Ralph Coates: Industrious midfielder who helped take Tottenham to two European finals
Monday 20 December 2010
Ralph Coates is revered at Turf Moor as one of the finest of all Burnley footballers, and while the sturdy, endlessly industrious little flankman-cum-midfielder's star did not gleam quite so incandescently later with Tottenham Hotspur, he recovered from a shaky start in north London to play a telling part in lifting two major trophies in the 1970s.
The excellent Coates was an England international, too, yet he never quite sustained the early notion that he might be destined for greatness. One or two fanciful pundits even expounded the theory, when he was in his claret-and-blue pomp during the late 1960s, that he might go on to emulate his fellow north-easterner, Bobby Charlton. Yet such a proposition was always preposterous, relating more to a similarity in hair-do – both men sported long, trailing wisps combed carefully over a bald pate – than to actual ability with the ball.
In fact, one was that very rare bird, a bona fide footballing genius; the other was a journeyman, ever steadfast, occasionally scintillating but essentially worthy, and none the worse for that. At his best the pacy, indefatigably energetic Coates was a thrilling performer, all explosive bursts of acceleration and flowing body-swerves which left defenders leaden-footed in his wake. But at his worst he could appear anxious, even clumsy, a frustrating enigma. On such occasions his shot, which could be a fearsome weapon even though he was never a prolific goalscorer, invariably fizzed wildly wide, like a bullet from the handgun of a blindfolded cowboy. Perversely, too, sometimes his crossing was more accurate when he was under heavy challenge than when he had time and space to spare.
But always there was honest effort, a saving grace in times of tribulation, and the fans sensed the good heart of an appealingly self-deprecating individual who was as faithful a team player as it's possible to be.
Coates had been serving an apprenticeship as a fitter when he arrived at Burnley as a dashing 15-year-old centre-forward from his local amateur side, Eppleton Colliery Welfare, in 1961, the latest of a stream of north-eastern recruits to the club. He turned professional two years later and made his senior debut as a stand-in for the rugged Andy Lochhead alongside twin spearhead Willie Irvine in December 1964, when the Clarets were ensconced comfortably midway in the top division.
In the following season, having been shifted to the left wing, he earned a regular berth as Harry Potts' enterprising team finished third in the title race behind Liverpool and Leeds. The dynamic Coates offered a vivid contrast to the trickier, more flamboyant Willie Morgan on the opposite flank, the pair complementing one another ideally as they fashioned countless scoring opportunties for Irvine and Lochhead.
As a person Coates remainedbecomingly modest despite his rapid ascent, although on New Year's Day 1966 there was an out-of-characterincident during a Lancashire derby with Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park. With the visitors in control near the end, the Burnley man sat on the ball during open play, a provocative move which infuriated rival players and supporters alike. Later he explained that he had been attempting to take the heat out of a stormy contest with a touch of humour but, not surprisingly, it had the opposite effect.
Still, his career continued to gather impetus, especially after he switched roles to become a creative inside-forward, but that did not prevent Burnley from declining, imperceptibly at first, towards lower-table mediocrity. There was some consolation in reaching the quarter-finals of the European Fairs Cup in 1966-67 and the last four of the League Cup in 1968-69, though the latter achievement was marred by the fact of elimination by Third Division opponents, the eventual winners Swindon Town.
Come 1970 Coates hit new heights, collecting the first of his four full England caps in a 3-1 victory over Northern Ireland at Wembley in April, shortly before his 24th birthday. But during the subsequent campaign the fortunes of Burnley, with new manager Jimmy Adamson at the helm, headed at speed in the opposite direction and they were demoted. Now a transfer for the versatile and often inspirational Coates seemed inevitable and so it proved as he was sold to Tottenham Hotspur for £190,000, then a British record for a cash deal, in May 1971.
That was the month in which he played his last game for his country, a consequence of a succession of disappointing displays during his early tenure at White Hart Lane. On arrival he was 25 and seemingly on the threshold of a golden prime, but most of his performances in 1971-72 appeared hesitant and error-strewn.
It did not help that the Tottenham manager Bill Nicholson returned him to a wing position, where he felt peripheral and where his obvious pace and strength were not always matched by the necessary finesse. Also, on joining a side which included the stellar likes of Martin Chivers, Alan Gilzean and Martin Peters, he had to adjust to no longer being the focal point of the attack, as he had become at Turf Moor. But Coates was no quitter and after a brief rest from the limelight he bounced back as a midfield workhorse, relishing the added responsibility for chasing back to help his defence, impressing with his application, delighting with the occasional shaft of brilliance.
He featured in both legs of the Uefa Cup final victory over Wolverhampton Wanderers in 1971-72 and emerged as the hero of the 1973 League Cup final, scoring the only goal against Norwich City. That was after joining the action as a substitute for John Pratt, his absence from the starting line-up partly due to a nagging injury and partly to his still-fluctuating form.
Happily, by 1973-74 he had settled, appearing less tense, and he scored four times during Spurs' progress to another Uefa Cup final, which was lost to the Dutch club Feyenoord. For three seasons after that, under successive new managers Terry Neill and Keith Burkinshaw, he played more games than he missed, often courageously masking the pain of nagging injuries which decreased his effectiveness.
In 1976-77 Coates was part of the lacklustre team that finished bottom of the old First Division, then featured only fleetingly in the second tier before being loaned to the Sydney-based St George's for six months, eventually being freed to join Orient as a 32-year-old in October 1978. At Brisbane Road, in the Second Division, he flourished anew, helping the Londoners to mid-table respectability over two campaigns, including 1979-80, which he began with a smart brace of goals against former employers Burnley and in which he netted nine times, the best seasonal return of his long career.
Coates made his final senior appearances at the outset of 1980-81 before suffering injury, then withdrawing to bolster and coach Orient's reserves. After retiring from the professional game in 1982, he continued to coach for a time before managing a leisure centre in Hertfordshire while continuing to play Sunday league football until he was 59.
More recently he worked in corporate hospitality for Spurs, whose current manager Harry Redknapp, on hearing of Coates' death, summed up the essence of the genial north-easterner to perfection. "Ralph," he said, "was just a great guy, one of life's nice fellas."
Ralph Coates, footballer: born Hetton-le-Hole, County Durham 26 April 1946; played for Burnley 1961-71, Tottenham Hotspur 1971-78, St George's of Sydney 1978, Orient 1978-82; capped four times by England 1970-71; married (one daughter, one son); died Luton, Bedfordshire 17 December 2010.
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