For a season at Stoke City he could do almost anything, except pass to a team-mate. Mark Blakemore celebrates a talent before it was made to conform
Earlier this season, while enduring the sight of Exeter City thrashing helplessly about in the bottom division, I beheld something wondrous. The opposition’s left midfielder watched a high ball as it fell over his left shoulder, cushioned it out of the air with his instep, and brought it instantly to rest in front of him. Then he immediately placed an inch-perfect pass through the middle of Exeter’s defence, enabling a team-mate to run through and sky it hopelessly over the bar, which didn’t matter because his team was already 4-0 up. It was comfortably the most beautiful thing I’d seen on a football pitch in four seasons of watching Third Division football.
My knowledge of Scunthorpe’s team sheet was not what it perhaps should have been, so I turned to my City-obsessed friend as he slumped in despair and asked him if he knew who the player was, and what the hell he was doing in the Third Division. “Didn’t you know?” he replied. “That’s Peter Beagrie.” I gasped, and the years fell away.
My teenage infatuation with Stoke City and Peter Beagrie was brief, but memorable for its intensity. It was the late Eighties and Stoke were toiling away in the mid-to-upper reaches of the old Second Division. That’s not to say they were without quality. Whenever the manager Mick Mills sat down with his team sheet he could write on it the names of Lee Dixon and Steve Bould, although not for too long.
By the time of the 1988-89 season, however, there was only one player on the pitch for me. Beagrie had arrived via Middlesbrough and Sheffield United and was an instant hit, mainly because of his fabulous, almost heroic, insistence on dribbling into cul-de-sacs. The man oozed confidence on the pitch, terrorising full-backs and infuriating his team-mates by absolutely refusing to pass while there were still more defenders to take on.
He played 41 times that season, scoring seven goals, which is a reasonable return for a winger, but that’s far from the whole story. He had hips that swivelled further than Fred Astaire could ever have dreamed. You felt convinced Salvador Dali had influenced his approach to the game. For one shining season I stood there gawping.
The immortal Beagrie moment, seared into my memory, came during an FA Cup match against Barnsley. Stoke were 3-2 down with only a couple of minutes remaining, when he received the ball in a promising position on the edge of the area. He was quickly closed down and we were screaming at him to chuck it into the box, but he turned, and turned, until just at the moment we knew he was going to lose it, he found a yard and floated the ball into the top corner. We lost the replay 2-1, but that’s not what stays with you.
When I moved away from Stoke I felt the absence of Beagrie keenly. The regular fix of seeing a man attempt something ridiculously optimistic every time he gets the ball is not something you wean yourself from easily. Beagrie was sold to Everton in October 1989 and Stoke promptly went down to the Third. But watching him in his Goodison years, I realised it was true you should never go back. Most people only became aware of him after his move to Merseyside, and anyone who saw him only from that point will probably wonder what I’m making a fuss about. He was a competent player, but the twisty-turny magic had gone.
He had become, of all things, a solid top-flight pro. Tidy, nondescript, showing only the odd glimpse of genius. I felt sorry for the Everton fans, who had missed the best of him. To my mind, it’s astonishing that the various Stoke City websites don’t list Beagrie as one of the all-time greats. In fact he barely gets a mention at all. But then, we live in an age of banality when it comes to mazy runs – it’s all fitness, accurate passing and intelligent movement. Managers frown on players who cede possession, even if they’ve just skinned four men before doing so.
Eventually, even Beagrie succumbed to conformity, but not before he had inspired thousands with his complete disregard for the simple side of the game. He showed a corner of the lower leagues that football could be a beautiful thing. As career epitaphs go, he could have done a lot worse.
From WSC 178 December 2001. What was happening this month