David Batty is the last person who would read this article

Date published: Sunday 20th December 2020 9:24 - Matthew Stead

Leeds hero and Premier League winner David Batty remains one of English football’s enigmas. And one thing is for sure: he won’t read this.

 

Who’s this then?
David Batty is now a 52-year-old bona fide Yorkshireman who played for just three teams in a 558-game, 17-year club career: Leeds (twice), Blackburn and Newcastle United. He was, to put it euphemistically, a combative midfielder. He also played 42 times for England from 1991 to 1999.

He made his debut for Leeds aged just 18 in the old Second Division. His manager at the time, the legendary Billy Bremner, allegedly gave him raw egg and sherry every morning to try and beef the rather slight lad up. Of course. Ask any dietitian or nutritionist and they’ll tell you raw eggs and sherry definitely helps build muscle. In fairness, the lad did fill out markedly and became a solid unit. So on such dietary wisdom the legend that became Mr David Batty was built.

A couple of years later he was part of Howard Wilkinson’s team that won promotion. Even though he was just 20 at the time, he already had the two qualities that his manager loved most: the ability to destroy and create. Ironic that the two didn’t always see eye-to-eye early in his career at Leeds and he considered Sgt Wilko’s team talks ‘boring’.

These qualities of rugged determination and passing vision were honed to perfection for the 1991/1992 season, the last before the Premier League was foisted upon an unsuspecting public. Leeds won the title with David playing all but two league games. A side built very much in their manager’s image, they were the absolutely perfect blend of old-school hard bastardry and progressive mercurial flair. Left-back Tony Dorigo was their player of the season, which tells you something about that fantastic side. He recently shared his memories of his time at Leeds with Batty.

There were few finer sights in football than Gordon Strachan, Dorigo or any number of other players crossing from wide for the mobile artillery unit that was Lee Chapman to head home.

Meanwhile Batty was in the engine room making sure it was hard to get at the back four, tackling the living jobbies out of anything that moved, seemingly impervious to pain and impossible to intimidate.

In 1993, in a bizarre move, Wilkinson sold him to Blackburn for £2.7million with the excuse that he needed funds to rebuild the team; it was all spent on Carlton Palmer. Even at the time this seemed almost laughable.

In his first season across the Pennines, he played his part in building a title challenge that would come to fruition the following year. However, it wasn’t a victory he could enjoy as he was out all year with a broken foot. In a typically down to earth move, he gave his league winner’s medal to a ball boy and didn’t claim he’d won anything.

In 1996 he moved to Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle for £3.25million and twice almost won the title. It has since been said that he disrupted a winning side along with Tino Asprilla, mainly by those looking for reasons why Newcastle let their 12-point lead slip. They did lose some of their attacking flair with Batty’s arrival, but the fact they pushed for the title again the next year suggests this may not be a comprehensive explanation. In 1998 he moved back to Leeds to be the elder statesmen amongst “babies” as a fundamental part of their Second Coming under David O’Leary.

His appearances were limited in all but one season due to repeated injuries and it was sad that his last season in 2003/04 ended in relegation. In all his years in the top flight he’d only finished outside the top five three times and retired with two league titles to his name.

“I only won one, really,” he said, never wishing to over vaunt or grandstand.

Internationally, he famously missed a penalty against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup, which surprised no-one as he didn’t take penalties. I always thought that was an indictment of those who didn’t have the stones to step up and take one, even though they were more experienced spot-kick merchants.

And then…well…nothing. Since finishing playing he’s rarely been seen in public, preferring family life in Yorkshire to hauling his backside around TV studios and being highly-paid to say really obvious things. Never one for the high life, for nightclubs or even hanging around with players after games, apparently, he’d planned his retirement financially, was notoriously careful with money throughout his career and had made sure, even though the really big money didn’t wash in until just after he’d retired, that he would not have to work again. And that’s what he’s done. He emerged in 2011 to lay a wreath at Elland Road in honour of his late friend and former teammate Gary Speed alongside Strachan and Gary McAllister, and then slipped back into obscurity once more.

This plain, undemonstrative, non-flashy, “I’ll just get off, then” home-bod sort of life all just seems very Yorkshire, somehow, as does the fact that when Rover provided Newcastle players with cars, he opted for the Diesel Estate. Of course he did.

 

Why the love?
Most football fans love a tough sod, especially if he plays for their team. Or we did, anyway. Maybe this is a generational thing and most people today want to see a ballet dancer in Lycra who can run 15km per game, now that physicality and all but a modicum of aggression has been abolished from the game, one way or another. But Batty was someone we’d pay to see back when a player clattering into someone was exciting and one of football’s primo attractions. A good Batty tackle would get almost as much of a reaction from the crowd as a goal. That’s all gone now.

I am indebted to this thread from It’s A Funny Old Game to perfectly illustrate Batty’s modus operandi. I love that Roberto Mancini tried to boss him and tell ‘im what’s what, but Batts just isn’t ‘avin’ it, lapping his finger away. That it finishes with one of his rare wee grins after a back heel is simply perfect. ‘Brilliant bastard’ indeed.

The story from his autobiography about taking his old severed fingertips into a show-and-tell school class, some three years after he’d severed them (a very weird thing to keep) is as good an illustration of the young Batty mindset as you could wish for.

Despite his reputation, he wasn’t an especially dirty player in the Vinnie Jones mould, though was absolutely not above being so if the occasion demanded. But he was hard and resolute and wouldn’t be pushed around. He played with the sort of unsmiling, unemotional Yorkshire grit and determination familiar to anyone born in that county, or who has relations from there. It is a peculiar trait and one easily identifiable over and above similar characteristics from elsewhere, as it comes with a healthy dose of ‘who the ‘eck do you think you are then eh?’ And with no ‘h’ left undropped.

When some people miss an important penalty in a shootout, they break down into tears and slump to the floor in an orgy of self-pity. Not our David. He just turned away as grim-faced as ever and walked off. After all, it’s just bloody football, mate, no point in wetting your knickers over it, is there? No, now bugger off.

His dust-up with Graeme Le Saux when at Blackburn has gone down in football folklore and helped cement his legend as someone who, as a psychotherapist might put it, had access to his anger, even if most of us just wanted to see him clump Tim Sherwood instead while shouting, “bloody shut it, London!”.

But to focus wholly on his undoubted combative character and game is to undervalue his abilities as a creator. He had a tremendous range of passing and was often the tap root of many of Leeds United’s goals. This wasn’t a pure destroyer; he always knew what to do with the ball once he had removed someone’s legs to get it.

It’s also worth noting that, especially by the late ’90s, he’d grown into a very attractive, handsome blue-eyed man with Viking good looks, and as is often the case with someone who treats smiling as a rare indulgence, when he does turn the corners of his mouth up in a grin, it feels ever so slightly special.

 

What the people say
Hard to believe that to remember David in his pomp you’d need to be at least 40 years old. A younger generation probably only knows him from reruns of England penalty misses, and how he played the game would no doubt look like some elaborate form of kung fu to those raised in recent years. But even so, those who saw him play will remember his fantastic qualities.

One such person is Ian Dennis, one of 5 Live’s primo commentators and he got in touch to give us a fantastic insight into David’s character.

“David Batty was brilliant to deal with, straight-talking off the field as much as a no-nonsense midfielder on it. A simple, ‘no ta’ if he didn’t fancy speaking but when he did he was always refreshingly honest. After the Champions League semi-final defeat to Valencia, I remember speaking with him in the bowels of the Mestalla stadium and saying, ‘I’m gutted for you’. His reply was along the lines of ‘we just weren’t good enough’.

“He had principles to admire: polite and punctual. If he agreed to an interview at 8.15 at the training ground at Thorp Arch, he’d be there dead on. He knew I would arrive early. I hate being late – it was one of his pet hates too, so eventually he’d turn up before the set time.

“David had a wicked sense of humour and loved playing practical jokes.

“I often felt he was underrated as a footballer. Combative but he could play. I recall him bossing a game in midfield at Anfield for Leeds United in 2001. People used to talk about his lack of goals but it never bothered him. For David, he got as much pleasure from stopping a goal than scoring one. However, he once scored an absolute gem, chipping Sullivan from about 40 yards just days after Beckham had beaten the same goalkeeper from the halfway line.

“I bumped into David a few years ago in Harrogate. I’ve always tried to tempt him into the media but he’s a family man who has stuck to his word of staying out of the spotlight away from the game. A top bloke.”

And there was plenty of response from readers too:

‘The living embodiment of Yorkshire grit distilled into a footballer. Even Sean Bean would be scared.’

‘When he arrived at Blackburn, I was at the very least sceptical. He won me over within about 10 minutes of his debut with his quality.’

‘Everybody hating David Beckham so much for six months that they forgot Ince and Batty missed their penalties against Argentina.’

‘When he bullied Sampdoria in a pre-season friendly for seemingly no reason. When he rejected a Premier League winner’s medal at Blackburn because he didn’t feel he had done enough to earn one. When he gladly took a yellow card for winding a teenage Cristiano Ronaldo off the ball.’

‘It wasn’t until he went to Blackburn that I realised what a good passer of the ball he was. In fact what a good player he was overall. Underrated probably.’

‘Never took a PL medal despite playing enough for Blackburn to win one, felt he hadn’t earned it! What a man!’

‘Good player…arguably cost NUFC the title though, came in for title run in 1996, took Lee Clarks place, never the same attacking threat without him. Those who suggest Asprilla are wrong. Obviously not Batty’s fault himself.. .Good player though..’

‘I love the low profile / recluse angle. He’s the John Deacon of elite level football.’

‘Has something in common with a lot of fans at this moment in time. He doesn’t like football.

‘I love that he has the same surname as Nora. I really hope that was his nickname in the dressing room. And it was his nickname then I hope it wasn’t Glenn Hoddle shouting “Go on Nora!” that made him miss that penalty.’

‘I filmed the Blackburn PL winners 20th anniversary reunion. He was the only player not there, I think. The organiser said, “no-one knows where he is. He has a mobile he shares with his wife but it just rang out.” Definitely a Nokia 3210.’

 

Three great moments
The great thing about this is Nicky Butt gives Batty a really forceful shove, the sort that would send pretty much any player to the ground these days holding some part of their body that hadn’t been touched, making out they were having some sort of seizure. But not our David. Oh bloody no. He just momentarily recoils, then leans forward and pincers Butt by the neck like he’s a turkey about to be plucked. As you do. This was when football was not a ballet played out by middle-distance athletes for wages of £10 per minute of every hour of every day and it was better for it.

An unlikely candidate to score a 45-yard lobbed goal. But anything Becks can do…

Ooft…bloody ‘ave that! Top corner. Goals, like a Yorkshire smile, are all the better for the waiting.

 

What now?
Given he’s spent the last 16 years studiously avoiding having anything to do with football at all, it seems very unlikely he’ll be making a TV appearance any time soon and will definitely not be getting involved in the game in any way whatsoever. I imagine you’d have a better chance of seeing him on a river bank fishing, in a Wetherby bakery buying bread buns, or at a DIY store in Tadcaster picking up some bathroom tiles. Rumours abound that he’s become a superbike champion under an alias, that he’s living in a caravan in Filey (there are worse places to live in a caravan) or that he’s become a master butcher, doing with his hands what he once used to do with his feet. But no. ‘e’s just at home is our David. That’s all. Jus’ potterin’ ahrand t’ ‘ouse, doin’ this ‘n’ that, like.

It is rare for someone who had had a high-profile playing career to just duck out of the limelight totally, simply because they have little or no interest in the game or its attendant, ego-fuelled, self-appointed gurus and overly serious goons who have long forgotten football is supposed to just be a bit of fun. His choice to get out of the game and to stay out seems easily the most sane. One thing’s almost for certain: he won’t be reading this piece. He’ll have better things to do, probably involving creosote or a nail gun and anyway, he would feel uncomfortable with the praise.

Now retired for almost as long as he played, he remains one of English football’s enigmas, not because he’s especially mysterious or secretive, but just because he has no interest in being anything other than our David from Leeds, a man who once played bloody great football. And fair play t’ lad for that. Aye, crackin’.

John Nicholson

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