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david batty: vital signs

david batty: vital signs


•• Artwork by Joe Gamble

I wish there had been Prozone in 1991; or Opta stats, or biometric measuring devices, or something, anything, that could be strapped to David Batty to prove how good he was.

Batts, of course, would probably have ripped anything like that straight off.

I occasionally like to throw a little bomb into the middle of discussions about the tiki-taka revolution that Barcelona put the world through at the start of the decade. Make no mistake – I love that Barcelona team. I have a great fondness for Barcelona anyway; Catalan rather than Spanish, there’s an affinity between them and us in Yorkshire.

Then there’s Johan Cruyff, giving his son an outlawed Catalan name in defiance of Franco and saying of Leeds United that, “If you give Leeds the ball, they will make you dance”; a quote I took for the title of a Leeds United blog I run quietly on the side.

Of course Jordi Cruyff slightly spoiled the anti-establishment message of his name by later signing for the Reds over the Pennines, where he was allowed Jordi on his shirt at the same as the Premier League denied Leeds’ Hasselbaink permission for Jimmy, but anyway. Back to Batts.

The little bomb I like to throw in is that the great Barcelona team of Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Puyol and the rest would have been improved by David Batty. In fact, it was crying out for David Batty.

That might not sound all that controversial to you, but perhaps you were lucky enough to see Batty at his best; and lucky enough to really see him, not just to look at a pitch that he happened to be playing on.

David Batty by Joe Gamble

David Batty by Joe Gamble

To see Batty play you had to really look for him, because he was so ruthlessly effective that he could seem absent. The ball would move from Fairclough to McAllister and you had to really think about its movement to realise that it was Batty who received the ball from one and passed to the other.

It was rhythmic the way a heartbeat is rhythmic; you never notice it or think about it unless you press your hand to your chest and feel it, but if it didn’t happen you would die.

Nobody outside Leeds noticed it because nobody outside Leeds wanted to put their hand on their heart when they saw David Batty. Their experience of Batty was through Match of the Day, where highlights of Leeds games would barely feature him at all; or playing for England, shrugging off the penalty miss that sent England home from the World Cup. Batty shrugged it off because he knew he shouldn’t have been taking it anyway; Batts was no damn good at penalties, but Paul Ince had chickened out. That kind of pragmatism doesn’t play well outside Yorkshire, though.

The other English memory of Batty is as one of Graham Taylor’s desperation right backs in Euro 92. Batty’s presence on the right side of defence is used now as a symbol of all that was wrong with Taylor’s England, but Graham Taylor was not as dumb as he looked, sounded or acted, at least in this one single respect.

Howard Wilkinson had often used Batty at right back, and as a defender, Batty had several great attributes: an uncanny ability to read the game, dogged determination, timing and toughness in the tackle. And he could pass; oh boy could he pass.

Which is exactly why Barcelona needed him. Batty couldn’t have dislodged Dani Alves from their right back spot, which was really right wing anyway; and he wouldn’t be a substitute for Carlos Puyol as a commanding centre half.

But could he defend as well as Gerard Piqué or Javier Mascherano – could he read the game, sniff out an attack, get in a vital tackle? I think he could do all those things better. And could he pass better than them? All day long.

The defence has always been Barcelona’s weak spot, the one place where their philosophy of football lacks clarity; Pep Guardiola would occasionally just throw it all to the wind and not play any recognised defenders anyway, using three defensive midfielders. It seemed at times like that was the dream, the ultimate Barca nirvana – a team without defenders. With Batty, Guardiola would have been one player closer to making that dream true.

You can never prove this, of course, and you can’t refute the counter arguments, because generally you’ll be the only one in the conversation who ever really saw Batty. ‘He wasn’t cultured enough for Barcelona … he was just a clogger, he was dirty … he just passed square all the time.’

None of that was true of David Batty in his prime, a player whose passing could dictate the tempo of a game, whose silent tackles were clean and effective, who could pass left or right, forward or back, short or long, all depending on where the ball needed to go.

But without the modern tracking devices to trace his movements around a computer screen, or analysts to produce graphical reports on the effectiveness of his passing, it can’t be proven, and it’s all lost, even to those who watched him play without paying attention, and even to the man himself. Leeds’ greatest living writer, Mick McCann, once told me about a frustrating conversation in which Mick tried to convince David that he was the best player in the Leeds midfield; better than Strachan, better than McAllister, better than Speed. Batty wouldn’t have it, shrugging it off – “I just give them the ball,” he said. “You do more than that,” Mick told him. “I know you do more, because I’ve seen you.”

Batty knew where the ball should be and who should have it, and he got it there with the minimum of fuss. That’s cultural football. And maybe it can’t be reported on; and maybe it’s destined always to be Leeds’ little secret, and Barcelona’s hard luck.


Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds issue 11.

Look out for 10-page interview with David Batty 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.