Big interview: Ex-Hearts kid Angus Beith opens up on pain of early retirement
Had the footballing fates not conspired so cruelly against him, there is every chance Angus Beith would have been busy preparing to represent either Hearts or Inverness Caledonian Thistle in this Saturday’s Scottish Cup semi-final.
Instead, the former Boroughmuir High School pupil finds himself reflecting on the harrowing unravelling of his promising football career before it had even been given a proper chance to take off.
Having been plagued for most of the past four years by a persistent hip problem – caused by extra bone on the ball and socket joint – Beith decided towards the end of last year he could no longer take the mental and physical torment of fighting against nature only to continue being met with the same old feelings of pain and deflation. Following several months of trying to get his head round this wretched scenario, it was announced publicly last week, just a couple of months past his 23rd birthday, that Beith had retired from the game to which he had hitherto devoted his entire life. While he is able to hold himself together and articulate his feelings in a mature and philosophical manner, it is clear the amiable Buckstone boy is still reeling from the realisation that he will probably never play football again at any level – even five-a-side with his mates.
Although he has been battling the injury since 2015, when it first reared its ugly head during a loan spell at Stirling Albion, Beith had always maintained hope that he would overcome it. After undergoing a third operation a year past February, the initial prognosis was that all had gone to plan and Beith would be well placed to start fulfilling his undoubted potential at Inverness after he moved there last summer following several years on the fringes of the first-team at Hearts, whom he first joined as a ten-year-old from Hutchison Vale. Devastatingly for Beith, however, a realisation set in last autumn that he seemed destined never to banish this ongoing discomfort enough to do himself justice on the pitch.
“The three operations just don’t seem to have done the trick for me,” he told the Evening News, ruefully. “It’s basically deteriorated and got to a point where I can’t continue. I was told there was a high chance that a fourth operation wouldn’t actually help me that much but a big part of the decision to retire came from myself. I just felt it wasn’t going to happen for me. The mental and physical toll it had taken on me over a four-year period just came to a head. I knew that keeping trying to do the same things and still getting the same result was stupid and that it was time to challenge myself elsewhere and get a new focus. It’s been really difficult getting my head round it.”
As someone who excelled as a combative midfielder during his time in Hearts’ youth ranks, the ongoing impact of his hip problem started to take a toll on Beith’s play whenever he felt able to take to the field. Over the closing years of his career, that was predominantly during short loan spells with Stirling, Stenhousemuir and Stranraer, or in development league matches for his parent club, with his injury and subsequent lack of durability playing a part in restricting him to just two competitive first-team appearances for Hearts, both coming as a second-half substitute in heavy defeats against Celtic under Ian Cathro in the second half of the 2016/17 season.
“It wasn’t always pain,” he explained. “It was little feelings like a catching sensation in my hip when I changed direction quickly. At times, it would catch and I couldn’t move my leg properly. The restrictiveness of it was massive. Apparently about ten per cent of people in the world have it but it only really shows up in people who do sport at a high level. Sometimes I would feel it in the warm-up and I wouldn’t be able to play or I would struggle through a game. Then other times I would get through a 90 minutes and feel relatively pain-free.
“Unless you go through it, it’s a very hard injury to understand. It’s not like a leg break or an ACL where the recovery’s all mapped out for you. Over the past few years, people have been asking why I was still able to run around in training and play well for Stranraer throughout it all, but it’s a difficult one because it comes and goes when it pleases.
“At Stranraer (in 2017/18), one thing that helped was that I changed my game massively. I had always been a defensive midfielder who would make a lot of tackles and fight a lot of physical battles in the midfield scrap. But when I went to Stranraer, I tried to run in behind and support the strikers more to avoid the physical duels and avoid quick turning as much as I could because my hip couldn’t handle it. That helped me, but 14 games down the line it still came to a point where I couldn’t do it.”
When his fruitful stint at Stranraer, which brought him eight goals, was curtailed by injury, Beith had to go under the surgeon’s knife for a third time. That operation, 14 months ago, appeared to have achieved its objective and Beith was full of renewed hope when he headed up to Inverness to join Hearts legend John Robertson last summer. “I was hugely optimistic going to Inverness,” he said. “I was told the last operation had gone really well and everything was looking good. I knew John and it felt like a great chance for me to kick on in my career. I knew there was a good chance I wouldn’t get back to the same level for a long period of time but I thought this was the chance I needed. But ever since my third operation, I’ve not had any sort of comfort or any prolonged period of feeling good. I tried to come back into training numerous times with Inverness but it just didn’t happen for me. It got to a point where the problem was constant. I only managed to train twice – one of the days it felt really good but the next time, all of a sudden, it was gone again and I pulled out of training. That was in October/November time and I just knew at that point that that was me finished and there was no way back. I knew that it just wasn’t going to get better and there was no way I’d be able to play through it at any level – League One, League Two or even if I wanted to go and play with my mates.”
Beith was up in Inverness when he made the decision to retire, but wanted some extra time to be sure he was making the right call before he told those close to him, such as his parents and Robertson, whom he is extremely complimentary of. “I wanted to make sure in my head that it was the right thing before I told anyone,” he said. “But as each week went by, it became more clear. It was a difficult conversation to have with my family but I took a little bit of comfort from knowing that it felt like the right decision. There was always that one per cent in my mind that was thinking ‘is this definitely the right decision?’. But even now, when I’m sitting here talking about it, I know it was the right decision. Obviously I miss it so much, being in the dressing-room, part of the team environment, fighting for the result. It hurts knowing that I definitely didn’t fulfil my potential. That will continue to hurt. There were a lot of times I felt I’d built myself back up to a position where I could challenge for a place in the Hearts first team and then further down the line I was optimistic about going to Inverness. But getting good opportunities and not being able to grab them with both hands was massively frustrating.”
While his former Hearts Under-20 team-mates Liam Smith, Sam Nicholson, Gary Oliver, Jordan McGhee and Adam King continue to carve out careers as professional footballers, Beith is left to reflect on what might have been. As someone who was highly-regarded by Hearts’ last four managers – Gary Locke, Robbie Neilson, Cathro and Craig Levein – it is not unreasonable to suspect that he would have had significantly more than two sub appearances to his name at Tynecastle if not for his hip problem. “I think I was close to making it at Hearts,” he said. “I’m not going to say that it was just the injury that ruined me at Hearts because there were times I could have been more dominant and assertive when I was training with the first team. I always showed myself well in the 20s but I could probably have done a bit more when I got into the first-team environment. The injury definitely had a massive impact because it took an edge off my play and I lost a bit of the aggression that was so important to my game, but I don’t want to say that was solely the reason for me not making it at Hearts.”
If Beith – who will be at Hampden on Saturday for the clash of his former clubs – is to make a name for himself in football, it now looks likely that it will have to come via coaching. Since retiring from playing, he has been given a part-time role coaching Hearts’ Under-12s and he is also helping former Hearts colleague Dale Carrick build his Box Soccer franchise, allowing him to maintain a link with the game he loves. As he ponders the grim reality of being forced to hang up his boots and seek an alternative career path, Beith is aided slightly by the fact he has been doing an Open University degree in business management in sport over the past two years. “The degree gave me a focus and an escape from football,” he said. “I think if I’d been up in Inverness and just going home and playing the PlayStation, it would have eaten away at me massively. I had deadlines to meet and I think having that to work towards, something that I had a control over, was massive for my mental stability. I didn’t start on the course because I envisaged this happening but I was wary that I might not be able to play at the level I hoped, so I was thinking more about having a good strong qualification to fall back on if I ever had to go part-time. I’ve not really put a massive amount of thought into what I’m going to do next. At the moment I’m putting all my energy into finishing the degree and the coaching, which will be a long process with a lot of learning.
“It’s been massive to still have a bit of football in my life. My hip feels pretty restrictive at the moment so even kicking a ball, it just doesn’t feel good at all. It’s frustrating, but being able to remain in elite football in the academy, even though it’s not playing, is great in terms of still being able to feel part of it. If I was just at home doing nothing, it would really bother me but I’ve been thrown straight into the coaching and it’s a new focus, out of my comfort zone, so hopefully I can just keep growing into it. I’m very grateful to Robbo, Roger Arnott, Craig Levein, Darren Murray and Dale Carrick for making it happen and for all the help and the guidance they’ve given me.”
Despite the possibilities that will present themselves for Beith as he adapts to a life away from being a professional footballer, there is little doubt that the pain of having to give up on his dream will linger long. “My mum and dad (Sarah and Stuart) have been affected by it,” he said. “They’re hugely disappointed for me because they’ve been there from day one. My mum was always in the car picking me up at the academy at 9pm most nights with my wee sister in the back of the car in her baby suits and things like that. I don’t forget that.
“Even though it didn’t go to plan, I can look back on my career with pride. I built a lot of good relationships with other players, coaches and other people at the clubs I played for. My highlights were Stranraer, when I scored goals, playing for Hearts and representing Scotland at youth level. I’ve got a lot to be proud of but at the moment it’s more a case of looking back and thinking about what could have been, and I think that feeling will niggle at me for quite a while. I’ve now got to channel that and use it as determination to make sure that I’m a success in my coaching and whatever else I’m going to do going forward.”