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Friday, January 27, 2006

Meet the Beardsmore

I've been fortunate enough to have bumped into, met, interviewed or stalked a number of United players - either retired or still playing - over the years. However some may say it's slightly churlish of me to admit that sometimes my eager expectation in advance is slightly premature as I feel somewhat cheated on meeting a player I have such admiration for from their on field experiences for United. As off it they just don't match that expectation.

It doesn't happen all the time of course, and there is something in the fact that true United legends always (alright then, Bobby apart) seem to live up to your dream image of them. My gleeful possession of Eric Cantona's underpants (see last issue) bears testimony to that. And yes, I'm still having difficulty finding out exactly what to do with them. Perhaps because they are legends they know how to cope with the adulation. Eric, Norman and Sir Matt have not only given off an aura of greatness, exuding it, but also, despite probably having to cope with this star struck fan encounter thousands or more times a year, make you actually feel as though you are unique with their appreciation for your support.

Yet others leave a bitter taste in the mouth. Sadly many of them are from recent times. Certainly eras change and I recall vividly the tales of older Reds about how amiable the Babes and his team were with an accessibility to the team back then which would amaze many today. From United fans managing to cadge lifts back on the team coach or train (remember these were days when a game at Ipswich was actually bought forward for a kick off so travelling United fans could make the last train back home - no 8pm Monday night bollocks there then) to an open atmosphere at the players' hotel, wherever it may be. So open was it that many a good relationship was built between supporter and player that still exists to this day (Crerand and Best with Reds to name but two). Of course in todays world there is a fear and apprehension about being approached too closely by any stranger - will they sell a story, what are they in it for?

It's partly understandable when Keano so rightly points out that there are a lot of bullshitting hangers on out there infesting the world of the professional footballer but sadly many fail to realise that it's the outer circle that they surround themselves in that is the real problem, not Reds wanting a glimpse of their idol and their world. Being harangued for autographs all the time can't be an attractive proposition, unless you are able to recall dreaming of such adulation when they started their playing careers and every snub or 'not now' decline fails to realise that the person asking them may be a lifelong Red
seeking out a memento of their meeting of a hero for the very first time.

This uneasy situation probably first began to rear it's head under Big Fat Ron. Of course these things always depend on the where and when the meeting takes place - some have even found bald Bobby to be charming on occasion - but sadly that period had an indicative familiar scene where Reds who had made a lot of effort and spent a lot more money to travel the world to follow United used to come across the quite familiar and well versed return when they bumped into the players and management of: "What the fuck are you lot doing here. We don't want you here". That sort of attitude can't be defended even accepting that there was a lot of unease about trouble abroad with United fans and when you think that one Red out of just a score who had gone to see the Reds in the States in the early 80s was told that he was mad and wasn't wanted out there at the team hotel when he'd only wanted to see what was going on makes you realise how arrogant some at United behaved.

Of course they are only human. And that fallibility and insecurity comes through often when you encounter a player. They can be nice, they can be arseholes. They can be confident, shy, pissed, charming. You name it. Just 11 lads. It's amazing they get on together as well as they do (and some don't - believe me). That's why it can sometimes make me feel slightly uneasy. I can explain my love, dedication and obsession for United very easily - yet when I see a player who I love on the pitch act up off it or appear like a complete and utter tosser you do sometimes have to admit that when you say how much you adore a
United legend, it may only mean up until they walk off the pitch at the end of the game. I'm always relieved when a player acts like a real hero outside of Old Trafford. Too many of us perhaps put halos on the players which are undeserved and unwanted.

Yet perhaps those who have forgotten their roots or act like big time Charlies (literally in some cases, eh?) are the exceptions to the rule. We've all got our positive stories of encountering a player - from Norman buying me a drink in Dublin to Eric's personal goodbye at the beach football (again see last issue). Some of the nicest players I've met have been the ones you'd perhaps least expect it to be if you went purely on footballing credentials at United - Alan Brazil and Terry Gibson. Perhaps their lack of confidence, their own on field problems made them easier to chat to, more likely to seek out a friendly face and supporter - something that Veron admitted to this summer when he talked of isolated walks around Manchester late at night, and his appreciation for United fans who stopped him for a chat. Though I bet they were a bit surprised finding him at the fridge section of 7-11 late at night. Michael Holding, the cricketer, once refused to sign an autograph for me when
I was a kid in the 80s. All keen and excited, I was gutted for days. He always seems a decent, likable man on SKY these days so perhaps it was a one off - but it took me years to forgive such a snubbing and shows not only how pathetically upset I used to get back then but how much a snub can affect a fan. Kids may want the autographs and the shirts signed but let's be honest, there aren't many of us, whatever age who wouldn't want to chat or share a drink with a player if we got the opportunity. We live in a culture where that is harder and less likely to happen given the world they live in, with staggering riches and the hassles that go with it (partly tongue in cheek, partly not when you look at Becks' hate mail, stalkers and threats).

Maybe the days of friendships between players and fans are long gone. It will be sad if it is. Not just for us, frozen out and feeling more isolated and reminiscent for the good old days than ever but because it can help to keep a players feet on the ground, that little bit of perspective and relation to the people who pay their wages. Fergie once famously opened his house for a drink when we won the first title to two Reds drunkenly celebrating outside his house. I wonder if that would ever happen again? Of course some may understand why it wouldn't - but if that's the case, is signing a piece of paper or having a
short chat with a United fan that much effort?

My most endearing meeting with a player has to be back at the turn of 1989. As only United could back then we'd flown the heights after that wonderful Fergie fledgling inspired 3-1 victory over Liverpool on New Years Day, only to sink back into a mid table swamp with a 1-0 defeat at Boro the very next day (in an away end, caged and terraced that just summed up that gloomy era). We were used to that sort of defeat then though so we merely changed the post match drink from a celebration to a wake in a 24 hour period. Back then the peroxide allure of Saturday's nightclub in the Britannia Hotel had its very own appeal (I blame the drug sniffing on our failure to realise how tacky the club was - well, all that fake blonde spray must have been making us high) and you'd often see one of the younger members of the team strutting his stuff on the dance floor to an appreciative audience of girls. You'd also more often than not see Lee Sharpe do that week in, week out there. I'm amazed he found the time to play for United in between his nights out.

Giggsy came and quickly went, realising there were much better venues to start his post match career in, but the youth and reserve team always seemed well represented. Unlike the usual hangers on there was one normal lad close to the team (one of those top geezers who if you asked for a new pair of trainers would suddenly have them appear in a box Paul Daniels like 15 minutes later) called Dave from Salford.

A can of Fosters never left his presence in all the years that I knew him, a truly top lad. Hence the very original nickname: 'Can of Fosters Dave'. He was close enough to most of the team to take no shit and instead jokingly gave a lot out. You felt they appreciated someone who couldn't be a phoney if he tried. He also very handily a few times introduced me to some girls as a member of the youth squad - quite a winner until they asked me why I wasn't wearing the club blazer with badge like the others and seemed to weigh twice as much as them. I quickly downgraded to the chef at the Cliff. That didn't work either. As is the way most of the lads never made it in football let alone at United. The first time we ever met Dave was after the Boro game. The nightclub was empty because it was the end of the holidays and we quickly recognised Russell Beardsmore. He was with this Dave and someone who we came to know as Deiniol Graham, scorer of that cracking Cup goal at QPR a few weeks later. A group of us (pissed up of course) thought it our duty to thank Russell for his Scouse busting goal the day before. Over and over again. We started chatting and perhaps because of the lack of females in the club, let alone admirers (I mean for them not us...), we all ended up drinking for the rest of the night together.

As the club closed they asked one of our lads staying in the hotel if we all fancied a drink on room service. We all staggered up to John's room and ordered a crate of Grolsch with those pathetic set of sandwiches with 8 token crisps that hotels still insist on serving. A good time was had by all, thankfully Beardsmore never tiring of us reliving his goal one more time, and after a few hours Russell, Graham and Dave headed home. A few moments later, a knock on the door as we were finishing off our drinks. John opened it only to be greeted with us all being hozed down by a fire extinguisher aimed at us through a gap in the door. They'd taken the one at the end of the corridor, used it all on us and then ran fleeing down the stairs.

Of course after the initial buzz of being sprayed by someone who helped beat Liverpool (not many people can say that in the world) the only option was for revenge. Thus the next 30 minutes saw one hell of a foam battle. All 8 of us split up to have a good old fire extinguisher fight. Now I know it's not big, it wasn't clever and what if there had been a fire that night (blah de blah de blah) but at the time and ever since I don't think I've ever laughed so much as we made those war paint sprayers who go out to the middle of the country to fire a few stupid pellets at each other look the prats they are. This is the
real stuff! We'd team up in small groups, then target each other individually.

The staff working the late shift had quickly cottoned on to the anarchy surrounding them and were chasing us throughout the hotel to get us to stop. Of course red rags to bulls and all that and they became the principle targets, especially the bouncers. The most active in all this were two highly rated Manchester United footballers, currently on the 2nd floor of the Britannia spraying the whole of the bottom floor reception from their prime sited bannister. I tell you, you'd be amazed at how much foam is in one of those fuckers.

It all came to an end as the police were called (part of the reason) as we all seemed to have used up nearly all theextinguishers (the main reason). Obviously there were a few closet Reds amongst the staff that night as one recognised Bearsdmore, realised that a budding career may well be put in jeopardy before its even started what with the dibble only a few minutes away and we managed to smuggle the three of them out of the hotel. Not before they thanked us
for a great night. We expected to get nicked, and didn't. We apologised and offered to pay the bill. Thinking we'd be sent a bill that would have John Paul Getty shitting himself and wondering if Beardsmore could be blackmailed (joking!), we were somewhat amazed and delighted to come across a total 'fine' of £60. Well worth it. But don't do that at home kids. Well, only at a Scouse player.

To this day we were fairly fortunate not to have been arrested during the mayhem. The things you do when younger eh!
We actually kept in touch with them after that, particularly Dave - who seemed to know everyone in Manchester. Beardsmore once greeted us as he took a corner during a friendly at Cambridge which was quite surreal and after he became a first team regular (of sorts) although his visits to Saturdays were less frequent he was always up for a laugh. Well, his abusive songs he kept singing about city (he was off his head) after the 5-1 were very funny. He hadn't taken the result well. Not that any of us had.

Graham always had a stunner on his arm and was as nice a bloke as they come. He said we could ring him for a beer anytime and although his career never took off they'll never be able to take that goal for United away from him. Bearsdmore obviously did the better of the two and although, as these things do, we lost touch over time, that Boro night did show that when supporter and player do meet up, there doesn't have to be a gulf between the two. It just depends on the player. Because they really are just like you and me in the end. Covered in bloody foam.


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