Ralph Coates: Industrious midfielder who helped take Tottenham to two European finals

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Technical Author / Multimedia Writer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This recognized leader in providing software s...

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent