He is quite certain that it was his family's neighbourly connection with the Potts family in Hetton le Hole that gave him the confidence to come to Burnley for a trial and his mother the peace of mind that enabled her to let him go.
His mother knew Harry’s parents and this allowed her to overcome her reluctance to let the very young Ralph leave the village. A job as an electrician at the local pit seemed a certainty on leaving school until his mother gave the go ahead for him to attend the trial at Burnley. If he failed, they both reasoned, there was a job back home waiting for him.
“I’m sure that if it had been any other club she would have been reluctant for me to go but she would not have stood in my way. The fact that it was Harry Potts at Burnley meant that she knew that I would be in good hands and was the major factor in my leaving Hetton”.
As a young lad Coates had never set foot outside of County Durham and nearby Northumberland. It made Burnley seem half a world away. It was his half brother Bob, as well, who also encouraged him to make the journey to Burnley.
At the Burnley end Ralph’s memories of the very early days centre on his homesickness, and the tears that he shed at Burnley station when Bob left him in Burnley. His earliest clear memory of any meeting with Harry Potts was during a photograph session when all the Geordie lads were featured with Potts and Jimmy Adamson.
Though Coates is sure he never experienced or wanted any favouritism at the club because of the Hetton connection, there was certainly an unspoken bond between Potts and himself. Coates lost his father when he was only twelve and his mother when he was only nineteen. He was very close to his mother, Potts knew this, and Coates is convinced that Potts’ fatherly concern for him was particularly strong because of his early losses.
“Two things I remember well from very early on involving Harry. I played my second game away at Leicester City, scored one and made one. It was I think Gordon Harris whose place I filled because he was injured. I must have played well because afterwards Jimmy Adamson came up to me and said if you play well you keep the place. The next game was at home to Sunderland and I just assumed I would be playing because of what Jimmy had said. The Sunderland supporters from Hetton Working Men’s Club had organised a coach to bring them all down and my mother was coming on the coach as well. That was a big thing for her to do because she was such a bad traveller. Everybody just sort of presumed I would be playing”.
“Anyway Friday comes and in the morning I bump into Jimmy Adamson in one of the corridors and he says ‘the boss wants to see you Ralph, and I’ve just nearly lost my job’”.
“So I see Harry and he tells me I am not playing, Gordon Harris is back in the side. He sees I am disappointed but tells me my chance will come and I am twelfth man for the game”.
“It was pretty clear that Harry had told Jimmy that he had no business telling me I would keep my place but there was no sign of any great row or anything, but it did show that at that point Harry was still firmly in control”.
In the meantime, Coates’ mother made the long journey to Burnley only to see that her son was not playing. As twelfth man in those days, the player was simply a spectator sitting in the dugout and Ralph sat there in his suit, shirt and tie until Potts gave him a chance to do something quite unusual.
“I remember the sun was shining very strongly and was in goalkeeper Adam Blacklaw’s eyes. He needed his cap and it was in the dugout. Now usually you’d expect the trainer to run out with it, maybe George Bray or someone like that, so someone jumped up to take him the cap and Harry said ‘no let Ralph take it’. So up I got and I was smartly dressed in my suit and tie and as I walked round to the goals to give Adam the cap I got a great ovation from the crowd. I’ve always thought Harry did that because he knew my mother was there”.
“Harry knew how close I was to my mother and when she died someone from the family rang him to tell him. They must have asked him to tell me because he came round to my digs the next morning; Mrs. Cooney was the landlady, he knocked on the door and to our great surprise there he was on the doorstep when Mrs. Cooney opened the door. He didn’t actually tell me there and then that she had died but that she was very ill and that if I packed a bag he would take me up to Hetton there and then. When I came down with my bag I could see Mrs Cooney crying so now in hindsight it was clear that he had told her what his intentions were, to take me home, and tell me when we got much nearer to Hetton. She’ll be alright I kept saying on the drive, she’s tough, she’ll be OK. Very near to Durham Harry made to pull in to a lay-by by the roadside. In that instant I knew she had died, some thing told me and I said to Harry ‘don’t stop boss, I know she’s died, there’s no need to pull in’. That was a huge thing he did for me and he himself must have been in a terrible state as we drove towards Hetton, knowing that before we got there he was going to tell me”.
“It might have been 1967 maybe when I remember the next thing he did for me. For some reason there was no game one weekend and all of us were given the weekend off so I decided to drive home for the weekend. By the time I got there I felt dreadful and went straight to bed. I’ve never felt so ill. The next thing I know is that my half sister has called for an ambulance with appendicitis, and I’m being rushed into hospital in Sunderland and they operate just before it’s about to burst. Three days later who should turn up unannounced but Harry Potts with a huge basket of fruit. Now what other manager would do that, drive all the way from Burnley to Sunderland, not an easy drive in those days with poor roads, to see one of his players in hospital? That’s something I’ve never forgotten”.
“What made him a gentleman? His consideration for others, like the way he took me home to Hetton when mam died, or the visit he made to the hospital. He was honest, reliable; you could take any problem to him. He helped me settle in at a time when I was so homesick I just wanted to go back home. He was just so sociable and friendly. There was always a greeting, a comment if you passed him ‘how are you?’ ‘Is everything OK’?
“But there were two sides to him. At Gawthorpe or on a matchday he had such energy and showed such emotion and if I had to choose one word to describe him during a game it would be passionate. In the dugout he’d kick every ball, head every ball, make every tackle. He’d sit there and make the movements instinctively. I’ve sat with him while he’s done it. If you’ve seen a boxer shadow boxing that’s what Harry was like except it was football. He wore his heart on his sleeve, what you saw was what you got”.
“At Gawthorpe he was a motivator rather than a coach or a tactician. He wasn’t a manager who took groups for specific skills training or set routines, he left that to the coaches but he did join in the 5 a sides. He gave you such confidence. Before a game he’d say to me: ‘Ralph, 100% effort. Go out and do the job, you know what you have to do, go out and do it’. Another thing he’d say was: ‘don’t come back in and say if only I’d done this or done that’”.
“After a game, even a game that we had won he was always so wound up. If he wanted to talk to us he’d shut the door and say: ‘right sit down I want to talk to you’, but because he was so passionate and almost fanatical on a matchday he found it hard to talk to us calmly or analytically immediately after a game But that was just Harry because he was so worked up. It was a sort of ‘uncontrolled’ Harry. The senior players would sometimes question him or disagree and he didn’t cope too well with that but that was only because he was just so wound up in the game and that he hadn’t detached himself enough from it and his passion was still running high”.
One particular game I do remember well is the away Naples game when we played under such terrible conditions. Near the final whistle Willie Morgan and I made sure we were both near the tunnel so we could get off as fast as we could and then once off the pitch we ran as fast as we could down the long corridor that went to the dressing room. But what I remember clearly is Harry once he got back and the first thing he said was: “are all the players in” and he began to count us all to make sure we were all back. Adam Blacklaw had a really bad time there. The Naples president came in to apologise to us all and Bob Lord just said in his usual way: “well just get us out of here”.
Ralph Coates saw no signs of the unhappiness at the club that was suspected in the local Press towards the end of the sixties just prior to the management change. What he did wonder though, along with other players, was just who was in charge and players would ask each other just exactly was picking the team. No one seemed to know. But that, Coates says, never affected his own performance. He had a job to do and did it whatever the circumstances without any question.
“But I was surprised when Jimmy took over as manager and Harry was moved to general manager. None of us expected it and I saw no signs of it coming. Once he did become general manager we hardly saw him once Jimmy took over completely. Occasionally you would see him at the ground. I rarely saw Jimmy and Harry together and I heard there was talk of friction between them. But I suppose Jimmy taking over was the natural thing to happen, the modern manager replacing the man from the old era”.
“I owe both of them a lot and learned from both of them though. Was there a Harry Potts Way? There was. It was total commitment, enthusiasm and 100% effort. That was the Harry Potts Way”.
This article was original published on 16th January 2006, the tenth anniversary of Harry Potts' death.