with 18 as the Reds dominated the league, going 29 games unbeaten at one point as they cruised to the league title that season. The Geordie was loved by the Anfield faithful, not just for the goals he scored but those he made too. One game that lives long in the memory of Liverpool fans from that era was a 5-0 drubbing of Nottingham Forest where Beardsley was at his imperious best scoring one and setting up two others. The season ended up badly for the Reds with a surprising defeat in the FA Cup Final to Wimbledon, that brought a dampener to what had been a glorious first season for Beardsley. It would – tragically – be much worse the following year. Victory in the FA Cup Final over local rivals Everton that season was overshadowed by the awful events at Hillsborough in the semi-final. The infamous match hit Beardsley hard – as it did many of the players – with the forward getting to as many of the funerals as he could and visiting many of the injured in hospital. The Reds had to settle for just the one piece of silverware that season too after famously missing out on a successive league title on the last day of season to Arsenal on a night of high-drama at Anfield.

The close season that followed that defeat nearly saw Beardsley move on with the ambitious, and later disgraced, Olympique Marseille owner Bernard Tapie tempting Liverpool with a £3.6 million bid for the forward. The Frenchman was looking to re-unite Beardsley with his former Newcastle team-mate, Chris Waddle, who had already made the move to southern France that summer. Liverpool seemed happy to let him go but not wanting to uproot his family Beardsley turned down the opportunity. Around that time there were rumours that Beardsley had fallen out with Dalglish, backed up by the willingness to sell to Marseille and his sporadic starts the following season – admittedly not helped by injury. Any such bad blood was denied by Beardsley in his autobiography, in fact it was quite the opposite with the forward seeing the Scot as a genius and somebody he would ‘do anything for’.

Despite not starting as much as he would’ve liked the amiable Geordie would still delight the Anfield faithful that season, particularly in two games against the club’s biggest rivals. He grabbed two of the Liverpool goals in that famous, and breath-taking, F.A. Cup tie with their city rivals Everton that finished 4-4 and would see Kenny Dalglish’s first spell as manager of Liverpool end. Perhaps more significantly than those two goals were the three he got in a 4-0 thrashing of arguably the club’s biggest rivals, Manchester United, with Alex Ferguson no doubt looking on ruefully, wondering what if.

The Everton game, as well as a definitive moment for Dalglish probably proved to be a turning point for Beardsley too despite his performance in that game. If there was no issue between the forward and Dalglish, the same couldn’t be said for the man who followed King Kenny, one Graeme Souness. Beardsley is convinced Souness saw him as trouble maker who was looking to engineer a move away from the club – as alluded to by Souness in his autobiography. Souness had been tasked with reducing the average age of the Anfield squad with Beardsley at 30 deemed the wrong side of the cut. The Scot later admitted, in his book, that he maybe let some go too early – Beardsley being one of them – but put the blame for that firmly at the forward’s door.  

From the Geordie’s point of view he was prepared to fight for his place, despite the £2.9 million arrival of Dean Saunders in the summer of 1991, but out of the blue was sent packing early from a pre-season trip to Sweden to thrash out a deal that had been agreed with city rivals Everton. In a complete contradiction to Souness, Beardsley has been quoted as saying that ‘there was no way I would’ve asked to leave Liverpool, I was really enjoying my time there but Souness wanted me out’. Either way Beardsley’s time at the club was up, but the love of the fans remained, even if he was now playing for their cross-city rivals. In a quirk of fate the fixture calendar dealt Everton a visit to Anfield in the opening month of the season and the forward was given a very touching reception from his former adoring Kop. Chants of ‘What a waste of talent’ going up from the famous stand, during the match, something that meant a lot to Beardsley who has stated, ‘The Kop were a bit special to me that day, and I won’t ever forget it’.

As for his career, the Anfield departure spelt the end of any more silverware, despite coming close back home at Newcastle. He returned to the Magpies in July 1993 after two barren, disappointing years at Goodison Park, joining the Kevin Keegan revolution at St James Park. He formed a lethal partnership with a young Andy Cole on his return, one that saw the north-east club qualify for the UEFA Cup in 1994. They would then go on to push Manchester United all the way to the title in 1996 and 1997, with Beardsley captain by then under the charge of one Kenny Dalglish by 1997 – clearly putting to bed any conspiracy theories about ill feeling between the two. Despite a great ride for the Newcastle fans, and some wonderfully entertaining football for the neutrals amongst us, they were ultimately left empty handed in terms of any honours.

In the summer after the second title tilt Beardsley, the player, would depart Newcastle for the last time as his career very much wound down; a move to then Premier League strugglers Bolton Wanderers in 1997 was the first of four clubs in two years. A Division One (Championship) Manchester City was next – a move that made him the only player to have played for both Liverpool clubs and both Manchester clubs – before linking up with Kevin Keegan again, this time at Fulham at the start of the 1998-99 season. The Craven Cottage side were a lowly Division Two side back then, but Beardsley would end the season in an even lower division. In the January of what would prove to be his last season in English football he, unsurprisingly, ended up back in his native north-east. Hartlepool United was his destination helping the Third Division side (League Two these days) retain their place in the Football League at the expense of Scarborough. A brief spell in Australia with Melbourne Knights followed before he finally called time on his playing career, at the age of 38, and moved into coaching at – yes, you’ve guessed it – Newcastle.

That basically brings us back to now and whilst currently a cloud may hangover him, his place in the hearts of the fans of the clubs he played for is assured, remembering him for his energy, his creativity and his goals. The recent stories tarnish the image of a man who was so well thought of during and after his career, backed up by his induction into the National Football Museum’s Hall of Fame in 2007 as a player. Two years later he was further inducted into the museum’s ‘Community Champion’ category thanks to his work for the Football Foundation with his old boys’ club in Wallsend and other Foundation funded projects back in his native north-east along with many other good causes in the area outside of football too.

It is clear he is a hero in the north-east, regardless of recent events, but there is also plenty of love for him on Merseyside too, on both sides of Stanley Park, but especially in the Red half for the joy and goals he brought to the Anfield club’s supporters in that glorious spell – on the field – back in the late 1980s.

By Richard Beedie with artwork by cottodesign

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