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david batty interview part 3: “i think the success we had kept me happy at leeds”

david batty interview part 3: “i think the success we had kept me happy at leeds”

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“I think Wilko must have sensed that the players we had had gone far enough,” says David. “I was the first to go, and I was thinking I needed to go. I struggled all my career with Wilko anyway.”

Wilkinson and Batty didn’t laugh together much longer. The first season after the title was a near-disastrous brush with relegation; the season after that, David Batty was a Blackburn player by Christmas.

“The League Manager’s Association weren’t happy when I wrote about him in my book [in 2001], and Wilko possibly took it personally. But it was just his style of management that I didn’t like. He was so detailed; he was too serious for me.

Keegan and Dalglish, they just told you to go out and play. But obviously Leeds didn’t have the level of player overall for that, so we had to play to a system, and I found it hard to play in.”

Wilkinson indulged Batty to a certain extent; he knew enough about Batty’s lack of concentration in training to leave him out of set-piece practice, to send him away with his own ball — with his name written on it. And he knew enough about Batty’s talent and application in games to make sure he was one of the highest paid players at the club, and one of the first names on his teamsheet. And Batty, for his part, had no argument with the results of Wilkinson’s methods — for as long as the results were wins.

“We did well when I came back under David O’Leary, but we didn’t win anything then, did we?” he says. “We had a different type of player, and it was more enjoyable to play in and probably more enjoyable to watch. But Wilko’s team was more effective, which is what it’s all about. It was a winning formula.

“I think the success we had kept me happy at Leeds. If you’re winning, you enjoy it. But when you stop winning, it becomes hard work to play in, because you’re not getting the rewards. We got our success and I’d get my enjoyment on a Saturday, but when that ends, it becomes boring, with no rewards for it.”

When we ask about a fabled piece of management from the 1992 title run-in, when Wilkinson got the squad together after a 4-0 defeat at Manchester City and told them what the side would be for the remaining games to collect the points to win the league, we see clearly how that approach must have frustrated David.

“Well, I can’t remember any of that,” he says. “If it was a meeting, I probably switched off. But everyone knew what the strongest eleven was anyway, so did we need to be told? Like me, I probably knew I’d be playing; the rest of the midfield, we’d be playing, wouldn’t we? We knew what the goal was. This was what I didn’t like about meetings. I knew what my job was. Get the better of my opponent, and if I did that the team was probably going to win the game, because midfield is such a crucial area. So everything outside of me doing that was secondary.”

David Batty by Shang-Ting Peng

David Batty by Shang-Ting Peng

Blackburn was a change at the right time, and brought a Premier League winners’ medal; there were no trophies at Newcastle, but there was something Batty, who often looked like the most disciplined player on the pitch, valued as much as the glory: freedom.

“When I went to Newcastle it was class. It was unbelievable, like fantasy football. I was in midfield with Rob Lee, then Peter Beardsley in front. Left would be David Ginola, then right was Keith Gillespie. We had Faustino Asprilla, Les Ferdinand, Alan Shearer…

“What I loved playing under Keegan and Dalglish was that we could do what we wanted during the week, as long as we produced on the Saturday, because that’s what it was all about. Whatever worked for you, as long as you play well. Just as long as you go out, beat that team, then go on to the next week and do it again.”

••

Germany, a side filled with world champions, a midfield to fear. Lothar Matthäus, Thomas Hassler, Andreas Möller. Within five minutes of his first start for England, at Wembley in 1991, David Batty had Stefan Effenberg on the floor; the referee blew sharply for a free kick, but Batty gave him the same look and the same gesture he gave every ref; a calm lack of expression, making a ball with his hands to show he’d won it. Twelve seconds later the referee blew again, and this time it was Karlheinz Riedle on the floor, and again Batty just walked away. Let Riedle roll around; it didn’t matter.

A little later Batty intercepted a cross in his own penalty area and, pursued by Thomas Doll, made for the corner flag; there, he resisted the easy option to hit the ball upfield, and instead turned steadily back towards his own goalkeeper, fending off Doll’s tackles, and passing the ball to safety. That was Batty’s night; fending off a tackle, passing to a team mate, and receiving, over and over, the appreciative applause of the Wembley crowd.

••

“When you make your debut for England, at the very beginning, it’s the pinnacle of your career,” says David. “It’s one of the boxes ticked, and it’s great because nobody can take it away from you.

“And then it just becomes normal. Yeah, you play in the World Cup, but it’s still just another game in a different country.”

If it hadn’t felt like that, you wonder what might have become of David Batty after he missed the game-settling penalty against Argentina in the World Cup quarter-final shoot-out in 1998. Lesser players might have cracked up; lesser players probably wouldn’t have taken the penalty anyway. But David Batty has never been defined by that moment, any more than he would have been if he’d scored and England had gone through, and carried on and won the World Cup. It wasn’t about that. It was a penalty shoot out, and when you take a penalty, you either score or you don’t.

“That’s the attitude I had,” he says. “If you get too high after playing well then it’s a big drop. Likewise if you get too low. If you’re on an even keel, it’s easier to handle everything.”

It might seem an odd attitude for someone playing a game so skewed towards moments of adrenalin and glory, but playing for England meant a zero-sum game, with a rapid descent for the players at any time from hero to zero. From the moment you’re picked to play, you’re on to a loser.

“The problem with playing for England, and it still exists now, is that you’re so highly criticised at that level that there’s not much to gain from playing. There’s not much appreciation for your efforts. You just know that you’re going to get hammered in the press the first time you get beat, or if you don’t play up to expectations — and you can’t ever match the press’s expectations. You go to the World Cup, and you just know when you lose you’re going to get hammered.”

If it hadn’t been for a missed penalty, it would have been for something else; unless England did the unthinkable and won the World Cup outright, failure was a matter of when, and how, and how much flak would follow. “There’s not much positive to take from that,” says David.

Later, when we look through some of the memorabilia David collected during his career — or rather, that his dad, his harshest critic, biggest fan and tireless archivist collected — we see what playing for England did mean, that the press couldn’t touch. Yes, it meant recognition of your talents, and your efforts; but here among the shirts David collected from opponents is some of what it really meant: the opportunity to share a pitch and compete with some of the best players in the world.

“Thomas Hassler,” says David, pulling a heavy, green Adidas jersey from the cupboard, from all the way back in 1991. “They beat us 1-0 and he ran rings round us. Class.” The shirts pile up around us; Cantona’s for France, Popescu’s for Romania, shirts from games against Italy, Sweden, Brazil; McAllister’s for Scotland, Speed’s for Wales. Shirts from international games and Champions League nights; McAllister again, for Liverpool, and Speed again, for Everton; even old Leeds team mate Mike Whitlow’s from Bolton. All kept.

They all bring memories back, alongside his own shirts; the Leeds home and away worn all through the 1991/92 season, the England shirts from Sweden 92, France 98, from B internationals and U21 games. With England, David didn’t want the hassle. But he never lacked the pride.

“It’s like anything, the longer time goes,” he says. “People used to say you don’t appreciate it while you’re playing, because you just play one game and then you’re straight onto the next, so you never realise the magnitude of the games you’re playing in, or what you’ve achieved. It’s only later, when you’ve packed up, that you look back.”

••

Part OnePart Two • Part Three • Part FourPart Five

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

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