Published 8th December 2003, Lancashire Evening Post
Liam Watson hauled his aching bones out of a creaking metal bunk bed as dawn broke over Catterick Army camp, slipped on his boots and shuffled out on to the drill yard.
“Right, you miserable little lot,” snarled the Scottish sergeant major. “Welcome to Catterick, this is pre-season training British Army style.”
John Beck smiled, while the pain of pre-season hell was etched across the faces of Watson’s Preston North End pals, Paul Raynor, Kelham O’Hanlon and Gareth Ainsworth.
There was no cushy, pampered pre-season jaunt in the Spanish sunshine here, and that was just the way the manager liked it.
“The village cockerel was still in his hut and we’d done an hour on the drill yard,” joked Southport manager Watson.
“After the drill yard, we did a four-mile cross-country run and then we were allowed to have a bit of breakfast – dry toast and water.
“Then we climbed some hills and did the cross-country again. After that it was back on the drill yard, and then some ball work on the field.
“We had an incredibly fit and durable squad, but several of the lads couldn’t take it. Some were physically sick and others collapsed.
“In the afternoon, our goalkeeper Glenn Johnstone fell down a tank track. He never played again. Incredibly, I found out later I’d done the training on a broken leg.
“We finished the day by abseiling down the side of a cliff. One of the lads, Greg Challender, a skinhead and who fancied himself as a bit of a hard man, got half way down but wouldn’t go any further.
“He just lost it on the rope and we christened him the mountain goat when he came down – 30 minutes later! It was physical hell but incredibly enjoyable.”
Love him or loathe him, John Beck, football’s most eccentric gaffer, was a complete one-off. No Preston manager before or since has created such a division between the fans, and yet while Beck’s long-ball philosophy is a distant memory now, he ignited a Deepdale flame that has burned bright ever since as Gary Peters – and later David Moyes – built on Beck’s foundation stone.
“That trip to Catterick was just an example of how John Beck operated, but looking back to my days at Preston, Beck did change my life,” added Liam.
“The game is a poorer place without John and I find it incredible that he is not involved now.
“He was a fantastic manager and a very accomplished coach, and through his spirit and love for football he made people alive to the game.
“He was completely misunderstood, though, and the ideas he brought to the game were always frowned upon, which was a great shame.
“John was one of the first managers to concentrate on diet, psychology and statistics, and now, a decade later, it’s all the rage in the Premiership.
“It’s not that long ago that teams would stop at the motorway services for a Big Mac and chips for their lunch before a game, but John had changed our diets at Preston long before the Premier League had caught on.
“To this day, I believe he was way ahead of his time. He was never given the credit he deserved and football always saw John as any easy target to have a pop at just because he was different.
“As soon as people mention his name it’s just the long punt and cold showers stuff, but that was just a simplistic way of looking at John. He helped a lot of players achieve an awful lot and turned Gareth Ainsworth into a 2m winger.”
Yet Beck, who is best known for legendary motivational techniques, always possessed the ability to shock and even have a giggle at a game that is taken far too seriously.
He once axed skipper Liam Daish from his Cambridge team for refusing to sell an expensive hi-fi he’d won as a man of the match prize and put his cash into the squad’s end-of-season fund.
And striker Steve Claridge was dumped because ‘the interior of his car was too messy’.
When he signed 6ft 4in Deepdale striker Mark Sale, he said: “He’s so tall, he reminds me of Hightower in the Police Academy films.”
And Watson recalls his first Deepdale training session 48 hours before grabbing a goal on his North End debut in a 2-2 draw at Port Vale.
“I’d come out of non-league football, and some hard men played there, but I was only on the training field two minutes and John and Lee Ashcroft were having a full-blown fist fight.
“I’d never seen anything like it and they were going at it like a couple of heavyweights, cursing and swearing, but afterwards they were laughing and joking over a cup of tea. That’s the way it was then.
“We reached the 1994 Division Three play-off final at Wembley against Wycombe Wanderers and John axed our strapping centre-half Stuart Hicks. He played a young kid called Jamie Squires and none of the lads could believe it.
“I don’t think Stuart ever recovered from that decision. He was absolutely devastated, but sometimes it was reverse psychology with John.
“I remember John chucking me in for a Friday night game at Doncaster.
“I’d spent most of the season injured and I’d only played a couple of league games, so I was shocked when he put me in.
“But I went out, played through the pain barrier and set up our goal. The next game, against Torquay at Deepdale, I was buzzing. But then I found out I wasn’t even on the bench.
“I was young and nervous then and didn’t want to take John on. But deep down that’s what he wanted. He sometimes needed that confrontation to operate.
“Finally, I went in and asked him why he’d left me out in the
cold. He just said ‘I believe being unpredictable keeps players motivated.’
“He reckoned I should have come in next day kicking his door in and he was right.
“Although I was a very strong character, I learned that from him.
“Once he emptied freezing cold buckets of water on us in the dressing room at Colchester, and he’d get YTS kids to run behind the linesmen at Deepdale shouting ‘offside’.
“John would give the lads towels to dry the ball off before the long throw. I didn’t see that as bizarre, it was just thorough.”
Watson was a key part of Beck’s non-league project when he signed the rookie striker from non-league Warrington Town.
The 60,000 switch, which also brought Neil Whalley to Deepdale – Whalley is now his assistant manager at Haig Avenue – was a world away from those early days as an apprentice welder at Cammell Laird Shipyard where he dreamed of playing professional football.
“I’d scored 36 goals by January and John had been to watch me six or seven times. One day I was playing for Warrington in an FA Trophy tie at Merthyr Tydfil.
“The tie had been switched to 1pm because Wales were playing a rugby international live on television. I got man of the match and scored our goal.
“I was getting onto the coach after the game and all of a sudden John’s Preston club car pulled in. Nobody had told him the kick-off time had been switched.
“You should have seen the look on his face.
“He’d made a 300-mile trek to watch me and missed the North End game too, but it told me how commited the man was and that meant an awful lot.
Tranmere and Rochdale were interested but I just wanted to play for one man – John Beck.
“I was on 40-a-week at Warrington and signed for North End for 450-a-week. It changed my life forever.”
While injury was to wreck Watson’s only stab at league football, he did quickly become a firm favourite with the Deepdale faithful.
After his career opener at Vale Park, he followed up on his Deepdale bow versus Huddersfield and then a crucial 1-0 win at Exeter gave North End brief hope of avoiding the trap door to Division Three.
“I’ll never forget that start at Preston, but after that I didn’t adapt too well. The training was so demanding, I’d come home and spend the afternoon on the couch unconscious until 6 o’clock.
“The physical intensity was unbelievable and very difficult. Gary Peters used to say to me ‘you still think it’s a game of football, but it’s your job now, son’. That always stuck with me because before that I had just played for the enjoyment of the game.
“Coming out of non-league football, I suppose I had that freshness and naivety without the cynicism of the professional game. Football can be a horrible business and there’s more spirit and honesty in part-time football.”
A dreadful 5-1 home reverse to Mansfield Town followed, though, and a final day defeat at Bolton saw North End take the plunge in Beck’s first season at the Deepdale helm.
“I walked back into the dressing room at Burnden Park and John was already making his plans for the following season.
“He was firing players on the spot, going that’s your last game for Preston, see you ! If you didn’t want to do it for John, then you were history. That was his take on football management and you either embraced it or found another club.
“Although I was part of his plans, I played in a meaningless reserve game a few days later, and that’s when my problems began after my foot got stuck in the plastic pitch and I was carried off with a serious injury.”
Liam recalls the anguish he experienced when the surgeon opened his knee up to find that he had broken two main bones in his leg, the tibula and fibula.
“The doc just said that was the end of my full-time career and I was devastated. They thought it was just knee damage, but I’d actually played a few games with a broken leg.
“Seven months later I made a comeback with Marine in non-league. I helped them win promotion and then I was capped by England three times at semi-pro level.
“That made so proud after eve