david batty interview part 4: “as players we wanted to get there again”Back
Newcastle sprayed the ball around Elland Road, tracing triangles across the Yorkshire turf. Their passes were slick and precise, but there was something missing from their midfield: David Batty. David Batty was now back in Leeds’ midfield, and alongside him was Lee Bowyer, lung- bursting energy and desire that didn’t drop, whether it was to win the ball or to score with it. The passes weren’t taking Newcastle any nearer the goal, but each one allowed Bowyer and Batty nearer to the ball, honing in on it until, finally, a player is vulnerable. A loose touch and he’s lost, turning one way into Batty, then the other into Bowyer, and now there’s nowhere left to run. Batty takes the ball, passes to Bowyer, and Leeds are on the attack.
Bowyer scores the first goal; then it’s Batty’s cross that is headed in by Kewell for 2-0. Alan Shearer scores twice for 2-2, but just when Leeds were struggling to find their flow again, Batty pauses with the ball in space in his own half, looking at the field ahead of him. He passes forward to Bowyer, Bowyer gives the ball to Darren Huckerby, Huckerby pulls the ball across and Michael Bridges scores the winner, low into the corner of the net.
“I was quite happy at Newcastle, but over time the signings just weren’t what they should have been,” says David. “And David O’Leary had said that if I was ever ready to come back to Leeds, to just let him know. When he took the job I was never going to go anywhere else.”
Real Madrid made a late bid to take him to Spain, but Batty took a different, less expected route to the Bernabéu, and to the Champions League, and the biggest stages in Europe.
Unexpected, because like in 1990, Leeds seemed to be operating on pure forward momentum; but in retrospect, that team — Martyn, Woodgate, Ferdinand, Dacourt, Viduka and the rest — like many Leeds teams, should have achieved more.
“Harry Kewell was one of the best players I played with,” says David. “He should have gone on to become one of the world’s best, with the attributes he had.
“Like speed; nobody was quicker than him, and then his strength. I used to say to him, why don’t you just knock it by the full back and out run him? Don’t mess about with stepovers and that. He should have done a lot better.
“Lee Bowyer was like an old school footballer, where all the preparation doesn’t mean anything. He used to live on McDonald’s, and just used to be an engine. He was amazing.
“He’s one player that people don’t think of. I don’t know if he was a great player, but he was a very good player who should be remembered more fondly and appreciated more. Maybe if that team had won something he would be remembered as a great player.
“Lucas Radebe was so down to earth. Just a really nice lad. I don’t think he was on a lot of money when he came to Leeds, but O’Leary sorted him with a good contract because of what he was doing. He deserved it.
“He was very similar to Colin Hendry in that he’d train and play the same way. There’d be no in between. He’d hurt you in training, just come right through you, no matter who you were — everybody would be complaining, but he was such a nice lad it wouldn’t go any further.”
What went wrong, after such euphoric highs, has been the subject of almost constant debate — well, argument — in the decade since, especially as, far from being a launchpad for greatest successes, the O’Leary and Ridsdale era triggered a chain reaction that sent Leeds United to the lowest point in their history.
“It was so close, yet so far, wasn’t it?” says David. “But then if they’d qualified again for the Champions League the following year, would they have just spent even more?
“It seemed one or two buys too many, just for the sake of it, just because they could. Everybody jumped on the bandwagon and enjoyed the ride. The players were getting rewarded, and you’re going to say yes to it, aren’t you? That’s just how it goes — if someone offers you a wage packet you take it.
“I was the union man, and when Gordon Taylor came from the PFA I saw the wages the lads were on, and it was just unbelievable. I couldn’t believe it. They still compare to what players are getting now — massive money.
“We were still a good team after the Champions League. There’s always pressure at big clubs, so it wasn’t pressure, was it? You just go out and enjoy every game, and the expectancy levels; the better the player, the better they should be able to take pressure in their stride. But as soon as you slip out of the top four… we knew we needed to qualify for the Champions League again, because we’d been there. As players we wanted to get there again.
“I just think other teams were better. I don’t think it was a change. Maybe some of them got a bit soft with their money, I don’t know. But it definitely soured things. It would have been great. I would have loved to have come back and won the league.”
Anderlecht had not lost at home in 21 matches, but they had not had to face a team like this one. Leeds had overcome expectations by qualifying from the Champions League’s first group stage, and now they felt no limitations to their own possibilities; whatever the rest of Europe might think. Neither Manchester United, PSV Eindhoven or Lazio had won at the Constant Van Den Stock stadium, but by the time David Batty received the ball in midfield from Alan Smith it was already 2-0 to Leeds. Batty controlled the ball with his left foot and passed with his right back to Olivier Dacourt, who passed it forward again to Mark Viduka, who backheeled it first time across the path of Batty, now facing the goal. He stepped left and stepped left and with his first touch passed the ball, between two defenders, in front of the fast-moving Smith, who touched the ball once more. That was 3-0.
• Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds issue 26 • photographs by Shang-Ting Peng