david batty interview part 5: “from being eight years old, to the end, every game was a big test for me”Back
“I packed in at the right time,” says David, “and maybe I should have retired a bit earlier, because my back was just killing me.”
It was the right time, but not the right way. Batty’s last season at Leeds was the club’s last season in the Premiership, when all the mistakes of the Ridsdale years became heavier than the club could carry. With relegation near, and administration and bankruptcy not far away, Batty was at the centre of things, not on the pitch — where he was effectively ostracised by caretaker manager Eddie Gray — but off it, where he was at the centre of chief executive Trevor Birch’s attempts to rescue the club’s financial situation — and its reputation.
“Looking back it was a relief to finish, because of all the stuff that was going on,” says David. “It wasn’t the same club. When you get older you see things for what they are anyway, and the game had changed from when I started. It’s all about money, and you’re just a piece of meat, and nobody cares about you. And you see that for what it is when you’re mature, when you’re older and you’ve seen everything.”
The crunch point at Leeds came when the players were asked, via Batty as their union representative, to defer 25% of their wages, so the club could put £2.5m towards paying an ever growing band of creditors.
“I still maintain I was right in what I said at the time,” says David. “It was always the same — go to the players, because the players are getting us relegated. From the fans’ point of view that was right — yeah, take a deferral because you’re crap, and you’re getting well paid. The club were always going to do that because it was the easy option, and they couldn’t fail with the fans.
“We had meetings with all the players, and I was saying this to the lads: as it is, we’re going to get relegated, because we’re crap. And these so-called star players, they were all desperate to get away — they were all lining up their moves for the end of the season. So I said to them, why don’t we go to the club and say, sell those players now. Get rid of the players who want to go, pay the debt off, and the ones that will be left will be the players that want to play for the club.
“The players were all up for it, but the club wouldn’t have it. Trevor Birch said they couldn’t do it because in the fans’ eyes it would be accepting relegation. On paper they’d be selling their best players. But we were rubbish anyway! We were bottom of the league. I still maintain we wouldn’t have been much worse as a team. We’d have had players that were going to fight. Not all this about fighting for the shirt; I mean fighting because they want to be in the team, giving everything because they’ve got something to prove.”
The stories in the press told fans only that the players, led by Batty, had refused the deferral; and the fans, looking for unity in the club’s fight for survival, took that as just another betrayal; led, this time, by one of their own.
“I said to Trevor Birch, I know it’s all about PR and the club looking good in front of the fans. But I don’t give a shit what anybody thinks, so you can say what you want to the press. So he did. And it was all turned around so that I was the bad lad.
“I got hammered in the press, and then I played at Newcastle and did my ankle after I’d been out injured with my ankle already. That was my last game for Leeds. I heard rumours that I daren’t turn up and play a game in front of the fans because I was going to get hammered over the deferral, but I just physically couldn’t play.
“When old players in the past used to say their knees were knackered or their ankles, with me it was my back, and it was the right time to pack it in. I never used to be able to train properly, with my joints being worn, which then made my muscles go into spasm, which then meant I couldn’t run, so I was just bent over all the time. The first year after I’d played, I couldn’t really even walk around town. I’d be bent over, I just couldn’t.
“I had the chance to go to America, and looking back it would have been great to go play. It just wasn’t possible. There was no enjoyment to running around in discomfort.”
It wasn’t the way it was supposed to end for Leeds United and David Batty. The Champions League had been so close, with the hometown kid back at the heart of everything, but injuries and acrimony meant David was just glad, in the end, to get away.
“I think back sometimes and think I could have been a better pro,” he says. “I know I was a proud person, and that when I was losing my place in the team I didn’t take it too well. But then I never had in my whole career, because I was so determined. That was true for most players, but I think I worked harder because of my lack of natural ability. I was based on my hard work.
“From being eight years old, to the end, every game was a big test for me, to apply myself and be dedicated. And I took being dropped or being subbed personally, and I’d hate it. I was a team player in how I played, but it was difficult to be a team player when I wasn’t playing. Looking back now, I wish I had taken it like an old pro should have, with a bit of grace I suppose. But then, that isn’t me. And if it was, I wouldn’t have been the same player.”
A cold afternoon at Elland Road at the start of February 1992. Notts County’s Dean Thomas wishes the ball would stop bouncing; he wishes David Batty wasn’t racing down upon him; he wishes there was a team mate within twenty yards of him. Instead there is only Leeds’ Rod Wallace, who watches as Batty beats Thomas in the air, as Batty lands first and races after the ball as it crosses the halfway line. Batty takes a touch, and there is only Charlie Palmer between him and the goal; and fifty yards of pitch. He takes three more touches, left foot, right, right, and now there’s only fourteen yards, and Steve Cherry, the goalkeeper. Batty has run the length of the pitch, and he doesn’t stop here. What he does here is launch the ball into the top corner of the net, and keep running, his right arm aloft, rushing straight to the Kop, the thousands of fans, rushing straight to him. Unforgettable.
“I watched the FA Cup Final, and Kieron Richardson was there, playing for Aston Villa. I thought, bloody hell, how is he still playing? Because I played with him, and I’ve not played for ages.”
Football is always looking for its next superstars, but the landscape actually takes a long time to change. That’s why, when players of his generation are so visible either as pundits, managers, or still playing, Batty’s absence from football’s scenery is so noticeable. And the rumour mill about what he’s doing now is so lively.
“I wasn’t interested in the coaching side. That’s the transformation from playing, isn’t it? But that never interested me.
“I see some people that are managers now, and it’s like, I can’t believe they’re a manager. Knowing everything about them, I just can’t see how they’re a manager now, in charge of fellas.
“Simon Grayson was definitely in that category — just a quiet lad. And it was like that when Speedie became manager of Wales. I’d not been with Speedie for a lot of years, so he had obviously become a man and got his coaching badges, but I still think of him as when I played with him, which was just young lads. So I was like, how is he manager of Wales? But you just grow up, don’t you?”
And some players, when they quit playing, can’t quit football; there’s something else that keeps them there. But not Batty.
“I think to be a manager you’ve got to love the game as a whole. I just used to love playing, and that was it. I just can’t see stress in that way being enjoyable. The build up to a game, and then the release when you’re playing a game, that’s enjoyable. But as a manager, getting frustrated with players? And you know for a fact you’re going to get fired at some point. I wouldn’t like that, either.”
Nothing the game offers post-retirement seems to hold with it any of the things that held Batty to it when he played it. Anything — or almost anything — was worth it when he was a player, because he got to play. Without playing, nothing is worth it.
“Being told what to do and when to do it — that’s the thing that, as I became older, I found harder. Being told when to meet and what to eat. It’s against all that I am anyway, and the older you get, you have enough of it. I just wanted to do what I wanted, when I wanted. And that’s basically what I’ve done since I’ve packed up. I’ve kept myself fit, so that takes up a lot of my time, and then just enjoying my leisure time, which is doing what I want.
“When I got a family my goal was to get to 35, which was when footballers got their pension in those days. And when my contract got me to 35, it was like I’d achieved all I wanted to achieve for my family. I was comfortable money-wise, so I could retire, and I couldn’t physically do it anymore anyway. And I didn’t have any interest in other sides of the game.
“I’m happy. And I’ve not got bored of it. I’ve had no desire to go back to football. I had a chance with bikes to set a team up and be involved, but it came right at the end of my career when I was wanting to have my weekends to myself, and I’m happy just watching.”
Maybe the drop from the public eye is only understandable if you truly understand what it’s like being in the public eye; if you knew what David Batty gave up to play football, you’d know why he doesn’t want to give anything up anymore.
“I had the chance to do Dancing on Ice,” he says. “And I can’t even skate anyway, so that was a non-starter. But as a player I was monitored that closely, and criticised so much in the national press — at the time it was water off a duck’s back, but why do I want to give somebody the chance again now to say, ‘Look at him, look what a knobhead he is’? I’ve had enough of that, of people judging me — people judging me on what I was best at, my job.
“I’m lucky. I admit that, and I realise I’m fortunate to have had a career and be in the position I’m in. As soon as I had kids, I had a responsibility to my family. And I was always a home bird, so I’d go play and then I just loved getting home. That never changed. At the World Cup, as soon as we got in the changing rooms after the shoot out, I was looking forward to getting home and seeing my kids — so football didn’t matter. I could detach. I’d give my all. And then that was me finished with football.”
• Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds issue 26 • photographs by Shang-Ting Peng