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david batty • the city talking: leeds 26

david batty • the city talking: leeds 26

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A few weeks ago we went to David Batty’s house and talked things over for a few hours.

I’ve written the interview up and the results will be in The City Talking: Leeds issue 26, available in the Yorkshire Evening Post on Friday. It took ten pages, because this is David Batty, and there’s a lot to say.

There was a lot to take in, too. It’s all very well trying to play it cool, but there’s no getting away from the fact that I’m not as much changed as I like to think I am from the boy who used to cut photos of David Batty and his team mates out of magazines and stick them in scrapbooks; there’s no way to forget that I still watch the holy trinity of season review videos — Race For The Title, 1989/90; 1990/91; The Champions: 1991/92 — with the same wonder and thrill I did when I was a kid. My previous context for David Batty was a bedroom wall filled with posters, and now here I was in his house, having a beer.

At one point, as David opened cupboards and drawers to take us through the memorabilia of a career he characteristically downplays, but which puts him comfortably in the first ranks of Leeds United and Premier League footballers, he produced the Barclays Young Eagle of the Month Award for October 1990. It’s an odd thing to remember, and the metal owl isn’t fastened as securely to its wooden plinth as you might expect from a modern equivalent, but if you too wore out the VHS tape of 90/91 season, you’ll remember Martin Tyler announcing the award just after film of a defeat to QPR, before a win against Nottingham Forest. And here it was, retrieved from a cupboard and placed in my hands.

Arguably these things mean more to fans than to players. We see things differently. I had to talk David through the own goal by Brian Gayle that virtually sealed the league title for Leeds United, as if he hadn’t been on the pitch when it happened, as if I hadn’t only been listening to it happen, a dumbfounded boy, on the radio; but then David won’t have spent hours since rewinding it, freeze-framing it, poring over photos of it, cutting them from newspapers and magazines and sticking them in scrapbooks and on walls. “It feels like a long time ago,” he said, but not for those of us who, every now and then, still look it up on YouTube.

But, then again, David really has kept his memorabilia as well as his memories, which given his reputation is a surprise. After his autobiography in 2001, and after the acrimony of his final months as a player leading up to Leeds’ relegation in 2004, the impression grew that David Batty didn’t like football; that he had never liked football. That all this stuff — old awards, old shirts — were just the things that came with the job.

That football was a job to David Batty is true, but there are two elements to football: there is playing, and there is the rest of it. The job was the rest of it. And what David Batty loved was playing. He practically purrs to recall the pitch at Goodison Park, that first game back in the top flight; its lush crown like a bowling green. He recalls Saturday afternoons on the pitch at Elland Road in autumn, when the game would kick off in sunshine, and end under the floodlights. He won’t listen when you try to convince him that, as a player, he was among the best of his generation — he doesn’t even like to put himself alongside McAllister, Speed, Strachan or Dacourt; but he’ll become animated when remembering how he’d pounce on any striker as soon as they had the ball, nicking it away from them and saving the central defenders a job. “I used to love when a midfielder would go beyond me, but then he’d try to pass…”

What became difficult for fans to reconcile about David Batty was that, as a Leeds lad playing for Leeds United, schooled by Billy Bremner on his journey from the Lowfields to the pitch, the fans thought that he must think like a fan; that he was just one of us. He wasn’t. We had a lot in common, and we shared a lot of the same experiences, but David Batty was the single-minded, hard-working and dedicated athlete who gave everything he had to play football, and all we could ever do was watch him. To find out that, when he finished playing football either for the day or for good, he switched off from a game and a club that obsessed us, was disappointing to a lot of people who like to imagine players like Alan Smith or Jonny Howson, relaxing at home in their Leeds United pyjamas with a DVD of the 1972 Cup Final.

With David Batty, we were looking for common ground in the wrong place. What we shared was not the love of the game, but love for the escapism that football provides. Football grounds are filled every weekend with people who only get through the grind of Monday-Friday so they can buy a ticket for Saturday, and David Batty was the one player who understood that feeling; who only got through the grind of training Monday-Friday so that he could get on the pitch on Saturday. We all spent Saturday afternoons together escaping from the things we didn’t enjoy doing; whether that’s working in a dreary office or enduring set-piece practice on a cold Fullerton Park.

“You just used to be a young lad,” says David now. “Go training, and then play on a Saturday. And you’d just love it because that was what you always wanted to do.”

It’s no surprise, then, that when David Batty’s body told him he couldn’t play anymore, his escape was total. Some players go into coaching or management; others become pundits. But what’s the point of a player who only loves to play standing on a training pitch or hanging around a football ground, if he’s not there to play?

In a way it’s the best way to be. Think of the managers and pundits we see today, and the shock and mirth that comes when old Panini stickers of their playing days circulate online; they look like different people, and the difference is funny; we’re so used to seeing them in a dugout or on a couch that we forget they ever kicked a ball.

With David Batty it’s the opposite. See a photo of Batty in a Leeds kit, from any point in his career, and that just is what he looks like. The memories are intact, crystal clear, unaffected; and the abiding memories we have now of David Batty are the ones we want to have, of the Leeds United footballer, one of the very best we’ve seen.

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The interview with David Batty will be in The City Talking: Leeds issue 26, a free newspaper distributed around Leeds and given away inside the Yorkshire Evening Post on Friday July 17th • Sign up here to get new articles by Moscowhite by email.


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