From the publishers of THE HINDU
VOL.33 :: NO.03 :: Jan. 21, 2010
The sensational goal scored by the 26 year old Leeds United striker, Jermaine Beckford, at Old Trafford, to put Manchester United out of the FA Cup, has had dramatic repercussions. Beckford you may recall, the 26 years old and leading scorer for his Third Division (to use the old nomenclature) club, raced on to a searching, long through ball, powerfully held off a somewhat half hearted challenge from a United defender, and as the Polish keeper rushed desperately out, avoided the challenge and swept the ball into the net. It was a goal worthy to win any game, but to give victory to a Leeds team which, by sharp contrast with the all-conquering sides of the Don Revie era, was now two full divisions below mighty United. It might be called sensational. And it made Beckford, whose contract runs out at Leeds at the end of the season, a coveted player.
In addition, it gave hope in abundance to late developing footballers, those who may have seemed to fall by the wayside: as indeed Beckford long did. Brought up in West London, he had a brief trial as a youth with Chelsea, who didn’t want him. Eventually, he found his way as a part-timer to Wealdstone, once a leading North West London amateur club but by then, amateurism being abolished, playing in what you might call the semi-professional Ryman League: some way beneath the so called Conference competitions.
There, a genial manager recognised his potential but was constantly questioning his casual attitude, the cure for which was to withhold £10 per week payable as and when his commitment was thought satisfactory. As late as 2006, when he was all of 22 years old, he was still operating in the relative obscurity of Wealdstone. Then interest grew among League clubs. He played in a friendly match for Crystal Palace reserves against their Arsenal equivalents, watched by a bevy of scouts, and was snapped up, at last, by Leeds United, costing them, it’s reported, a mere £ 45,000.
At Elland Road he has blossomed, and his story has strong significance. For this is the age, alas, of the footballers, acquitted by anxious if not greedy clubs at the absurdly early age of nine or ten. Some of them, like Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard, triumphantly “make it”, but how many of them, their hopes and those of their families raised, millions of pounds lurking on the horizon, are doomed to disappointment? Beckford has shown, as Ian Wright so triumphantly did before him, that hope need never be abandoned, that a gifted footballer can, with luck, talent and application, break through in his twenties.
Until he was 22, Ian Wright was playing centre forward for humble Greenwich Borough, a non League side from South East London. Only then, in 1985, did Crystal Palace sign him. He had two exceptional seasons, 1987-88 and 1988-89, scoring 20 and 24 League goals, and came on superbly as a substitute in the FA Cup final versus Manchester United whose defence — an analogy here with Beckford — he proceeded to terrorise. That final ended in a draw.
In season 1991-92, Ian joined Arsenal, who revised their tactics to accommodate him. He always liked the ball to be played in front of him, where he could use his devastating pace to go for goal. In time, he broke the long standing aggregate goal scoring record for the club of the incomparable left winger Cliff Bastin, and won numerous caps for England.
Beckford, in fact, is not the only Wealdstone player who has emphatically broken through. Stuart “Psycho” Pearce, a powerful, blond left back, born in Shepherds Bush, not far from the Queens Park Rangers ground — but they failed to enlist him — eventually joined Wealdstone, where his forceful, relentless play in defence, his overlapping surges, eventually prompted Coventry City to sign him, aged 21 by then, in 1983. After a couple of seasons, he moved to Nottingham Forest, where, in due course, he was capped by England, for whom he went on to make over half a century of appearances. Even if, alas, he missed a penalty in Turin in the 1990 shoot out against West Germany in a World Cup semi-finals.
Going further back, there is the illuminating case of Steve Heighway, who, well into his 20s, joined Liverpool when an amateur with the little Skelmersdale club. Dublin-born, a schoolmaster, a naturally gifted left winger with speed, swerve and a notable shot, it took him no time at all to confirm his place in Liverpool’s formidable first team. I once asked him whether he had had any difficulty in reaching the level of fitness required at First Division status. His confident reply was that you could only get fit up to a certain level, wherever you happened to be playing, and he had found no difficulty in physically adjusting. 1970/71 was his first season and a refulgent one, capped, you might say, though his team lost in the end, with the Wembley goal he scored against Arsenal, in the 1971 FA Cup final.
Seldom had Arsenal’s competent Scottish international goalkeeper Bob Wilson, been so expensively tricked by an opponent. But when Heighway cut in from the left wing at speed, he assumed that the winger’s attention would be to cross the ball. Instead, Heighway embarrassed him by shooting between Bob himself and the near post, which the keeper had abandoned.
In pre-war days, of course, the habit of signing children was blessedly not known. Yet the case of a footballer as ultimately distinguished as Alf Ramsey surely tells its own tale. Alf brought up in Dagenham when it was still a country town, initially had no ambition to be anything other than a grocer. When he did play football, his abilities were plain, either in attack of defence, where he would eventually become the England right back.
For those who knew and saw him then, his gifts were manifest from boyhood, but no professional club came in for him and when he left school, for two whole years his job, cycling around to collect for a grocers’ shop, prevented him from playing any soccer at all. It was only when he joined the Army in the Second World War that his abilities — not least as a centre forward, grew plain, and he was at last picked up by Southampton, after he had played against them for his Army team: beaten 3-10 that day. With Southampton, he became an England player, then came Spurs and in 1966, the managerial winning of the World Cup.
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