david batty interview part 1: “i just used to turn up and play. and enjoy it”Back
It’s by far the nicest evening of the year so far, and we’re spending it with David Batty in his garden in North Yorkshire. The sun is shining, and his wife Mandy has served up an enormous chocolate cake. The twins George and Jack are relaxing with the family dog, Reggie; and the only intrusions on David’s peace and quiet are the sounds of birds singing in the trees and sheep bleating in the fields around him, and us, asking daft questions about the rumours about what he’s been doing since he retired from football when he left Leeds United in 2004.
Has he been living in a caravan in Filey?
Did he put on a disguise and take a fake name, and become a superbike champion?
Did he open a butcher’s shop?
“No. I actually heard the butcher one. It was on Wikipedia wasn’t it? Said I’d become a master butcher or something like that, in Cumbria? And I think there might have been a fish shop mentioned. But no.”
David Batty played 351 games of football for Leeds United, but on the November afternoon in 1987 when he made his debut, against Swindon at Elland Road, all the attention was on Bobby Davison. He was a £350,000 signing from First Division Derby County and there were big expectations; he delivered with a goal. But by full time it was the tiny blond in midfield, ten years younger than Davison, who was in the headlines.
“It’s Bremner Batty” read one, the reporter quick to note that “the style, aggression and physical presence is remarkably similar” to legendary captain, manager, and David’s mentor, Billy Bremner; and that, “Twice he was spoken to by the referee after leaving his mark on Dave Bamber, Jimmy Quinn and Jon Gittens — all hefty six-footers.”
The tackling that trademarked Batty — and typecast him — was there from the start, as was the ability to sweep all the opposition’s carefully drawn tactics from the chalkboard and replace them with a gameplan of his own, with two deft touches and a well chosen pass.
He attacked, too. Wearing 7, he first caught the eye with bursts from midfield, inside right, into the penalty area, shooting just wide. It was all there, in that first game against Swindon in 1987. You just had to choose to look.
“It seems weird, that,” says David. We’re talking about his two spells at Leeds, and his place at the heart of two of Leeds United’s best ever teams. First, there was the First Division title side, the only team not managed by Don Revie to bring silverware to United, and a team defined by its midfield: Batty, McAllister, Speed and Strachan. Then there was the millennium revival; no trophies, but a close resemblance to glory, and again it was all about the midfield: Batty, Bowyer, Dacourt, Kewell.
“It’s weird,” says David. “I would say midfield was the strongest part of those teams, but it’s weird you including me in that, because I don’t — the others are all good names in the game, aren’t they? They’ve all achieved.”
It’s a good point here to remind ourselves, and David, that he played more than 400 league football matches at the top levels; he won the Second Division, the First Division, the Charity Shield, and the Premier League (although, after missing most of the season, he didn’t accept the medal); he played in the semi- finals of the Champions League, played 42 times for England, played in the European Championship, played in the World Cup.
Batty didn’t just pass the time in all those games, on all those stages. He passed the ball. And he passed the ball better than a lot of players who have been regarded, before and since, as world class. Those of us who watched Batty play — and properly watched him, not just in highlights or clips — watched the rise of Barcelona and Spain this past decade and remembered David Batty, ahead of his time. Dictating possession before possession stats were cool; swarming around attackers the moment they got the ball, the moment of greatest vulnerability, the way every kid at Barça has drilled into them; passing and passing and passing, and keeping the ball, because the ball is everything. If Leeds were Barcelona, Batty would be Xavi or Busquets.
“Well, more Busquets,” says David. “I wouldn’t be Xavi. People used to have a go at me for passing sideways and backwards, but I’ve always believed in that. Why not just keep the ball? While you’ve got the ball, they haven’t, and I prefer to have it. It’s hard work getting it back, especially when you’re playing against better teams. You almost never do.
“I used to love when a midfielder would go beyond me, but then he’d try to pass into the striker, so I’d just get it from the striker. His touch might not be right, or the pass might be difficult to control, and I’d be straight onto him and getting the ball off him. The centre halves used to love me playing in front of them.”
Centre halves loved him, but TV directors didn’t feel the love for a player who loved nothing more than reducing a glitzy highlights reel to charred celluloid. No matter how hard they worked to cut him from the highlights, Batty always worked harder to cut the ball away from the strikers; and what the TV viewers didn’t see, the fans in the stadiums loved, not just for the way he stopped opposition attacks, but for the way he started theirs. The TV didn’t show that, either; they wanted dribbles and volleys, but David Batty wasn’t made for telly. He was a football connoisseur’s footballer, and if he was on your team, you saw his best, and loved him for it.
“I’ve always been appreciated by the teams I’ve played for,” he says. “First of all because they knew I was trying my best. That’s a basic requirement from a fan: that at least you try. I can imagine the frustration at Newcastle this season. I saw the fans with their flag, saying ‘We demand a club that tries,’ and there’s nothing worse; you’re paying your money and you just want to see someone get their finger out and do their best.
“If you can’t play, so what. At least give it your best. And everyone could see that I did that, I think.”
David Batty didn’t start for Leeds at Bournemouth in 1990. It was a game that could — and did — change everything, and manager Howard Wilkinson favoured the experience of Chris Kamara ahead of the youthful exuberance of Batty. As he often was, Wilko was right; Kamara was superbly matched to the tension, and placed the cross on to Lee Chapman’s head that launched United back into Division One. But Batty did get his cameo.
With seconds remaining, he was brought from the subs bench to the touchline, ready to take Carl Shutt’s place. Bobby Davison walked over to Batty and pounded him encouragingly on the back. With a start Batty stopped adjusting his socks and span round to identify and glare out the perpetrator of this assault. Davison, looking chastened, translated the back- smacks into a thumbs up and retreated to a safe distance. Batty turned to face the pitch again, grinning. I can’t be sure, but I think David Batty punctuated the most agonising seconds of football Leeds United had known in years by punking Bobby Davison.
He wasn’t done. On the footage, the camera follows as he trots leisurely on to the pitch; then captures his sudden change of pace; and four seconds after crossing the white line, Batty has mugged Bournemouth’s unsuspecting Paul Shearer, taken the ball off his toe before Shearer even knew he was on the pitch, and is racing with it towards the goal. He’s all on his own, the rest of the Leeds team forming a nervous defensive rank of ten behind him, and Shearer soon catches him and bundles him to the floor; but as fifteen second substitute appearances go, Batty’s here wasn’t a bad one. And you suspect that he, alone out of all the players who had so much depending on them that afternoon, enjoyed the game.
“Things in those days just seemed so much simpler,” says David. “I just used to turn up and play. And enjoy it. There wasn’t anything in the background.
“I don’t know how to explain it. But you just used to be a young lad, go training, and then play on a Saturday. And you’d just love it because that was what you always wanted to do.”
The First Division title in 1992 was the obvious high point of the Wilkinson era, but for a lot of fans there is still something special about the two seasons before that one, when Leeds won Division Two and then finished fourth in Division One; something makes them as vivid and memorable today as the title win itself. In Division Two there was the Vinnie Jones factor; but throughout there was the feeling that comes with forward momentum, of being propelled forward to somewhere, not caring where. And, week after week, Batty was in the thick of it, racing Vinnie to be first into the celebrations, rushing to the stands, fists pumping, jumping over his teammates after another goal, another win.
“I loved that,” says David. “I absolutely loved that. Looking back now, and hearing myself talk about it, I realise that as a boy I loved that. On the way up, to achieve things, you’re desperate to achieve them. But when you do achieve them, you’re just on to the next thing.
“It’s like as a kid you think about playing for England, and think it must be amazing. But then you’re actually there doing it, and you come back, and you’ve got another game on Saturday. You’ve got to produce an equally good level of performance every time, or else you’re going to go down, so you’ve just got to maintain it all the way. Every three days you’ve got to keep doing it. And as a result of that, it becomes a job.”
Batty was raised at Elland Road by Billy Bremner, the inspiration of Leeds’ greatest ever team, and we asked if Billy ever spoke to David about how that team maintained its level of performance over so many seasons, from 1962 to 1975.
“He didn’t,” David says, “But having said that, that team didn’t win what they should have won, did they? So possibly they were able to maintain it because, having finished second so many times, success was still there to go for.
“Definitely on the way up, under Bremner, and in the early days with Wilko, we were still wanting to achieve. Isn’t it funny, that: we were in the Second Division, and we had a few good players in there, and nowadays you’d be talking about how those good players will be sold. That fear in the back of your mind, that the more successful you are, the more likely it is to be disbanded — as a player you just know you’re never going to build anything.
“But that was never mentioned, was it? Selling. It was the Second Division, but that wasn’t the mindset. It was: we’re going to be successful.”
• Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds issue 26 • photographs by Shang-Ting Peng