by James Oddy
In this semi regularly feature, I’ll be re-examining the careers of great players who fizzled out, great players who made odd career choices, or great players who have been forgotten about in the modern age.
Growing up, David Batty was my favourite player. It wasn’t Ronaldo, Del Piero, Zidane. It wasn’t even that Leeds era of flair players, the Kewells and the Smiths and the Vidukas. It was the slight, defensive midfielder playing for his hometown club. While Alan Smith was most kid’s favourite, mixing that combative style with goals, Batty`s unflustered, tough tackling skills constantly appealed to me. While Smith seemed so desperately trying to prove his grit and toughness, it just seemed effortless to Batts.
Even when he missed that penalty at the world cup, and the fickle kids in the playground slagged him off, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. To me, the fact he put his hand up to take one, despite knowing full well he couldn’t shoot for toffee, deserved it`s own grudging respect. In retrospect, his quiet disappointment at missing, compared to the latter day histrionics of the likes of John Terry, also is deserving of admiration.
As I got older, I admired him more. He was the missing link, the man who seemed to bridge all of Leeds greatest teams. He was blooded by Bremner in a poor second division team. He was a key component of the last Leeds team to win a title alongside Speed, Strachan, and McAllister. He was then sold, an aberration, replaced by Carlton Palmer as Wilkinson’s grand project began to near its end moving on to winning a title with Blackburn (although he apparently refused a medal, feeling he didn’t deserve it) and nearly attaining another with Newcastle.
And he returned as Leeds briefly looked as if they belonged alongside the AC Milans and Barcelonas of the game. He was the wise old head; helping to sustain a young team fuelled by exuberance (and, as it turned out, astronomical wages). Under Terry Venables, as the end of that period drew close, he was dropped and injured. When he finally made it back onto the pitch, the team was hurtling towards relegation, the youth team graduates replaced by French loanees that nobody can remember the name of. He limped off against Newcastle, the injury ending his season which proved to be his last, as the wheels finally fell off that unsustainable team.
To my mind he was prototype Makelele or Nigel De Jong, capable of breaking up play and then playing an accurate, well timed pass to a player more willing to try some fancy tricks. Yet despite all these qualities, and his presence in so many successful sides, he is all but forgotten now. Leeds fans will always retain a certain soft spot for him, but on a wider level, he is rarely, if ever, mentioned. He never appears as a pundit, or pens a ghost written article in the press. He hasn’t had a go at management or coaching. He wrote an autobiography, sure, but oddly for someone in the public eye that has served as his only real statements on his career and what he witnessed. It`s a far cry from David Beckham’s endless tomes, or Robbie Savage appearing on Strictly Come Dancing.
The Last Champions, Dave Simpsons excellent profile of Wilkinson’s title winning team, perhaps sheds a light on what`s happened to him. In a poignant early chapter, Gary Speed mentions how Batty actually didn’t like football at all. He got into it because his dad was a fanatical fan, and as such he played with an abandonment and care free attitude which was way beyond his years, something which Speed was envious of. Once Batty retired, that was that. He no longer held much interest in the sport. It explains his almost reclusive persona now, unseen, unheard, and largely forgotten about. So perhaps, after all, he`s quite glad we don’t really know whatever happened to him.