Long careers are defined by brief moments, writes James Shield.
Fearless tackles, unforgettable finishes or, as James Beattie discovered when Southampton contested the 2003 FA Cup final, an assistant referee’s flag.
“The score was still level when I put the ball in the back of the net,” he recollected. “But I’d started my run just a shade too early and the play got called back.
“I’m still convinced now that, if that goal had stood, we’d have gone on to win the game and not Arsenal. Unfortunately, though, that’s just the way it goes.”
Tonight another of Beattie’s former clubs - Sheffield United - will attempt to heap even more misery on the visitors from St Mary’s when they meet in the last eight of another major tournament. The Capital One Cup might not boast the same profile or prestige as its more famous cousin but, with a winners’ medal and place in Europe up for grabs, he told The Star it would be foolish to underestimate its importance.
“Occasions like these, unless you are very fortunate, don’t come around very often. They are what you remember when you give up and, no matter what the outcome, the memories stay absolutely pin-sharp so, ideally, you want them to be good ones.
“The worst feeling in the world must be to have regrets. To come off the pitch at the end knowing that you could have done more or should have done something different.
“Everyone involved in them is aware of that. Which is why they are always such intense affairs.”
Beattie, who joined Southampton five years before their appearance at the Millennium Stadium, scored 34 goals in 84 appearances during two spells at Bramall Lane. The first, following United’s controversial relegation from the Premier League eight seasons ago, ended with a transfer to Stoke City 17 months later. The second, with the South Yorkshire club having also relinquished its place in the Championship, was a much more challenging affair.
Nevertheless, despite Southampton’s top-flight status, he believes this evening’s match will be anything but routine for Ronald Koeman’s side.
“Bramall Lane is a tough place to go,” Beattie said. “I know from experience and, as United proved by getting to the FA Cup semi-finals last season, the cups bring out the best in them.
“Take away all the science and football is basically human. That’s why it’s unpredictable.
“Each and every player will have a different motivation. Glory, status, fame or perhaps even money.
“It could come down to who is motivated the most. You’ve got to be a tough character to play for United because of those demands and that’s probably why it comes out on the big stages.
“The two managers will be looking to take advantage of that. I don’t think you need too much science at times like this because everyone knows what’s at stake. It’s more about making sure you’ve got your players in the right frame of mind so that’s they’re keyed-up but still capable of making the right decisions when the action gets underway.”
Beattie, aged 36, understands the issues Nigel Clough and Koeman will have been wrestling with in their respective bootrooms following a brief but impressive spell in charge of League Two outfit Accrington Stanley. After leaving the Crown Ground by mutual consent in September, he is now planning a return to the game.
“I’ve experienced life on both sides of the fence if you like,” Beattie, capped five times by England, continued. “It’s all about maximising what you’ve got and adapting to different situations.
“For instance, there are some players you’ve only got to tell something once too. Others might take a while longer before it sinks in or they might respond better if you find another way of getting that information across.
“Nigel and Ronald will know their players inside out. They’ll know how to bring out the best in them and that’s what they’ll be trying to do now.”
“Decision-making is absolutely vital,” Beattie added. “That’s often what separates those at the highest level from those lower down the divisions. Often, there’s not as big a difference in terms of skill as you might think but they just understand what to do and when to do it quicker.
“But, like I say, football is essentially about human-beings. That’s why it’s so unpredictable at times and also why it’s possible to narrow the gap between two teams in one-off situations.
“United will be trying to do that now and they’ve shown themselves to be very good at it. What Southampton will be trying to do is make sure that gap stays.”
United, fifth in League One following Saturday’s draw at Fleetwood Town, have beaten Mansfield, West Ham, Leyton Orient and MK Dons en route to the quarter-finals. Southampton count Arsenal and Stoke City among their scalps.
“These are two clubs that are so close to my heart,” Beattie, who recently enjoyed a spell in charge of Accrington Stanley, said. “Two I still always look out for and wish all the best.
“Unfortunately only one can go through but I’m sure, if United continue in the same vein and exploit the ability they’ve clearly got, they’ll be meeting in the highest division pretty soon.”
Had Markus Liebherr, a German contruction magnate, not hauled Southampton out of administration in 2009 then it is possible tonight’s quarter-final would have been an all third tier affair. Liebherr, who died a year later, was responsible for both inspiring and bankrolling the chain of events which, following back-to-back promotions, has left them fifth in the Premier League.
“What Markus did was remarkable,” Beattie said. “He didn’t just have plans for the club but for the whole city too.
“It might be the exception to the rule but what has happened at Southampton should give United hope that they can get back to where they should be too. Especially if you’ve got that vision and determination in place.
“Getting to the FA Cup semi-finals earlier this year and taking over 40,000 fans with them shows you what potential there is at Bramall Lane. The size and stature of United as a club.
“Nothing is ever easy but there are some terrific players there and, things like Wembley, shows that things are moving in the right direction which I’m really pleased to see.”
Tonight, though, is all about the here and now.
“Everyone knows what is going to be at stake,” Beattie said. “The smallest thing could change how the game or a career unfolds.
“When I played for England, for example, one square pass from a team mate who shot instead could have seen me scoring more goals for my country and getting more caps. The same as that offside flag in the FA Cup final.
“You just never, ever know. That’s why you’ve got try and grasp it when you can.”