Batty cools Toon

Ian Ridley talks to the player brought in to calm Newcastle's nerves; Race for the title: Run-in kicks off with reunions for two of the game's fiery characters
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David Batty knows all about run-ins. This one, with Newcastle United, will be his third and he has never yet finished the worse off. Manchester United, with whom all the showdowns have been, should be warned.

We are, of course, talking here about his successful championship endgames with Leeds United and Blackburn Rovers rather than those other run-ins often associated with Batty, most notably that smack in the USSR involving Graeme Le Saux. Indeed there are many assumptions made about him that can be challenged; spiky-haired appearances can be deceptive.

Batty, for example, owns up to the observation of his former Leeds room- mate Lee Chapman that he is hyperactive and has a short attention span, but has been one of the coolest and most concentrated minds as Newcastle have hauled themselves back into the title picture with two 1-0 victories of late. Then, to the detractors who see him as little more than a foot-in midfield enforcer, it comes as a surprise to learn that he has never been sent off and that he has only averaged just over three cautions per season.

In addition, Kevin Keegan has not previously been known to pay pounds 3.75m, as he did in February, unless someone could play a bit too. Keegan knew he was getting some midfield steel as balance to the abundance of style, the holding player he had lacked since selling Barry Venison, as well as a player of some precision who fitted into his pass-and-move pattern.

"You are always known as whatever your strength is," Batty said. "Mine is getting round the pitch and tackling and I can see why people thought of me just as a hard-working ball-winner. But I think my passing has been overlooked and surprising as it may seem to people, I like to play passing football."

Batty is thus a mixture of his influences at Leeds, where he returns with Newcastle tomorrow night. He was discovered in Eddie Gray's regime then developed by Billy Bremner. When Howard Wilkinson took over, Batty became the thorn between Gordon Strachan and Gary McAllister, helping to win the title as Manchester United spluttered, if not choked, during the 1991-92 denouement.

"When I was young I was a bit hot-headed but Howard steered me in the right direction, helping me to grow up," Batty said. "I was probably at Leeds too long at nine years and had gone stale towards the end. But it was only at the end that we really came to know each other."

Indeed, Batty used to exasperate the manager in training. "He used to send me away with my own ball," Batty admitted. "We used to practise set- pieces a lot and I am not one for standing around; so he would get rid of me. He understood."

It still came as a surprise when the Yorkshireman swapped white for red rose, bought by Kenny Dalglish at Blackburn in October 1993. He was voted their player of the year, though he missed the last few games of that season's unsuccessful title tussle with an ankle injury that kept him out for a year.

The memory of that time - in plaster for six months, wondering if his career was over at 26 - is the reason why he describes this season as being "all up" despite the apparent downs of his time with Blackburn; the feeble Champions' League campaign, the spat with Le Saux and the subsequent disagreements with Ray Harford that led to his sale.

"Things happened and I was happy to leave," he said, though the Moscow madness was not the cause. "It was embarrassing really. As soon as it was finished Graeme and I were OK with each other. There was no animosity before or after. I've seen it happen plenty of times on a training ground but it was shocking live on TV, I suppose."

Rather, his departure illustrated a rift with Harford, the manager, who once saw him as making Rovers prettier - "I think he was being sarcastic," Batty said - but is believed to have come to view him as a disruption to training and playing style.

Indeed, returning for the last five games when Blackburn almost squandered the title last season, Batty's was seen by some as a damaging influence. His fondness for the short pass, the give-and-go, when Blackburn's had been for midfield players charging on in support of Alan Shearer, did not appear harmonious.

There was a theory - advanced by this correspondent, it must be confessed - that Batty might in turn disturb rather than enhance Newcastle's campaign. Instead, he has fitted neatly into a style that suits his game and which he enjoys. "A lot of people would give up enjoyment for success but I'm different to that," he said.

Not that it should be seen as a concession of the title. His first calculation when he arrived at St James' Park was that if he played in all the remaining matches, he would have enough appearances for the championship medal he did not get last season. The three in the next seven days - Leeds away tomorrow, Nottingham Forest away on Thursday and Tottenham at home next Sunday - will take him to 11.

"It's been very stop-start for us lately. We have these three coming up after being without a game for nearly two weeks," he said.

"The games are fine," Batty added. "When I'm in them, I just get on with the job. It's the hanging about, seeing Manchester United play then trying to catch them. That's the hard part."

Another hard part comes with the return to Leeds, where he expects a similar raucous reception to the two he received with Blackburn earlier this season. "That must mean I'm a threat and that they respect me," is his reasoning.

If it sounds contradictory, it is about par for a man who can inspire admiration with his passing then revulsion with his tackling. As evidence of the conflict, there was his splendid performance for England in a 2-2 draw against Argentina five years ago and the horrible tackle on Ian Bishop last season. "It looked bad, I admit," he said. "But I was only a split-second out and Ian knew I didn't mean it." Batty sees himself as a simple soul but is embarrassed when you tell him you hear he is a crossword expert and has worked his way through the Chronicle of the Twentieth Century. "No. I got bored during the 1950s though and gave up." The tough nut also apparently goes ga-ga with his 15-month-old twins, Jack and George. For all that, you wouldn't want to have a run-in with him.

Top of Premiership

P W D L F A Pts GD

Man Utd 36 23 7 6 65 35 76 +30

Newcastle 35 23 4 8 63 35 73 +29

Remaining fixtures

Manchester United: Today: Nottm Forest (h); 5 May: Middlesbrough (a).

Newcastle: Tomorrow: Leeds Utd (a); Thursday: Nottm Forest (a) 5 May: Tottenham (h).