True Blue And Red Hero
Jim Beglin talked to Shane Murphy
(first published in the July 2011 Liverpool friendly match programme)
Any mention of Liverpool FC in connection with Waterford brings one name immediately to mind. That’s Jim Beglin – the proud Waterford man who was a hero at Anfield in the 1980s. A clash with previously-booked holidays unfortunately keeps the former Irish international away from the RSC tonight, but, as a lifelong fan of the Blues, he kindly agreed to talk about his career and his thoughts on the future, ahead of this special occasion.
As the son of former Waterford player Tom Beglin, Jim grew up in a household steeped in football and the Blues in particular. “Our house was soccer-mad. I practically lived in Kilcohan Park when I was younger.” Jim recalls fondly watching the great Blues sides of the ’60s and ’70s in Kilcohan “every other Sunday” with his brothers Ed and Tom and travelling to support them in Dublin especially for Cup sem-finals in Dalymount Park. His family also went to Lansdowne Road for the European Cup games against Manchester United and Celtic. “Waterford had a great side then with Peter Thomas, Phil Buck, Peter Bryan, McGeough, Alfie and, of course, Johhny Matthews and John O’Neill. I remember seeing Syd Wallace coming through too.” Trips to Flower Lodge left an indelible memory: “It was intimidating. Waterford’s main rivalry back then was with Cork Hibs more so than Celtic, and I remember it being quite scary there.”
Jim played his early football for Bolton under Denny Duggan and for Ben Wadding’s Bohs. It was at Bohs that he began to develop and found his position – moving from left wing to left back having also played as a sweeper. He describes as “a great honour” playing in Kilcohan Park for the first time in a Munster Schools Cup game for De La Salle. He played with the Munster Schools team in Westphalia in Germany and success with both school and club led to Beglin being called up to the Irish Under 17 squad. “There were rumours that Waterford wanted to sign me – I think Tommy Jackson was manager at the time – but I was never approached. I would’ve loved to have played for Waterford.” Instead, it was Eamonn Dunphy who offered Jim the chance to sign for Shamrock Rovers at the behest of manager John Giles. He jumped at the chance, completed his Leaving Cert at De La Salle and signed for Rovers before his 17th birthday.
The highest Rovers finished in his three years at Milltown was second place, but he played four games in European football and scored once. Beglin admits that playing against Waterford at Kilcohan Park “was a bit strange” and that some of the locals gave him a hard time there, but “John Giles didn’t take any prisoners” and had him well-prepared for visits to his hometown. In fact, after a 1-1 draw there in March 1983, Jim was due to fly to London to sign for Arsenal. That deal fell through, but Liverpool made an offer a few weeks later. At the time, Rovers were scaling back their commitment to a full-time professional set-up so the £20,000 transfer fee was welcome. Jim was completing a commercial course with Aer Lingus in preparation for part-time football, but the most important flight of his life took him to Liverpool to become Bob Paisley’s last ever signing for the club.
With the legendary Paisley retiring at the end of the ’82/’83 season, it was Joe Fagan who brought Beglin gradually through to the first team. “Joe started taking me away on trips with the first team. At first, I was disappointed to be missing the reserve team game, but it was all to help get attuned to life with the first team.” He won the first of fifteen full international caps in June 1984 against China before he had played for the Liverpool first team. To this day, he recalls the excitement of his first senior appearance for the reigning European Champions in November 1984. “I made my debut against Southampton in a 1-1 draw at Anfield.” Fagan gave him advance notice that he would play (at left midfield). “I was a bundle of nerves. I only got a couple of hours sleep. Nervous excitement got me through, but I was flagging late in the game.” Just a few days later, Jim suffered a setback with an injury in Ireland’s 3-0 defeat to Denmark in Copenhagen. He picked up a further calf injury in the spring of ’85, but recovered to play a part in Liverpool’s bid to retain the European Cup. He scored his first goal for the Reds in the semi-final first leg against Panathinaikos at Anfield. His 85th minute header put the tie beyond the Greeks as Fagan’s men romped to a 4-0 win. However, the final (which Jim started at left back) was a night of tragedy with 39 Juventus fans killed under a collapsed wall at the Heysel Stadium.
The aftermath of Heysel saw Kenny Dalglish take over the reins at Anfield for the first time. An early, bold move by the young player-manager was to move the hugely-successful full backs Phil Neal and Alan Kennedy on and give youth its chance in the shape of Steve Nicol and Beglin. That first season under Dalglish ranks as the highlight of Jim’s career. He was regarded as one of the best young defenders in football as Liverpool became only the third post-war team to win the English League and Cup double. “We thought the league was gone when we lost to Everton in February,” he confesses, “but we won eleven and drew one of our last twelve games.” Those wins included big home victories over QPR (4-1), Oxford (6-0), Coventry (5-0) and Birmingham (5-0) as Liverpool’s title charge built steam, but Everton still had the advantage on the penultimate day of the season with the Toffees travelling to Oxford while Leicester City hosted Liverpool. Jim remembers a big roar going up from Reds fans at Filbert Street to signal that Everton were losing at the Manor Ground. That left Liverpool needing to win at Stamford Bridge to secure their 16th league championship. Beglin stayed up after a corner and it was he who flicked the ball on for Dalglish to score the only goal of the match. Part two of the double was completed with an all-Merseyside clash at Wembley that the Reds won 3-1. “There’s a quiz question for you – it was the first time a team won the Cup with no Englishman in the team. We had four Scots, three Irishmen, a Welshman, an Australian, a Zimbabwean and a Dane. Steve McMahon was on the bench, but didn’t get on.” He describes winning the double as “a treasured memory made all the more special” by his later injury trouble.
That injury, of course, was a particularly famous and devastating one that brought his career at Anfield to a tragically premature end. “I felt really strong. My fitness was good and I was ironing out any errors in my game”. Beglin had made the number 3 jersey his own for a season and a half by the time Liverpool met Everton in a League Cup derby clash in January ’87. A shocking, mistimed tackle by Gary Stevens effectively ended his Liverpool career. Dalglish described the incident in his autobiography: “Jim’s injury was so horrific I almost retched when I saw the mangled state of his leg. Jim never played for Liverpool again. He somehow managed a few games for Leeds United, but really that was him over and done. That saddened me because Jim was a very good player for Liverpool as well as an incredibly popular, gentle guy. Football’s capacity for cruelty never ceased to disturb me.”
Beglin found his path back to the first team blocked by Gary Ablett and Steve Staunton while he also damaged his knee cartilage playing for the reserves. He left Anfield for Leeds in June 1989 after 98 appearances and having been part of the club through the Hillsborough disaster and its immediate aftermath. He won the old Second Division with Leeds – securing promotion to the top flight – and had loan spells at Plymouth and Blackburn. It was a knee injury rather than the original legbreak that forced him to retire in 1991 aged just 27. He began FA Schools coaching in the Leeds area, but “I was the only coach with my leg up on the table afterwards” as the discomfort from his knee continued to affect him. Having co-commentated for RTE Radio at the 1990 World Cup, he was offered more and more television and radio work. “I didn’t target media work – it just drew me away from coaching.” He left his coaching badges halfway through and moved on to a highly successful career with RTE and ITV in particular where his voice is synonymous with many of the biggest nights in club and international football.
Jim says he was “really pleased” when Kenny Dalglish took charge of Liverpool again in January and has high hopes for the Reds’ future. “As great as 2005 was, I think they had lost their way a bit under Rafa and were going backwards.” He felt he club needed a change, but though Roy Hodgson “wasn’t given a chance by some people”, the team were lacking flair and the Waterfordian thinks Dalglish will “bring more excitement and entertainment.” He sees great potential in some of the young players at Anfield – some of whom will be on display tonight. “Kenny’s as shrewd as they come. If you’re good enough, age doesn’t matter.” Having spoken to Steve Bruce recently, he feels Jordan Henderson “is a really honest player who wants to learn and get better.” Jim recognises what an important summer this is for Liverpool. “Kenny had an immediate impact and obviously that has raised expectations, but it’s important to be realistic. He needs to strengthen his squad further. He needs a much bigger, stronger squad.” Adding that there may be a period of transition as new players bed in, Jim feels that the club “have a good chance of hitting fourth spot”.
As a Waterford native and ex-Liverpool star, Jim is genuinely very disappointed not to be able to attend tonight’s match. He talks about “going on these kinds of trips as a young player” along with experienced first-teamers such as Phil Thompson finding their fitness on the way back from injury. As soon as tonight’s friendly was announced, his phone began buzzing with text messages. Jim attended the ill-fated 2004 FAI Cup final as a fan when the Blues lost to Longford Town and has contributed to fundraising for the club – notably with the “Jim Beglin and Mark Lawrenson night” at the Tower Hotel last November. He wishes the club well, “of course, there’s an underlying importance to the game” in securing funding for the club’s future and re-iterates that he’d “have loved to have played for Waterford.” In many ways it’s a case of what might have been for Jim Beglin – a true Blue who was a hero for the Reds.