When Mick Bates looks back on his limited senior service after 13 years with Leeds United he does so with genuine warmth and affection, as Leon Wobschall discovered.
IT’S somewhat apt that Mick Bates – who provided invaluable cover in the Super Leeds era – successfully ran his own insurance business for many years after hanging up his boots.
Some might label it unfortunate that Bates was around at the same time as a once-in-a-lifetime United line-up who went onto read like a Who’s Who of British football, with the stylish midfielder spending more time on the bench than a High Court judge.
But the man himself never did. Ruing his lot was simply the last thing in the world the Doncaster-born schemer would ever dream of doing after 13 years at Elland Road that he will forever treasure.
Pride and gratitude in stepping out in that legendary side when called upon, alongside players who have remained lifelong friends since they first met in the early sixties, is his only emotion.
Bates, now 64, could have easily commanded a place in any rival side during United’s heyday if he’d elected to leave, but that was never going to be his way.
Bates, who made 125 league appearances for United, signing on the same day as his great friend Eddie Gray, said: “I was a regular for only one year, and I think I played 30-odd games, but I always felt part of it. It wasn’t like being stuck in the reserves and not going to make it – when that’s obvious, you move on.
“I was kept involved in everything and was always in the squad. I’d also grown up with the lads as well and they were personal friends don’t forget.
“I know Southampton offered some money for me at 23 but I’d known the likes of Eddie for eight years. We all knew each other at Leeds and were personal friends – almost family really.
“So it was much more than just thinking ‘I’m not making it here and I’m going’. We were so successful as well.
“I could have moved to Southampton and battled against relegation and, okay, I’d have been playing every week, but I felt I was involved at Leeds and there was no question of me leaving.
“It was just so special. If we’d have, say, lost quite a few times on the trot, maybe the atmosphere would have changed, but it never did and it was such a privilege to be there.
“I was so lucky that at 15, Don Revie had just started management and my career moved along with his. I was at Elland Road as long as Don was – how lucky was that! I was very, very fortunate.
“The lads at Leeds are all my best and oldest friends; Eddie, Pete, Dave, Norman. I lost touch with my school friends, but never did with the Leeds lads from us being ‘babies’ at 15. We’ve been the best of friends since the mid-60s and it’s not just been about football, it’s everything else. And our family and friends are also close.
“Me, Eddie, Pete and Norman still play golf regularly and it’s always England versus Scotland!”
Unfailingly modest about his playing career at United, Bates acknowledges that his destiny was always going to involve slotting in when needs must, with squad anathema to Revie.
Some personal highs did arrive, such as firing a vital goal in the first leg of the old Inter-Cities Fairs Cup final with mighty Juventus in 1971 – Leeds eventually lifting the trophy on away goals.
But it is chiefly bit-part cameos that Bates is remembered for. And he’s happy to be so.
Now retired, he reflects: “I obviously remember the goal against Juventus, but it was honestly all a highlight.
“I remember my debut against Burnley (in September 1966) and I was up against (Gordon) Harris, who played for England at the time. But it was an absolute doddle and I was amazed how easy it was. I then had my home debut against Sunderland and I was marking Jim Baxter.
“He was total class but, by all accounts, was idle and wouldn’t work! But while Harris didn’t move at all, Baxter was all over the place! It was the total opposite to what I was expecting.
“I was flying all over the shop and at half-time, Don said: ‘Are you feeling alright?’ Jim was world class. It was supposed to a doddle and it was an absolute nightmare as he was brilliant.
“But, looking at things, I knew my place. Everyone knows we had a great team and most can still reel it off. I knew Johnny and Billy were better players than me, world class players.
“There’s a difference between a good player who can hold his own and one who could turn games like Billy and Johnny could. I wouldn’t let anyone down, but couldn’t turn a game. I wasn’t capable of doing anything magical like Eddie or Pete.
“I was a very good squad player who wouldn’t let anyone down or be out of my depth. No-one expected me to beat three players and go round the keeper and knock it into the back of the net because I couldn’t. I wasn’t that good, I didn’t kid myself. Five or six of the players we had were magical.
“Back then as a sub, you got on when someone got injured, it wasn’t tactical in those days. If someone was having a bad game, they didn’t come off. But with someone like Eddie, even if he was having a bad game, he had the ability to change things.”
A cartilage tear suffered on an icy Elland Road surface against QPR in the championship-winning season of 1973-74 spelt the beginning of the end in terms of Bates’ time at Leeds, with the schemer damaging that same knee early on in the following campaign and missing the rest of the season.
Bates eventually left for Walsall in June 1976, ahead of nightmare spells at Bradford City and hometown club Doncaster Rovers, then managed by Billy Bremner, before his career wound down at the start of the eighties and the world of insurance beckoned.
Bates said: “I think I played the first six or seven games of 1973-74. But then I remember in one game there was a throw-in for us going towards the old Scratching Shed, just over the halfway line, and someone wrapped their legs around me and I sort of fell and did all my ligaments and that was basically it after that. I knew I’d be out for a long time.
“I eventually left Leeds and went to Walsall and then Bradford.
“I knew I could play, but I remember some of those lads at Bradford, who were making a living out of football, and they were absolutely useless! It was the truth, but you couldn’t say anything. As a player I was getting a little bit older and I had to bite my tongue a little bit.
“I eventually ended up at Doncaster with Billy and we just didn’t hit it off as manager and player at all. I signed a two-year contract, but was out after three months. I didn’t get a penny, but I just wanted to leave.
“I wanted to get out of football and didn’t kick a ball after that for two years. But, thinking back now, I would have loved to have stayed in the game and I think I could have done.
“When I see Eddie and look at what he’s done, I tell him: ‘I know as much about football as you do!’ Well, I think I do anyway! I’ve got the confidence enough to say to him he’ll never teach me a thing or two about tactics or players.
“Looking back, I was out (of football) too quickly, three months into a two-year deal.
“I’ll always remember seeing Ricky Villa’s goal for Spurs in the FA Cup final and that goal stirred something in me and I started playing again.
“I went to Worksop and I really enjoyed my football again. I love football, but it took me a while to rekindle that love, which I did after watching that Villa goal.
“I had a couple of years at Worksop and then at Bentley Vics. At that standard, I was fine. Eventually, I got injured and couldn’t do it anymore, but I enjoyed it.”
On working life after football, he added: “I knew someone who was selling life insurance. I had no qualifications – footballers in general don’t have any skills other than football – and I went into life insurance investment and after 21 years I sold my business. I was 52.
“The great thing was most of the clients were the Leeds lads, who invested their money into pensions. I hated every day of it, but can look back and think: ‘That was real work!’ I was really pleased I actually did it.
“I was probably more proud of what I did after Leeds. I sold life insurance for 21 years and I hated every second of it, but I did it! I had 13 years at Leeds, but it wasn’t a job, it was just wonderful.”