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The Beat One Year On
Written by ElephantintheRoom on Sunday, 8th Sep 2019 14:08

Kevin Beattie died in September last year. He is by some distance the most popular player in the club’s history. Any poll on Town’s greatest player will be won at a canter by Beattie. He’s destined to be the first player to have a statue in his honour (if the somewhat radical design doesn’t make it look like he’s slipped off his pedestal).

That’s an extraordinary achievement. An accolade so far reserved only for two former managers who went on to become national treasures. But Beattie’s is an extraordinary story – and one that is virtually unknown outside Ipswich.

When Kevin Beattie so sadly and prematurely passed away the television channels were hard pressed to find any TV footage at all, let alone something that might communicate greatness. Step outside Suffolk’s borders and Beattie is largely unknown.

Even more curious, a high proportion of those who vote for him probably didn’t see him play. Kevin Beattie is indeed the stuff of legend. In some part this is because he played in an era before saturation media coverage. In others it is because of his rise from poverty and well documented family problems in his native Carlisle, not to mention later life.

Even his arrival at the club is the stuff of legend. He allegedly turned up in ill-fitting shoes with his boots in a brown paper and sixpence in his pocket. Town even had to buy him some clothes. But sadly the real reason for Beattie’s enduring legend is that he so rarely played at all. His legend lives and grows, a bit like say Kurt Cobain and Nirvana because his was a career cut so short.

When he emerged as a startlingly dominant teenager, he immediately stood out. A colossus and the heart and soul of the team whilst still in his teens. In the first Rothman’s Football League Book, there he is looking slightly uncomfortable in a tux receiving the young player of the year award from Don Revie. But injuries and lifestyle issues rapidly diminished his talents which abruptly fizzled – and then slowly and painfully faded away.

For me and others of my age, the affection for Kevin Beattie goes deeper. He was the player that symbolised Town’s transformation from annual relegation contenders to, remarkably, a force first in the land – and then, unbelievably, Europe.

I had supported Town for a decade before Beattie arrived and my heroes were always older than me – Ray Crawford, Billy Baxter, John O’Rourke, Danny Hegan, Colin Viljoen - players I quietly revere to this day. When I became aware of a rumoured titan playing reserve games at 17. He was the first Town player who was more or less the same age as I was.

At the time I was studying at Ipswich Civic College and had a free rail ticket. So every reserve home game saw me and my mates at Portman Road watching this new phenomenom thundering down the wing – for in the beginning, Beattie was a left-back.

We could stand at one end for one half and walk around the ground for the second half for a close-up view of what all the fuss was about. In truth I can barely remember anything other than his flopping hair. But that hardly matters because in seemingly the blink of an eye he was in the first team.

Beattie made his debut in 1972-73 aged just 18 against Manchester United at Old Trafford. Town won 2-1 and Bobby Charlton was somewhat startled when Kevin Beattie asked him for his autograph. I think it was Charlton who first compared Beattie to his late friend Duncan Edwards, such was the power of the precocious teenager. Charlton, an equally humble and grounded club legend, told the starry-eyed teenager that soon he would be the one signing autographs.

Two weeks later he had his first goal in an epic 3-3 draw at Elland Road. These were heady days for Town supporters as well as Kevin Beattie. Town climbed the table and eventually finished fourth – their best finish since Ramsey’s unlikely triumph.

Beattie was a virtual-ever present playing 38 times and plundering five goals. Not bad for a teenager. There was also time to squeeze in a Texaco Cup triumph which included home and away 2-1 wins against Norwich. Beattie and Ipswich Town had arrived in the big time in some style.

The next season was a great one to be a Town fan as Ipswich Town and Beattie took to European football like a duck to water. Those evening games are seared into my mind for ever. Epic games against Spanish Champions-to-be Real Madrid, Twente Enschede and Italian champions-to-be Lazio had us dreaming of European glory. Each tie was an epic in its own right for very different reasons.

A tie against little-known East Germans Lokomotiv Leipzig was surely a gimme? Beattie scored his first European goal with a trademark thump from a freekick. But alas a hard luck story was about to unwind in the second leg where Beattie and Hunter performed heroics in sub-zero temperatures after Mick Mills got himself senselessly sent off.

If memory serves, Beattie played in short sleeves – a hard man gesture that was to become something of a party piece in freezing, far-flung east European outposts.

We now know that to be so close, but so far was to become the signature of the Robson years. This was but the first of many bitter disappointments. And for this year at least, the reason was not a catastrophic Beattie injury. He played all 42 league games and a staggering 15 cup games, scooping that Player of the Year title.

1974-75 remains my all-time favourite year as a Town supporter, largely, if not exclusively because of a truly titanic FA Cup run (well – it did end in disaster). Beattie was once again at the heart of it playing 37 times and scoring six goals.

But, in a sign of things to come, he was injured in an epic series of three replays against Leeds, opening the door to a new 17-year-old called Johnny Wark. He was also injured again in the semi-final against West Ham, then missing as Clive Thomas knocked Town out in a startlingly unfair replay at Stamford Bridge.

We didn’t know it then but Kevin Beattie’s career had already peaked. He had burst on to the scene at Old Trafford as a teenager and played 117 league games in just three years. He was still 21 with the world at his feet. But he was destined to play just 121 times more. A poor return for such a talent, but at least every one of those games was in the top division.

In the beginning there was hope. He made the PFA Team of the Year three years in a row. His Town appearance records trailed off a bit playing 29 and 31 league games in consecutive seasons. The end was already in sight. In 1978-79 he played just 20 league games and the small matter of a cup final with three cortisone injections.

He was to play just 17 more games after that swansong, sadly breaking his arm in another miserable FA Cup semi-final defeat when a far superior Town team contrived to lose to Manchester City.

He played just 51 times in his last five years in a Town shirt. And scored just two goals. This remember was the man who shone like a diamond for that number of games in one year at the start of his career.

There were of course many ‘personal issues’ that led to many of Beattie’s problems. In an era when provincial footballers’ private lives remained largely private these were not really our concern. We knew he grew up in a family environment best described as difficult. We knew he smoked because he was often photographed with a cigarette in his mouth, even at Wembley. We knew he liked a drink rather more than he should. We knew he, Alan Hunter and John Cobbold could celebrate in style. And there was the incident with the bonfire.

But perhaps we like our heroes to be flawed and none of this seemed to matter. After all, there was always next year. Until suddenly there wasn’t.

It is a curiosity of Beattie’s rather limited stature in the game beyond Suffolk’s borders that he played so very few times for England. Nine caps is a poor return – especially as two of them were against Luxembourg. And from memory I think every one was at left-back, where he probably replaced Mick Mills. His emergence as a football powerhouse was so long ago in the mists of time that Alf Ramsey was manager when he got his first U23 cap.

I remember watching Beattie play for England and struggle in his number three England shirt against the Netherlands at Wembley. He looked almost leaden-footed against the fleet-footed Dutch who won 2-0 with a ‘new Cruyff’ called Jan Peters notching two clinical goals. Town fans might recall Peters didn’t quite live up to that hype and he was in the AZ team a few years later.

But I digress. Another curious Beattie story involved a call-up for the U23 team against Scotland at Aberdeen towards the end of 1974. Beattie was seen on to the night train – but was not on it when it arrived. Legend has it he got off at Carlilse and was found playing dominoes in a pub with his dad. Revie the then England manager was less than impressed which probably goes some way to explaining his lack of England caps.

After his career at Ipswich wound down, almost in slow motion, his entire life seemed to unravel. His knees dictated he couldn’t play – not really. But he could try. Stalled and all too brief attempts at Colchester and Boro must have been soul destroying, but perhaps not as bad as meandering around obscure Scandanavian outposts.

You can but wonder, given the reverence his memory is held in, why he was allowed to slip into destitution. Pub ownership was perhaps not the wisest of career choices and he narrowly survived a near death experience when his pancreas gave up.

The tales of woe just kept on coming, including an unfortunate benefit fraud conviction. Imagine that – Town’s greatest-ever player by a country mile living hand to mouth off benefits. No wonder we cling to the memories.

For me, Kevin Beattie, fine player though he briefly was, is not Town’s finest ever player. That accolade surely goes to someone like Mick Mills who played nearly three times as many games, skippered his club and country with distinction and even led England in a World Cup.

Beattie’s stats pale into near insignificance by comparison. Or Johnny Wark, who started off being kicked by Sniffer Clarke as Beattie’s tyro replacement in that unforgettable tie against league champions Leeds – and won the PFA Player of the Year in a Town shirt. Logic dictates their achievements are far greater.

Don’t get me wrong, Kevin Beattie was, all-too briefly a truly awesome player. But looking back, although I remember crunching tackles, awesome headers and powerful runs, I also recall him often being AWOL when Town needed him most or when the season unravelled yet again.

I think he was more or less finished as a player when he was 21. From then on injuries and lifestyle issues took a terrible toll and the endless round of painkilling injections probably injured his mind as well as his body.

Throughout all his travails he remained humble – and identified with the club that made him. What an ambassador for the club he could have been if he could have been saved from himself in those early days when his career ebbed away.

I read up about him shortly after he died and was surprised to see that he was briefly a scout for Norwich. I’m not sure anyone at Norwich thought he’d be much use in that capacity – but it must have given his life some purpose.

Already a year has passed since he died on 16 September 2018, of a suspected heart attack - at the age of just 64. I never listen to Radio Suffolk, so for me Kevin Beattie never got old. All I saw and heard of him was on the pitch. For me he will be forever young, brushing players off the ball, thundering forward and leaping to prodigious heights.

What memories those are. What a time to be a Town fan. Beattie symbolised the transformation of Town from country cousins to almost the best team in the country and almost the best team in Europe. Quite an achievement really. Quite a legacy.

Bobby Robson famously described him as the best player he had ever seen. This from a man who had worked with some of the globe’s greatest players. People often ask why Kevin Beattie inspires such misty-eyed memories when they have never heard of him or were borne too late to see him play. Perhaps some more Robson hyperbole can explain:

“What a player the boy was ... He could climb higher than the crossbar and still head the ball down. He had the sweetest left foot I've ever seen and could hit 60-yard passes, without looking, that eliminated six opposition players from the game. He had the strength of a tank, was lightning quick and he could tackle.”

Quite. Add the thunderbolt power of his shooting and the power of his runs and you more or less have it. He was some player. I also rather like the fact that he was Michael Caine’s double in Escape to Victory and put Sylvestor Stallone’s nose out of joint by beating him at arm wrestling with both his right and left arm.

And so on to his statue. He deserves one, no doubt about it. But there is a slight element of hypocrisy about the statues gathering in number around the ground. Ramsey was all but ignored for years. Robson given the freedom of Newcastle before any such honour at his adopted home. And now they are joined by Kevin Beattie who signed on for benefits almost within sight of the ground he lit up with such distinction.

We will certainly never see his like again on the pitch. Kevin Beattie was a once in a lifetime player you never truly appreciate until long after they are gone. But if that statue does him justice, we’ll see his likeness every game – forever.

And that I guess is a fitting lasting tribute to a man who inspired awe on the pitch – and a lifetime of memories for so many. RIP Kevin Beattie. Gone, but never, ever forgotten.

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ChrisFelix added 19:33 - Sep 8
Such a brilliant blog. Sadly I remember this period so well, agreeing that season 74 /5 was the first of 3 seasons when we should won the league. Kevin was the best player I ever saw in the blue shirt but Mick Mills should have been the first to have a statue. His achievements for club & country warrant this

pablovian added 11:33 - Sep 9
Thank you for another perceptive, articulate, and well-written blog. Additional details, mostly very sad, are available at the Wikipedia page for Kevin Beattie.

In the context of a decades-long chronology, Kevin Beattie's story is sandwiched between the tragedies of George Best and Paul Gascoigne. Their sagas of self-destruction were more protracted, and played out on national and international stages. Wikipedia pages document the depressing details.

Tufty added 14:14 - Sep 12
Excellent blog
Reckon it could get very crowded on Portman Rd in the coming years

fergalsharkey added 06:31 - Sep 14
Fantastic blog, sums up the whole tale.
But what a player he was...

Oxford_Blue added 07:25 - Sep 16
Well written article.

My only observation is that you’d be surprised how many people outside Suffolk do know of Beattie - it’s just not the modern generation. Anyone who watched football in the 70s and early 80s knows about him from my experience.

chicoazul added 10:12 - Nov 25
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