The first time I heard Peter Beardsley's name it was in the mocking tones of a friend of my father, who described him as the ugliest footballer that ever was.
A sensitive child of around seven or eight, in that split second I made him my hero – I claimed Beardsley as my own out of an abstract sense of pity before I'd even yet seen him dribble the ball like it was a kitten being teased with a piece of string, or had a chance to confirm that yes, he was no David Beckham in the looks department - no Steve Bruce, for that matter – the great dichotomy at the heart of the man we called Pedro who played the beautiful game like a ballerina while looking for all the world like the victim of an unthinkable industrial accident.
I was, at the time, just emerging from the fog of infancy into the first conscious stages of being a football fan – that period, clean and crisp as a winter morning, when the importance of the game dawns and the proportionality of your emotional response to it gets locked in, more or less unchangeable for the rest of your life.
I was spoiled, though I didn't know it yet: Kevin Keegan's Entertainers were buccaneering up the lower divisions preparing their audacious assault on the Premier League, the eventual, hubris-tinged dissolution of which would induct me – like a million football fans before and since - swiftly and brutally in important life lessons about love, loss and bitter disappointment.
At the core of that much-celebrated side was Beardsley, with his NHS haircut and lower jaw dangling open like a broken toilet roll dispenser, the Gallic glamour of David Ginola to his left and the lean, handsome, ice-eyed Irishman Keith Gillespie on the right.
Actually it is an anecdote involving Gillespie that, many years later, would further cement my impression of Peter Beardsley as not only the greatest player to kick a ball – a man who, if you squint a bit, Lionel Messi probably based his game on – but a noble human being and at least in part the antithesis of the uncomfortable idea that modern footballers are, by and large, utter twats.
Gillespie, bang to stereotype, was fond of a drink and on one of the Entertainers' many nights out mingling with the Geordie public is said to have downed a bottle of red wine in one go. Beardsley, who is teetotal and never developed a taste for the stuff, volunteered to take the Irishman home once the inevitable paralysis kicked in, whereby Gillespie vomited all down the inside of his new car. Beardsley, as the story goes, was cool about it, cleaned up the mess himself and didn't mention it again.
You could say this is an unusual or ill-advised quality to respect in a man – that Beardsley was clearly a bit of a push over – but I prefer to see it as an IRL reflection of that rarest of qualities he had as a player: selflessness. Not for nothing does English football's greatest ever lazy-arse poacher Gary Lineker rank Beardsley as his favourite strike partner. Pedro once said he got more joy out of an assist than scoring a goal. Ponder that for a second, and you get a true measure of the man.
You could say Beardsley's golden years were at Liverpool between '87 and '91 when he won two first division titles, an FA Cup and a handful of Charity Shields - as opposed to either spell at Newcastle, where he of course won fuck all. But that would be to fundamentally misunderstand football in the North East, where Beardsley was born and raised.
In Newcastle Beardsley sits alongside Big Alan Shearer, King Kevin and Bobby Robson in an elite club of people who could walk into any home in the city, start urinating on the carpet and still find the occupant thanking them for everything from the bottom of their hearts, a single manly tear in their eye. He is a local boy who tried hard for the team and touched the outer sphere of triumph before succumbing to noble failure - there is no higher position to occupy in the hearts of football fans that have never had their souls corrupted by anything as tawdry as trophies or success.
Once, in a match day programme, Beardsley was asked what he would do if he could be invisible for a day. He answered that he'd spend it standing by a pedestrian crossing pressing the button over and over.
Not for Pedro the bank heist, the revealing stroll through the corridors of power or the furtive glance in the ladies changing room. No: he'd spend the day mildly annoying commuters in a built up residential area somewhere near the A1. This is extent of the malice in the man: one who'd rather set up a goal than score for himself, who will happily wipe an Irishman's sick from a car door than cause a fuss.
Every kid wants to be their favorite player on the pitch and it was the same with Beardsley, whose composure, skill and ability to see an impossible angle went through my imagination - without ever reaching my feet - whenever I played. But the difference with Beardsley - beautiful man of football folklore, last true innocent of modern game, the man who embodied the responsibilities and dignity of the number 8 shirt like no other - is that you wished you could be more like him off it, too.