Saturday Interview: JOHN BEATTIE - Playing the name game is Beatties' biggest test

JOHN Beattie could easily become 'the voice of sport' in Scotland, so enmeshed is he in what is happening at every level, were it not for the fact he is considering zipping his mouth and reining in his comments.

The BBC presenter, producer and commentator, whose deep tones will bring the Calcutta Cup action to the nation from Murrayfield next month, has watched his son Johnnie, and daughters Julie and Jenny, progress in sport, but now he feels he is harming their development.

Recently turned 50, Beattie has been retired from sport for 21 years, but he fears his undimmed passion can cause problems. We spoke yesterday after he collected his new purchase, a Triumph motorbike – the sight of a (British) Lion stroking a 'Tiger' was an intriguing one – just one sign that his mind is straying to other pursuits.

"I had a motorbike when I was a teenager," he said, "but not since, and I don't know – it was just something I fancied; something different. Me and my wife Jill, and the kids are like that; we all like something a bit different.

"When I arrived in Scotland at the age of 11, I was the misfit boy from Borneo and the only thing I could do was sport, so inevitably sport became a huge part of my life.

I always liked rugby because it was like chess; I liked the thinking aspect of rugby. People talk about the physical parts of my play or rugby in general, but when I played I came up with different back-row moves, some of which led to tries.

"I am completely hooked on rugby; it's my main passion in life so obviously it has been great to see Johnnie come through and play for Scotland. I am extremely proud. But, I do also worry every time I see a report that says 'Johnnie Beattie, son of the Scotland back row, Lions, whatever' because that doesn't help him.

"Now Jenny is playing with Celtic and I was delighted to see her sign for such a big club of course, and she is really enjoying playing women's football, but I know that a huge fuss was made of it because of her father. You just wonder how much that actually damages their chances.

"It raises expectations – just naturally, people expect them to go on and play for Scotland and the Lions, in Johnnie's case, or play for Scotland at football because I reached that level, which can be hugely damaging to a young person trying to find their way in sport, and that's worrying me a bit right now."

There is little Beattie can do about his past and the fact that a father-and-son playing for Scotland in the same position is of interest, never mind a daughter also displaying the attitude, ambition and ability necessary to reach the top in her chosen sport. In a time when journalists, sometimes more than readers, are desperate to uncover good news, this is a story guaranteed to prompt smiles. But Beattie wants to step back from his popular persona as someone who tells it like it is.

"I enjoy being involved in the media, and I work with a production company where we do shinty, rallying, music programmes – we've got a big internet series involving a well-known figure coming off soon – and nothing beats the rugby for me, but I realise now that me spouting off about Scottish rugby may affect my son, so I'm toying with the idea of ducking out of it altogether.

"I can still commentate perhaps, but I can't continue to comment on the coaching and playing side of things and expect Johnnie to have good relationships with his team-mates. There are people who perhaps don't like me or my views and that can filter down to how they view Johnnie.

"It's one of these things that if you comment, I feel you have to be honest and say it how you see it, but, even this week, when I gave my views in The Scotsman on the Scotland team and then received criticism for it on the website, you feel you're just causing trouble for him.

"I'm becoming more careful with what I say. I love being at games, love every aspect of rugby and hate myself sometimes when I see something I've said which has hurt someone else.

"That's the worst part of journalism, having to say or write the truth, knowing that it will hurt and it's what I dislike most. I don't think I've ever got over that."

Beattie is fortunate to an extent in that he has his finger in many pies, journalism only having played a small part in his career.

He also presents BBC Radio Scotland's Sports Weekly show, undoubtedly the best and most wide-ranging sports show the BBC offers, but he works in corporate hospitality, coaches West of Scotland RFC, plays guitar in a band, has property, does a lot of charity work and helps to organise holidays for schools as far afield as Spain, South Africa and Argentina.

He is hopeful that a slight step back from the coal-face may also enable him to enjoy the progress of his siblings like any other parent, particularly as they appear to be doing very well having not listened to his advice.

"It is interesting. Only Julie, who is now at Queen Margaret College, listened to me I think in that she has opted to place a career ahead of sport, and though she's a good sprinter and hockey player, her sport is more social now.

"I was a hands-off father in terms of sport. Jill and I were a taxi service for all three kids, but I tried to talk my children out of serious sport because I'm not convinced it's a very healthy career.

"Most retired rugby players can't walk around a golf course afterwards because of injuries – Johnnie's coach Sean Lineen needs a new hip and I've got a bad knee. Top-level sport hurts, and it leaves marks.

"But Johnnie and Jenny have done their own thing. One example was recently when Johnnie came and told me he'd turned down a leading English rugby club. He and John Barclay, his team-mate at Glasgow, had been taken out for lunch by a former international opponent of mine, but the boys decided they would rather stay in Glasgow and Scotland.

"Johnnie only told me afterwards; he didn't need any advice from me. Jenny has signed for Celtic and has an American university wanting to take her to the States, and again she'll make the decision she wants to.

"My advice to them both was to get university degrees and think about sport later, but, still, I am incredibly proud of all three of them. It's stomach-churning watching Johnnie and Jenny perform at the levels they're now at, and the problem now is that I love thinking about sport, writing doodles, thinking of moves, all the time, so I analyse them and want to pick them up on things – those conversations usually last about 30 seconds."

Beattie shrugs off the question of whether his genes and those of Jill – who hails from the famous Calder family of rugby players – were destined to create sporting talents. They would represent a positive advert for how to allow children to find their way and attain goals without constant coaching, pushing or abusive shouting from touchlines that others believe is the only way to the top, but Beattie's point yesterday was that the time for talking up these particular parents is past, and that the stories of derring-do by Beatties now lies with the next generation.

Johnnie played at No 8 for Glasgow last night against Llanelli in the Magners League, continuing his quest to break back into the Scotland squad, and add to the three caps won a year ago. Before heading to Hawick for a Scottish Hydro Electric cup tie with West of Scotland, his father will be behind the BBC microphone this morning discussing many different sports and continuing a broader campaign to expose more children across Scotland to the joys of sport, at all levels.

As the first chairman of the National Physical Activity Task Force, Beattie recently met with Stewart Maxwell, the Scottish Government's Sports Minister, and won an agreement for a full examination of their strategy's progress in the five years since it was launched.

Plans for two hours of physical exercise in schools were meant as merely a starter in improving the health of the nation, but Beattie is concerned there remain varying degrees of delivery of physical exercise and sport in schools depending on where one lives in Scotland. He hopes to uncover the true facts and enable the Scottish Government to play a key role in arresting obesity problems and help underpin sports in this country by improving the health and ability of young sportsmen and women.

He laughs again at the recent suggestion that a more simple way to achieve such a result would be to clone the Beattie genes, but admits he would love it if every child in Scotland had the simple opportunities and enthusiasm for sport that he and his family have enjoyed.

"My favourite bit of my life is still jumping out of the house and going to the rugby club," he concluded. "The planning, the sessions, the chat with players and coaches, the mental, physical tests, the winning, coping with the losing.

"Scotland have been having a tough time lately on the field, but I can't wait for the next game. I believe we can beat Ireland, and that would give us ammunition against those who don't want rugby to succeed in Scotland. We need to see the boys go out and play with bite, a blatant dying-for-the-jersey feel to it, show how well we can play, and..."

He stops mid-flow, and laughs: "Stop commenting, eh? Easier said than done." And, perhaps pleasing some who are affected by his honest talk, he gets on his bike.