Footballer in no-car shock! Man U’s ten million pound man stuck in suburb outrage! Fleet-footed winger judders to halt, others in club motors whizz by! “I’m not having a wheely good time here,” moans Wilfried Zaha.
Now admittedly Zaha doesn’t phrase his Old Trafford plight quite like that, but the absence of a club car is highlighted as significant as he explains his struggles five years ago after becoming Sir Alex Ferguson’s final signing. It’s an interesting story, and one very much of these times in football, but it jars with the poignant tale of Kevin Beattie, who died last week.
Zaha complains he wasn’t given enough support by Manchester United. The club had a “hold” over where he lived, which wasn’t near any team-mates. “They hadn’t given me a car, like every other player. Nothing,” he says, “I’m living in this hell by myself.” Zaha speaks of having to “fight demons” and doing all of this when he was only 19.
Only 19? Demons? I don’t expect Zaha, pictured inset, will garner much sympathy here, from the older generation, from those who’ve never understood football and footballers, then or now, or even from those who do. Footballers are extremely well paid, especially at clubs like Man U, even if they’re not getting a game in the first team and Zaha under David Moyes wasn’t. Footballers being “too cosseted” is a familiar cry. They can’t think for themselves. They don’t live in the real world. They don’t know how lucky they are.
Lawrie Reilly, a Wembley hero for Scotland, travelled by bus, and found out he’d been selected for his country from a fellow passenger. Almost on a weekly basis now, a retired player from bygone times will propose that what these poor snowflakes of today really need is the return of the following, in no particular order: reserve team football (where they’d come up against gnarled hardmen on the way out of the game), boot-cleaning duties, running up sand dunes, tripe and onions, collar and tie at all times, National Service.
Okay, I jest, though only slightly. But I can’t help wondering if Beattie, the Ipswich Town great, ran towards this life, however tough it might have seemed, because it couldn’t be much worse than the one he was leaving behind.
As a kid Beattie used to miss school because his parents couldn’t afford to buy him shoes. He’d go without food for two or three days until his father, who drank too much, had won at dominoes.
At 15, with the football boots given him by a kind teacher, he was invited for a trial by Bill Shankly’s Liverpool but the club forgot to send someone to the station to collect him and, with no money in his pocket for the bus fare, he headed straight back to his native Carlisle. Shanks forever rued that slip-up, and when Bobby Robson at Ipswich summoned Beattie the manager told the member of staff appointed to fetch him that if he failed in this duty he’d be sacked.
There’s something almost Dickensian about Beattie’s saga. In a funny way it reminds me of the comedian Norman Wisdom’s long walk, at 14, from London to Cardiff to escape his drunken father and find work. Wisdom became a cabin boy and sailed to the Argentine; Beattie, a footballing force of nature, became the heir apparent to Duncan Edwards and Bobby Moore as the sturdy figurehead on the prow of the good ship HMS England.
Nicknamed “Monster” by team-mates because of the elemental power in his game, he made his Ipswich debut at centre-half aged 18 in a 1972 victory over Man U. Afterwards he asked Bobby Charlton for his autograph, with the latter throwing in the Edwards comparison as well.
You wonder, by the way, what Charlton makes of Zaha’s remarks, especially since when he was the same age at Old Trafford the wages in football were so modest that the older players advised him to say he was an electrician when talking to girls in the dancehalls because they’d be far more impressed.
Beattie played alongside our own John Wark in that exciting Ipswich team but for we Scots watching the football of the 1970s there was the dread feeling that in England’s white he would prove just too strong for us and everyone else with that bull neck and cannonball shot – and his goal in the 5-1 Wembley mauling of 1975 seemed confirmation of that. His sideboards alone instilled fear. He was Michael Caine’s body-double in the footballing POWs movie Escape to Victory. On set Sylvester Stallone challenged him to an arm-wrestling contest, Beattie won, and the actor shunned him for the rest of the shoot.
But the career wasn’t as glorious as it should have been. Ipswich missed out on the title in 1976-77 because, Robson always claimed, Beattie set fire to himself burning leaves in his garden, causing him to miss the run-in. His England appearances stopped at nine. Injuries effectively ended his career at 28.
He drank too much and had to be given the last rites after collapsing with pancreatitis. He was convicted of benefit fraud. Caring for his wife who had multiple sclerosis, he attempted suicide.
Did Beattie, who was 64, have demons and did he suffer hell? It sounds like it, although possibly he didn’t use such melodramatic terms. This is the language of young people now, not just footballers like Zaha, who write their own tabloid headlines about misfortunes which don’t really come close to having to go without shoes and food.
Beattie’s young life might be an idea of hell but he stayed close to his father. On the way to an England Under-23s match against Scotland he jumped off the team train at Carlisle to meet the old man for a pint. Beattie said of him: “There were times when he knocked my mam around and I had to sort him out. I’m not proud of that but I loved him.”
Zaha, back at first club Crystal Palace, has come through his hell. He might cringe when he reads his whinge about the non-existent car – Wilfried Car? Ha! indeed – but Ashley Cole almost swerving off the road “in shock” in 2006 at Arsenal offering to pay him not £60,000 a week but a mere £55,000 was the greater four-wheeled offence.