Ralph Coates - with Clarets Mad
Feature by Richard Oldroyd
Updated Friday, 17th December 2010
As you may have read on Clarets Mad late last week, Ralph Coates, the former Burnley midfielder, recently suffered a stroke.I met Coates about twelve months ago, just after Burnley had played Spurs at White Hart Lane, to interview him for a book project which ultimately aborted.
Meeting him was a privilege. Of course, he was a great player - a hero of my Dad's, part of a treasured generation of supreme talent. But what particularly fascinated me was his normality. I am from an era in which footballers are commonly worshipped not only by the public, but also by themselves. Yet Coates was an ordinary fella in every single respect. I've never met anyone who has managed to be simultaneously quite so humbly astonished and completely unaffected by the venerated status he holds amongst both Burnley and Spurs supporters.
Two hours in his company flew by, before he insisted on driving me back to the railway station. His recognition of his fortune in earning a living from the game he loved was utterly authentic. So too was his enthusiasm - for football, for Burnley and Spurs, but more importantly for his grandkids and family and life itself. It is that zest for everything which makes this recent news so difficult to swallow evenly.
Appearing below is the piece which I wrote following our meeting. It seems appropriate to publish it now, and with luck it might capture a little of the character I have described above. I hope Ralph makes a full recovery from these tribulations. Not especially because he is a glorious player from Burnley's past - but because he is one of the nicest blokes you could hope to meet.
He lives now in a pleasant bungalow in the comfortable suburban countryside near St Albans. The lounge is decorated with pictures of his family: his son and daughter and his grandchildren. There are Motown CDs and other 60's albums and compilations by the hi-fi. He has set out his scrapbooks and other mementos of his playing career to show me, but they live upstairs, out of the limelight. His manner is so unassuming that you suspect he was once a reluctant hero to thousands of football fans and that, if he was ever overtly ambitious as a player, it was only because he felt obliged to make the best of the talents with which he was blessed.
He is certainly too nice a bloke to ever choose between the two clubs which dominated his career, Burnley and Tottenham. He sidesteps attempts to commit him to one club or the other and is careful to balance his praise of both. Burnley, as he says, gave him his chance and nurtured him, whilst Spurs gave him the chance to win trophies. He would have liked a 2-2 draw when the two clubs met at White Hart Lane in late September - "goals for the supporters to enjoy and the points shared".
He didn't get his wish, as Burnley continued their disappointing start to life on the road in the Premier League by falling to a 5-0 defeat which left Coates feeling cold. Burnley were disappointing and, although the Clarets had long, attractive spells of possession, Tottenham always looked likely to cut through Burnley on the counter-attack. "I don't think the Burnley defence was marking tightly enough - I didn't expect any Spurs player to get the ball without a Burnley player breathing down his neck, but Burnley simply gave Spurs too much time all over the park".
Coates watched the game, as he does all Spurs home matches these days, as part of his work for Spurs' corporate hospitality operation, along with Pat Jennings and Martin Chivers and other teammates from Spurs' team of the early 70s - "the Leg-ends", as he calls them with self-deprecating amusement.
He enjoys his matchday work. "It keeps me in involved with the game", he says, and he obviously takes pleasure in his continuing camaraderie with his former colleagues in the Spurs dressing room. It seems remarkable now to think that these were the individuals whose reputations he found daunting when he swapped east Lancashire for north London in 1971.
Coates freely admits that he took time to adjust at that time. He doesn't believe he did himself justice in that first season and it was only after he scored the winning goal in the 1973 League Cup final, almost two years into his Spurs career, that he believes he found his best form for Spurs.
His story is, in many ways, a cautionary tale for any young player who has the opportunity to move from a club like Burnley to a big city club. In the end, his move to Spurs worked out well and he has no regrets at all: he didn't look back after that Wembley winner and enjoyed 4 more successful seasons at Spurs in which he became a crowd favourite. Yet in that two year period he lost his England place and, for whatever reason, he never regained it.
Coates identifies a number of reasons for his uncertain start at White Hart Lane. His £190,000 transfer fee was a record cash fee at the time, and that brought with it certain pressures: "I didn't think any player was worth that", he comments. Yet he also found life at Spurs alien after being the focal point of Burnley's team for so long.
The team at Burnley had been built around him, built to his strengths, but suddenly at Spurs he was forced to fit in around more established names. "I was the General at Burnley - I played in midfield and I was always 100% involved in the game. When I went to Spurs they put me back on the wing and I wasn't always involved. I found that very frustrating". There was also a different, unfamiliar atmosphere in the dressing room at Spurs. "They were all established players there - nearly all internationals. And they had an air of confidence about them: they would have bets in the dressing room about whether we'd beat the top sides by 2, 3 or 4 goals. At Burnley, we were just happy to beat them at all."
If it took him time to become comfortable with the swagger and expectation in the Spurs dressing room, then it also took him time to come to terms with leaving behind the tight-knit community which surrounded him at Turf Moor. Coates lost both his parents when he was young: his Dad died when he was eleven, and his mother died when he was 19, before she had had the chance to see him play in Burnley's first team. That community helped fill the void. "Burnley was my family", he says simply. "I was very loyal to the people and they were good to me". The move to Spurs came abruptly, and carried him away from that surrogate family.
At the heart of that family was Harry Potts, the manager who oversaw the development of Coates. "He was a father figure - both on and off the pitch." Potts was born in the same north east village as Coates and famously drove Coates home to Hetton-le-Hole the day Coates' mother died, keeping the news a secret until they were practically there. Coates can fondly recount numerous other examples of similar paternal kindliness. It is, he says, hard to overstate the influence the man he still refers to as 'Boss' had on his career.
As a coach, Potts was ahead of his time. He was only 38 when he was appointed manager at Burnley in 1958, which meant he was younger than most managers of that era. "Harry always got involved in 5 aside, which I thought was nice, and he was always involved in coaching as well." Potts was an extrovert, a motivator and an encourager rather than a tactician. He made his players believe in themselves and instilled a work ethic in his teams. With his all-action, wholehearted style and willingness to attack, Coates in many respects epitomised the ethos of Potts' Burnley.
At Spurs, Coates worked with Bill Nicholson, a rather different character. "Bill was quieter and more reserved. He would tend to take a step back and watch whilst Eddie Bailey [his assistant] took training sessions". But he was still a fatherly character to the players and, as with Potts, there was a certain gap between manager and players which, Ralph feels, no longer exists in the same way today.
However, Coates sees parallels between Potts and Owen Coyle. "I sense a similarity between his team and how we played. And he seems more at home motivating and giving himself physically rather than stepping back and being tactical. I would say that's the right way for the manager of a club like Burnley to be".
He remembers being awestruck by the likes of Jimmy McIlroy and Jimmy Adamson when, as an apprentice, he became responsible for cleaning the first team dressing room. "I went in and I was really nervous. All the stars were in the big communal bath after training. Then Adamson came out and threw me a towel and asked me to go and dry his back, so I did. Then he said, 'don't rub it, dab it!', so I did". All the first team players fell about laughing. "I hadn't realised the mickey-taking which goes on in top football teams until then".
At the time, Burnley's strength was underpinned by its extraordinary scouting network in the north east, which, time and again, ferreted the cream of that region's talent across to Turf Moor. Coates remembers once being part of a Burnley reserve team which took 11 native north-easterners to play Newcastle at St James' Park. The connection made it easier for him to overcome home sickness and he was joined in digs by another Mackem, Stan Ternent. "It did at least mean we all spoke the same language", he smiles. If Coates wanted to go home, there was always a first team player from the north east who was willing to give him a lift in their car.
Yet by the time he made his first team debut in 1964, the maximum wage had gone, and Burnley's position of strength had begun to erode. "I think Bob Lord recognised pretty quickly that things would have to change and he would have to start selling players to balance the books", he comments. "John Connelly was the first, then players like Willie Morgan, Andy Lochhead, Dave Thomas and me".
For four or five years, Burnley managed to buck the tide and continued to compete at the top end of division one. Many seasoned Burnley supporters believe the team of 1965-66 bore comparison to the team which brought home the Championship in 1960 and Coates agrees that it was capable of winning the league: "Oh, definitely, if we'd got a bit of luck and things had fallen into place."
"It was a great team to play for. We had me and Willie Morgan on the wings, both different players who complimented each other, with Brian O'Neil driving us on from midfield. And Willie Irvine and Andy Lochhead were a formidable partnership up front. I was pretty good at beating a man and getting a cross in, and you always knew that if you did that then, with those two up front, you had a chance."
In the classic 1972 book The Glory Game, in which Hunter Davies tracked Spurs for the whole of Coates' first season at White Hart Lane, Coates admitted that he had ceased to enjoy playing football and had begun to view it as a job. But he was enjoying his football in 1966 and, without hesitation, he nominates that team as the most pleasurable in which he played. "It was fantastic. I was the youngest member of the team and I was carefree - I just played and the older players protected me".
That team stayed together for another year or so, competing in Europe in 1967 when they reached the quarter finals of the Fairs Cup before losing to Eintracht Frankfurt, but it broke up rapidly thereafter. "It changed so quickly - in the space of about 18 months. Suddenly, I was looking round and I was about the only one left and the oldest member of the team".
Burnley continued to cling on to top flight status, but the dynamic of the club had changed. "Every game became a battle - where before we would beat some teams comfortably, now we were battling hard even against the mediocre sides."
Although Coates' star was in the ascendant on the pitch, the strain of being both the best player and the senior player in the team whilst still in his early 20s was beginning to take its toll off the pitch. "I don't mean it as disrespect to the other players - they were good lads. And although I didn't want to leave Burnley and was quite happy to be a one club man, it probably suited all parties when Spurs finally came in for me because I was ready to escape that responsibility".
The inexorable decline ended with relegation in 1971, and Coates was sold immediately. Some in Burnley would say he never did quite reach the heights that he should have, given the potential he showed at Turf Moor. "I always thought Burnley supporters had more faith in me than I did myself - they wanted me to go on and do well and win lots of caps for England." He isn't sure he was quite good enough to do that, although he doesn't really understand why he never got back into the England reckoning once he established himself at Spurs.
But it is that backing, the pride in him and what he might achieve, that Coates treasures most about his time at Burnley. "The people were wonderful to me. I remember when I was called up to the preliminary squad for the 1970 world cup (he travelled to Mexico, but was eventually left out of the final squad) - I got a guard of honour and the reception from the fans made what was left of my hair stand up on end. It was tremendous."
It is a feature of Burnley as a club that the heroes of the 1960s retain legendary status, and Coates is genuinely grateful for the adulation which he still enjoys amongst Burnley supporters. For all the respect and admiration with which he is regarded amongst Spurs fans, his star still burns brighter in Burnley. He still goes back to the town as often as he can: to visit the club, the teammates with whom he played, and the many other friends in the town with whom he has kept in touch.
Apart from his work on matchdays at Spurs, Ralph Coates is no longer involved in football, but he has retained his love of the game. He only stopped playing Sunday League Football four years ago, at the age of 59. After finishing his playing career at Leyton Orient, he forged a career in the leisure industry and his contented retirement is now divided between tending to his garden and spending time with his family.
In the end, Ralph Coates achieved what he wanted to achieve in football. He scored a winning goal at Wembley, played for England and won silverware. "I played in a great era - how many people would like to swap places with me? I'm such a lucky fella to have done what I've done. And I've got Burnley to thank for starting it all".