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david batty interview part 2: “i used to love games coming into winter”

david batty interview part 2: “i used to love games coming into winter”

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In the summer of 1992, Chris Fairclough’s head stopped a long Liverpool clearance, and as the ball bounced on the lush Wembley turf, David Batty brought it under control with his chest and passed it back to Chris Whyte. Batty moved into space between the three Liverpool forwards, and when he received the ball again from Whyte, he turned and ran with it towards the centre circle. He placed a smooth diagonal pass to the right, to Gary McAllister’s feet; McAllister was tackled and the ball ran loose. Gary Speed couldn’t win the next tackle, but Batty walked calmly onto the loose ball and, with a stroke of his right foot, steered the ball away from five Liverpool defenders and directly into the path of Rod Wallace. Wallace sent the ball into the space in front of him and caught up with it in the penalty area; there he turned, looked, and passed to the penalty spot and Eric Cantona. One more kick from Cantona and Leeds United, the champions of England, led in the Charity Shield, 1-0.

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“It seems a long time ago,” says David. “I can’t remember any games, really.” It’s funny what David Batty doesn’t remember about how Leeds United won the league in 1992. When we mention the decisive game at Bramall Lane, the 3-2 defeat of Sheffield United that all but sealed the title, something stirs in the memory.

“I saw something the other day — I don’t know whether I dreamt it now, but was there an own goal in there, a crazy own goal?”

Only the craziest and most famous and joyful own goal in many Leeds fans’ lifetimes; as Brian Gayle, under pressure from Cantona and Wallace, headed the ball absurdly over his own onrushing goalkeeper: the goal that sent the title to Leeds.

“That’s what it was,” says David. “I have seen that, I didn’t dream it. There was a programme, Football Mavericks, on ITV4 or something the other week. And Cantona was on there, so that’s where I’ve seen that goal.”

It’s a reminder that while fans and players share a common bond and a common passion, they see very different games, and remember very different things.

David does remember a goal by Rod Wallace against Everton that season — “Rod was sharp. Wasn’t that a cracker in the last minute?” — but he remembers that game this way, the way it felt to play:

“I used to love games coming into winter, autumn time, where you play in light and then come out for the second half and it’s getting a bit dark. And then the back end of the game when the floodlights are on, it was class. Brilliant.

“The First Division was a big change. There were all the new grounds to go to. Everything was like… the First Division. Wow.

“The first game, Everton away, when we walked out for the warm up, it was everything you dreamed about. Massive ground, perfect pitch. Massive crown on it. That’s what I always thought of as a proper pitch — where you wouldn’t be able to see the players’ feet on the other side. That’s what Everton was, a bowling green. That’s what everything was, that first season back.”

It’s impossible to imagine it happening now, but Leeds took the First Division as if it was theirs by right. Howard Wilkinson found the perfect mix of trusted workers and raw talents, and drilled them and drilled them until they were unstoppable. First in the Second Division, fourth in the First, then Champions. Easy.

“It’s funny, because I’m not a bighead,” says David. “But when I used to go and play football against some teams with some good, big name players in midfield, my aim would always be to get the better of whoever I was playing against. And there were some games where you’d be playing against them and you’d just — you’d bully them. You’d just have an easy game. And we were playing against some big teams, big players.”

The Leeds team at the start of the nineties made winning look easy, partly because players like Batty, Speed and McAllister were coming into their prime, developing together at the top of the league. But it was built on hard work, to get that team strength.

“In the Championship year they always talk about the midfield. Strachan. Gary Mac. Speedie. Although when you say ‘Speedie — midfield’, I always thought of Speedie as a winger, and I don’t class wingers as midfielders. Strach would be more inside than Speedie, so he was a proper midfielder.

“Then you say Chappy, and he did the end result that you want a striker to do. He used to frustrate the hell out of me because his first touch was poor, but you can’t criticise him — he wasn’t there for that, was he? He produced his goals.

“But then people don’t remember the others. Rod Wallace. Chris Fairclough, when you look at the clubs he played for, he was a real athlete, and a real nice lad as well. So was Chris Whyte. Just basic, decent, ordinary lads.”

Plus, dominating headlines during a dramatic nine-month stay, one extraordinary Frenchman. “Cantona was the luxury player. He didn’t really work hard, and he did what he wanted when he wanted. But because of the little bits of class he’d give, it was worth it. As players, you’ll go and work and give him the ball, because he produces something that wins games, and it’s worth it.

“I don’t really remember what I thought when he left. It doesn’t really affect you as a player because you see players come and go, that’s the nature of the game. Based on what I saw when I played with him, I’m surprised when he’s ranked alongside George Best as one of Manchester United’s all time greats, but I suppose he wasn’t at Leeds long enough to really see his best.”

Right up there, though, was Gordon Strachan.

“The best player in that team,” says David. “Definitely. From him coming to the club, to us winning the title, there’s no way we’d have done it without him. He was an example to everyone, whether you were young or old.

“He must have been about 32 when he came to Leeds. When I got to that age, I never realised I was so old; because when I was at Leeds and he came in, it was like an old man had come. So obviously players must have looked at me like that! But Strach was definitely the driving force in any success Leeds have had, because apart from that and the Revie era, there’s been none, has there?”

Apart from that April afternoon in 1992. What David does remember is sitting on the sofa in Lee Chapman’s house, as ITV broadcast the players’ reaction to winning the league, when Manchester United were beaten 2-0 at Liverpool in the late kick off.

“Oh yeah, at Chappy’s? I’ve never seen it since. Who went there? Me, Gary Mac, was it Speedie? Oh, it was Eric.” We remind David how presenter Elton Welsby spoke to them all via a link from a studio at Anfield; that Chapman was pretending to translate into French for Cantona. “Oh yeah! Haha. I can just hear him.

“They were great times, though. I look back and think everything was easy. It was simple. Just go play. And we’d invariably win, because we were the better team.”

••

Roberto Mancini had seen enough. Twice in a minute he’d watched Batty go through a Sampdoria player, taking body and legs and ankles and getting nowhere near the ball as he bundled them to the floor. And now the Sampdoria captain had had enough. He raced across the pitch, shoved Batty, stuck his finger in Batty’s face, twice, Batty swatting the hand away each time, like it was an irritating butterfly. It was a preseason friendly at Elland Road, and Batty had decided to liven things up a bit. As the crowd chanted his name, Batty made exaggerated gestures to Mancini to calm down.

Soon Mancini had the ball, and was kicked for having it by Batty. His eyes said murder; Batty winked at McAllister. Then the ball rolled out of play, and it was between Batty and Sampdoria’s left back Marco Lanna to claim the throw in. Batty claimed the ball, and for good measure sent Lanna over the advertising hoardings, head first.

Nobody took kindly to that. When the brawl subsided, Batty was placed in purgatory at the side of the pitch by the referee, who was asking Howard Wilkinson to show Sampdoria mercy and substitute his player. Wilko wasn’t going to let any referee dictate his team to him, and gestured to Batty — get back on.

Moments later Lanna sought revenge by running the length of the left wing to slide two-footed into Batty. Batty calmly stepped out of the way and called across to McAllister. “See that?” A grin. Another wink. And the crowd: ‘Marching on Together!’

“It was a friendly, wasn’t it?” says David now. “So you could do what you wanted. And it was an English ref. In the end he just told Wilko — take him off. But I think Wilko enjoyed it as well. It was just funny. Everyone was laughing.”

Everyone, maybe, but maybe not Mancini.

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Part One • Part Two • Part ThreePart FourPart Five

• Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds issue 26 • photographs by Shang-Ting Peng

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