Friday, 6 April 2007

Bonzo And Beat

There is a rare chance to hear from Billy Bonds as The Independent features an interview with two greats from the seventies who recall the days when contract negotiations took 15 minutes, backpassing took 10 minutes and one of them was on the dole a couple of years after retiring.

Kevin Beattie and Billy Bonds: '30 grand a week and they can't kick the ball properly'
Interview by Brian Viner

Billy Bonds and Kevin Beattie, Bonzo and the Beat. It sounds like a double act entertaining football fans old enough to remember the Seventies, but that's not for Bonds, an engaging but unclubbable man who prefers to keep his reminiscences for his mates. Beattie, I dare say, could be persuaded. A more extrovert man than Bonds, he could also do with the readies. One of the greatest footballers of his generation - "you were like John Terry but more powerful," Bonds tells him, solemnly - Beattie, at 53, lives in an Ipswich council house caring for his wife, who has multiple sclerosis.

Bonzo and the Beat, the former one of the finest footballers never to play for England, the latter one of the finest who did. Bill Shankly once admitted that one of his biggest mistakes was not signing Beattie, aged 15, for Liverpool. He'd been invited back for a second trial but Shankly's scout Geoff Twentyman forgot to meet him off the train at Lime Street. An unworldly kid with not a penny in his pocket, Beattie went straight home to Carlisle, followed by a rejection letter from Liverpool, saying he'd let them down. A week later he was snapped up by Bobby Robson for Ipswich Town, and Robson has since said that he rates the Beat better than all the other Englishmen he ever managed or played with, a list that includes Duncan Edwards, Bobby Charlton, Bryan Robson and Paul Gascoigne.

Yet Bonds, now a startlingly fit-looking 60, was touched with fortune that eluded Beattie. He played his last game for West Ham United aged 41 years and 225 days. At Ipswich, the Beat was finished at 27. By 1983 he was queuing at the dole office heartbreakingly close to Portman Road, signing autographs and then signing on.

In other ways, their careers ran in parallel lines. They both made their names as commanding centre-halves, and they both enjoy unique distinctions, Bonds as West Ham's longest-serving player with 663 League appearances under his belt - which is still fastened on the same notch as it ever was, I might add - and Beattie as the man Ipswich fans recently voted the club's greatest-ever player. The word "legend" is devalued in football, but it's the one you'll hear, and legitimately so, if you mention Bonds at Upton Park, or Beattie at Portman Road.

The legends, whose battles included the 1975 FA Cup semi-final, won by Bonzo, do not know each other well, but they have agreed to let me buy them lunch in an Italian restaurant near Liverpool Street station for the prosaic reason that two good friends of mine are good friends of theirs. One of the waiters, as Italian as Gorgonzola, turns out to be a Hammers fan.

"You were de best," he says to Bonds, who seems chuffed. Even if you didn't recognise him, he still looks like someone who was the best at something. Beattie cuts a less imposing figure, but Bonds remembers scarcely anyone more imposing on the pitch.

"I have this image of you in Czechoslovakia one night, about minus 20 it must have been, a Uefa Cup game, and you were wearing short sleeves..."

"Oh yeah, Bohemians of Prague it was. Even Allan Hunter had tights on that night. They beat us 2-0, but we beat them 3-0 at home so we got through..."

Ipswich in those days were a force in Europe as well as the old First Division. In the 1973-74 Uefa Cup they beat mighty Lazio 4-0 at Portman Road, and Trevor Whymark scored the lot. Bonds asks after him. "'Skid' Whymark?" says Beattie. "He's still driving a wagon delivering poultry. And Clive Woods is head warehouseman for Dixons in Norwich. He got one England cap, Woodsy, but he should have had 100. Great player. We had 10 internationals in the Ipswich team at one stage. The only one who wasn't was our goalkeeper, Paul Cooper. Best keeper Ipswich ever had, though, and we've had some good 'uns. He lives in Lanzarote now, Coops. Weighs about 39 stone."

"Go on," says Bonds, disbelievingly.

Provocatively, I butt in with the theory that Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard will probably not end up driving poultry wagons when their football careers are over.

"Yeah, but I don't look at their wages," Bonds says. "I look at their ability. If 100 grand a week is the going rate, good luck to them. What I begrudge are the people on 30 grand a week who can't kick the ball properly, and that includes some England internationals. My highest basic wage was £600. What was your highest basic, Kev?"

"Mine? £275," Beattie says. Bonds looks shocked. "Yeah, well, I suppose I played a lot longer than you."

The waiter brings our starters. He serves Bonds first, setting down his plate with a kind of genuflectory motion. "I remember at the start of every season having to queue outside the gaffer's office," Beattie says. His accent is pure Cumbria, untainted by all those decades in Suffolk.

"That's it," says Bonds, with a grin. "I'd have a 9.15 appointment, you might have 9.30. You had 15 minutes to discuss your new contract. Ron Greenwood would say, 'Sit down, Bill, I'm going to give you another £25 a week and a two-year contract'. I'd just won West Ham's Player of the Year award! But I'd say, 'Thank you, Ron' and go home and tell the missus, 'We've got another two years'."

Beattie laughs. "Yeah, the gaffer [Robson] would say to me, 'You've had a great season, son. What do you think you're worth?' 'I don't know, boss.' 'Well, I'm going to give you another 25 quid a week'. 'Thanks, boss.'"

In 1981, with Bohemians dispatched, Ipswich reached the Uefa Cup final. Beattie, alas, had broken his arm in the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City. "It's the one thing that disappointed me. I said to Robson, 'Look boss, in the final against AZ Alkmaar, we're allowed six subs. Put me on the bench so I'll get a medal'. He said, 'I'll think about it, son' but he never did. I've nothing against the likes of Tommy Steggles, who you've never heard of, but he got a medal and I never."

"That's like Patsy Holland in the 1980 FA Cup final," Bonds says. "Almost in tears, he was."

A few weeks later, Beattie was sent to see a specialist in Cambridge. His knees were crocked. "I had to go up there on my own. Wouldn't happen now, would it? Mr Dandy, the specialist, told me I had to pack in. I was heartbroken, almost suicidal, driving back down the A14. I told the missus and she burst out crying. The next morning the gaffer said, 'What did he say, son?' I said, 'He told me to pack in, boss.' He said, 'I thought he was going to say that. But we'll look after you. We've got you insured.'" A rueful chuckle. "I got a testimonial, but I never got an insurance payout."

Bonds listens gravely to this tale of woe. "When I was manager at West Ham [1990-94] I wasn't as sympathetic as I could have been with players," he says. "That was the way I was brought up."

"Aye," says Beattie, "and at least the PFA looked after me. Still do. When I had pancreatitis 10 years ago, they sent me a cheque for £2,500. It puts you back on your feet. I nearly died, though. I was given the last rites. What saved me was still being so fit because of football. That's another thing that annoys me. They say they're fitter now than we used to be."

"It's bollocks," Bonds agrees. "Mind you, we had the get-out option of passing back to the goalkeeper, which would give you a breather. You could kill 10 minutes that way. It's a good rule, the back-pass rule. But there's no way they're fitter than we were. Playing in the mud at Derby County..."

"Bloody Burnley..."

"And they talk about Wenger pioneering things... 'Pop' Robson's father-in-law Lennie had been a ballroom-dancing world champion, so Ron Greenwood brought him in to teach us balance. They talk about all that now like it's a new bleeding science, but we had ballerinas in, karate experts. Ron Greenwood and John Lyall were doing all that years ago."

"Lovely man, John Lyall," says Beattie. "I remember when he was at Ipswich [1990-94], walking up them steps to his office, and John was on the floor painting the skirting board. I couldn't believe that."

"It's funny you say that," says Bonds. "When I joined the coaching staff at West Ham, my first job that summer was painting the dressing room. Imagine Mourinho doing that." A collective snort. "I went to QPR as youth team coach and Nigel Quashie was there. Good player, he was. At 16 years old he had everything, the kid. But he was spoilt rotten. I said, 'I want this boy cleaning boots, painting toilets'. They said, 'No, we can't have Nigel doing that.' And I'll tell you what, it's the one thing that's held the kid back, not learning discipline, character, at 16."

"Robson was great at that," Beattie says. "I was virtually straight into the reserves at 15 and still had to clean boots."

"Well, I was at West Ham for 30 years, nearly, and I saw England schoolboy internationals come into the youth team. Talented but cocky, a lot of them were, and they didn't make it. But kids off the street, little diggers who wanted to learn, like Matty Holland ... lovely boy, Matty. Great attitude. If your daughter brought him home you'd be delighted. And that's what we had at West Ham in the old days. Good attitude. No one was flash. Trevor Brooking wasn't flash. I only ever fell out with one player at West Ham. Ted MacDougall. I had a punch-up with him in the bath at Leeds. He was disrespectful to people. I didn't like him."

"He could put the ball in the net," says Beattie.

"At a certain level," says Bonds.

"Yeah," says Beattie. "We had players like that. Colin Viljoen was a bit full of himself..."

"I might have taken it if it was Mooro [Bobby Moore]," says Bonds. "But Mooro wasn't flash. Mind you, I could never get close to Mooro. I'd met him when I was 14 and he was 19. He presented the medals at our youth club, and he sat there on the stage, with me looking up at him. Seven years later I was playing with him, but I had this mental block. He was like a god to me. I wish the FA had found a role for him. If only I'd known when I was West Ham manager that he could have done with a job. I thought he had a million friends. l never thought about giving him a job, but I had that power, I could have done that..."

"Great man," says Beattie. "When I first got into the England squad he put his arm round me and said, 'You'll be in this team for a long time, son'."

But Moore's prediction was wrong. Beattie only played nine times for England before limping up to Mr Dandy's rooms in Cambridge. Does he wish his career had been longer? Yes. Would he like to be pocketing today's millions? Yes. Is he embittered? Not remotely. And he wouldn't swap his memories, his era, for anyone's.

"Who's the forward who gave you most trouble?" Bonds asks.

"I never liked playing Andy Gray," Beattie replies. "He was brave as a lion but he didn't have the best timing. Ten minutes after you headed the ball he'd head you."

Laughter rings round the room. "Nothing's changed," says Bonds. "There are good, bad and average players, like there always were."

"Yeah, but I don't like the diving now," Beattie says. "To be honest, I'd rather watch rugby union or rugby league than football. At least when those boys get knocked down they get back up."

"Me too," says Bonds. "West Ham will always be my team, them and Charlton [where his career began], but I've only been once to Upton Park this season."

"That's something," Beattie says. "When two old pros like us would rather watch rugby on a Saturday afternoon."

They look wistfully at each other, football legends and unlikely rugger buggers, Bonzo and the Beat.

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