Football: Batty escapes from mean machine to play beautiful game: A Yorkshireman's move from Leeds to Blackburn is bringing a new sense of direction. Joe Lovejoy reports

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The Independent Online
THE tough tyke who put the wind up Manchester United wil be hoping his old team do the same today - but out of selfish rather than matey motives.

Like Tony Adams at Arsenal, David Batty personified Leeds United, and it still seems strange to find him playing for anyone else. Strange, that is, to everyone but the man himself.

Contrary to popular misconception, 'Bites yer legs' Batty and the Leeds mean machine was not a marriage made in heaven, and the divorce which took him to Blackburn Rovers two months ago, for pounds 2.75m, came as a blessed release.

Leaving his hometown club after eight years was not the wrench people imagined, he said. He preferred the 'better football' Blackburn played, and wished he had moved 'years earlier'.

Yes, he wants Leeds to win at Old Trafford, but only because it would do Rovers a favour. Fourteen points adrift in second place, they need all the help going if they are to get anywhere near United in the second half of the season.

Batty expects it to be close this afternoon - more like last Sunday, when the runaway leaders denied Blackburn with a last-minute equaliser than Wednesday, when they rattled in five at Oldham.

'Leeds play more football away from home,' he says. 'At Elland Road their play tends to be rushed. They like to get the ball forward quicker. When they're away, they've got people who can soak up a bit of pressure and in 'Macca' (Gary McAllister) they've got a player who can pick out Rod Wallace and Brian Deane on the break, which is their style of play.'

Third in the table, the 1992 champions are marching on again after last year's tumble and, given the breaks, they are good enough to interrupt United's barnstorming progress.

'They've got to take encouragement from how well we did there,' Batty reasoned. 'You've got to give opponents respect, but teams have gone to Old Trafford and given them a bit too much - been in awe of them. We went there and got hold of the game from the start. We didn't let them play.'

For 'we' read one D Batty. No one did more to win Blackburn the initiative. The power and determination with which he drove through Roy Keane and Mark Hughes to set up Kevin Gallacher's goal was truly inspirational, showing a stunned audience why Graham Taylor was moved to liken him to one of United's old heroes, Nobby Stiles.

Leeds' chances would be greatly enhanced today with this dreadnought competitor winning and using the ball in the assertive fashion which earned him the man of the match award, in preference to his friend and England rival, Paul Ince.

That they had to sell him, to reduce their overdraft to manageable proportions, and that Blackburn could push Kenny Dalglish's spending past pounds 18m in buying him says it all about the prospects of the two clubs.

Leeds give the impression of having to run just to stand still. Rovers, in contrast, will continue dipping into 'Uncle' Jack Walker's bottomless pocket until they get where they want to go, and United know the real threat lies not from the old enemy, across the Pennines, but just up the road.

Batty is certain of it, the feeling that he has joined a team on the verge of something big intensifying by the week. 'When I first went to Blackburn, playing with Leeds in the old Second Division, it was a small club. Now it's getting bigger all the time. You have to gauge your development and success by how you play on the field, and we are getting to be a feared team.

'For the first 20 minutes against United we played really well, and had a lot of possession. Even when we came under pressure in the second half we managed to keep the ball for decent, lengthy spells, which was pleasing.

'People said I did well, which was nice, but I've been helped a lot by Tim Sherwood. He's captain of the side, and we work well together. The thing we've got going is we can trust each other. In the middle of the park you need that trust. We complement each other and work hard for each other. The way the team play enables us to pass the ball more than I'd been used to.

'I don't think we're that far behind United in terms of how well we're playing or our style of play. Of course it would have been nice to have got three points off them to inch that little bit nearer, but it wasn't to be.'

Batty would never admit it, but he knows his new team are chasing a lost cause. This time. Next season he expects a real race, rather than a procession, with Blackburn in real, not notional, contention.

'Money doesn't automatically buy success, but so far I think the 'gaffer' has been fairly shrewd in who he's bought. All the players he's signed seem to have fitted in with the way the team play.

'Obviously Blackburn can compete with anybody when it comes to money. They've proved that by forking out what they have for the players they've already got. That bodes well for the future. So far, they've bought quality players who can play the game the way I think it should be played. On the floor.'

A little dig, perhaps, at his erstwhile employers? Correct. 'It was a bit of a surprise that Leeds were willing to let me go, but when the 'gaffer' called me in and said he'd been told he had to accept the bid, and what did I want to do, I was off.

'Blackburn had played at Elland Road the previous Saturday (3-3), and I saw what a good team they were, what good football they played, and I thought going there would improve my game.

'For whatever reasons Leeds sold me, I was glad to go. I'd got a bit fed up with the way they play, which is very direct, compared to Blackburn, and I thought I could improve as a player by going to play with a better footballing team.

'At Leeds, it was always going to be McAllister or Gary Speed who were the midfield players going forward. I was never actually told to stay back, but it was understood.

'I'm always going to be known as a hard-working midfielder, but I can play, as well as compete. At Leeds my job was getting on the end of knock-downs.

'Since the move I've realised that people used to regard me as just a ball-winner. Basically, that's all I used to do. At Blackburn I've been able to get forward more, get involved and be part of playing football.

'I'm enjoying the game a lot more. Coming here has been a breath of fresh air, really. I wish I'd moved years earlier.'

(Photograph omitted)