ORf all the iconic moments that have come to define the Premier League era, few stick in the mind quite like that which occurred at Elland Road on Monday 29 April 1996. Title-chasing Newcastle had just beaten Leeds 1-0 and, interviewed after the game their manager, Kevin Keegan, had a few things to get off his chest. He started agitated, got increasingly angry and by the end had turned the volume up to 11.
For many, the I will love it rant was pure Keegan, exposing him as a man too emotional for his own good and signaling the precise point that the destiny of the 1995-96 Premier League title race swung away from Newcastle and towards Manchester United.
Keegan had allowed Alex Ferguson to get inside his head, rising to the Scot’s bait after he had suggested during the final stage of an epic campaign that Leeds and Nottingham Forest, Newcastle’s third- and second-from-last opponents, would try less hard to beat the north-east side than they had his own. Ever the stirrer, Ferguson claimed Forest in particular would go easy on Newcastle given they were taking part in Stuart Pearce’s testimonial later that year. A favor for a favour, and all that.
“You can tell him now, we’re still fighting for this title and he’s got to go to Middlesbrough and get something,” Keegan said as he looked down the barrel of a Sky Sports camera, his temperature rising, his finger jabbing. “And I’ll tell you, honestly, I will love it if we beat them. Love it!”
United did get something at Middlesbrough; a 3-0 victory that sealed a third championship in four seasons. And really it was a formality given what occurred at the City Ground three days earlier – Newcastle’s 1-1 draw at Forest as the visitors dropped two points having taken a first-half lead. It was a mathematical blow following on from the psychological one Ferguson had landed prior to the Leeds game.
The result was a sickener for Newcastle, leaving them two points behind United going into the final day of the season, when as Ferguson’s side toasted glory at the Riverside Stadium, Newcastle were left to stew on what might have been following a 1-1 draw with Tottenham. A 12-point lead was fried away. Geordie dreams ripped at the seams.
On that night in the east Midlands, however, Newcastle’s followers at least had something to savor – a goal, one that spoke to the thrilling football they had delivered that season and which fittingly came from the boot of Newcastle’s most creative player during their most creative was. The Entertainers’ best entertainer: Peter Beardsley.
It’s difficult to write about Beardsley in light of the 32-week ban from football he received in 2019 after being found guilty of using racist and abusive language towards Newcastle Under-23 players during his time as their coach. It was an upsetting and disgraceful episode and has come to overshadow the fact Beardsley was one hell of a footballer; a technically gifted, highly creative forward who has never truly received the credit he deserved. There are several reasons for that and undoubtedly among them are his appearance and demeanor of him. That shuffling running style, that pudding-bowl haircut, that thick, lispy Geordie accent; Beardsley is far from the sexiest player this country has ever produced but he is arguably its most talented.
A No 10 who rarely played with No 10 on his back, Beardsley’s mastery of a football was beguiling. It rarely left his foot, even as he pulled off his trademark move of dribbling through one challenge after another, often in tight spaces and at speed. As is the case with most talented players, that came from an allying of natural ability with constant practice, which in Beardsley’s case involved running with a ball from his home in Hexham to Wallsend Boys Club, the Tyneside youth setup that had a hand in launching not only Beardsley’s career but also those of Steve Bruce, Alan Shearer and Michael Carrick.
The ball Beardsley used to dribble with was a penny floater, which for younger readers was made of plastic and had a mind of its own. It was a pain to play with but that was the point as far as Beardsley was concerned: learn to get to grips with one of those and the leather version would be a doddle in comparison.
It worked. Beardsley grew up to not only be someone capable of maneuvering in tight spaces and at speed but also with either foot and from awkward angles. He also had excellent spatial awareness and an often under-appreciated vicious finish. Beardsley may have come across as a dozy dope but there was bloody-mindedness to go with all that talent.
And all those gifts were on show at the City Ground on Thursday 2 May 1996 as Newcastle went for title broke against Forest.
A little over half an hour had been played when David Batty, standing just inside Forest’s half, fired a pass towards Beardsley, who was lurking outside the area but side-on and with the opposition back four in front of him. Matters were not helped by the ball bouncing as it reached Beardsley, but Newcastle’s captain did not panic. Instead, and in one movement, he seized possession and turned so he was facing towards goal.
The ball was high and there were two Forest players, Scott Gemmill and Steve Chettle, moving towards Beardsley as he looked to progress. Again there was no panic as he waited for the ball to drop and, after it had, he drove from right to left, brushing off Gemmill and Chettle with ease before poking the ball through Alf-Inge Haaland’s legs and surging into the area.
There was still work to do given Haaland’s attempt at a last-ditch tackle, not to mention the fact Beardsley was running away from goal. Once again – no panic. Instead he took a touch to bring the ball under control before lashing a soaring, unstoppable drive past Mark Crossley and into the top corner.
“A gem of a goal by a gem of a player,” exclaimed Martin Tyler in commentary, and he wasn’t wrong. The strike was voted Match of the Day’s goal of the month and in the space of five seconds and half a dozen touches, with left and right foot, captured Beardsley at best.
Liverpool and Everton supporters may disagree with that assessment given the high-quality displays Beardsley delivered for the Merseyside clubs between the late 80s and the early 90s, while some Newcastle fans would perhaps argue he performed better for their club during his first spell at St James ‘ Park, from 1983-87. That may all be true but there is no denying that, in the years after he returned to the northeast, Beardsley was a consistently dazzling member of one of the most thrilling teams this country has seen. And what made his contribution to Keegan’s Newcastle especially remarkable was that he was way into his 30s – 35 on the night of the goal against Forest and going on to perform strongly for his boyhood team for a further 15 months.
It should also be remembered that as well as being a talented forward in his own right, Beardsley was an excellent foil for others. John Aldridge, Ian Rush, Andy Cole and Les Ferdinand are just some of the strikers who thrived alongside him at club level while with England there was Gary Lineker.
“The person that helped me the most was Peter Beardsley,” said the Match of the Day presenter. “Phenomenal player. Unbelievably unselfish. My goalscoring record when Peter was in the England side was pretty much a goal a game and I owe that to him.”
Resounding praise for a man whose life has slid into ignominy but who once lit up grounds around the country. None more so than the City Ground in 1996, scoring a goal of technical and brutal beauty amid the crash and burn of his team’s title aspirations.