Football: Batty foils the Euro sceptics

Every side needs an enforcer. Simon Turnbull assesses a premier pair of passion players
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They have known in Italy of David Batty and his pedigree for as long as has the present manager of the Yorkshire terrier. It was 10 years ago that Kenny Dalglish first made his acquaintance, as a team-mate in the testimonial match held for John Charles and Bobby Collins at Elland Road. "It was shown live on Italian television," Batty recalled. "It shows you how highly they thought of John Charles." Dalglish thought so highly of the teenager alongside him that night he signed him for Blackburn in 1993 and was grateful to find him in the squad he inherited from Kevin Keegan at Newcastle in January. Whether the Italian cognoscenti were batty about the 18-year-old Batty is difficult to say. But they are likely to get the opportunity to judge the 28-year-old in the Stadio Olimpico on Saturday night.

Batty's typecast image has never done his talents true justice. A biting midfielder he may be, but he is a pedigree passer too. Glenn Hoddle, for one, would never range a common or garden ball winner and harrier alongside Paul Ince in one of his midfields and the indications are that the England coach will play them in tandem in the decisive World Cup qualifying match against Italy. "Whether I'll be taking part I don't know," Batty said as he prepared for the Friday morning shift at Newcastle United's Durham training ground. "I'm just looking forward to going out and being part of it. It's every player's ambition to be involved in games like this. We had 100,000 watching us in Kiev on Wednesday night and I said to Warren Barton when we were coming out of the ground, 'This is what it's all about'. You know, when you're kids playing in the street this is what you strive for."

Batty has good reason to savour his big-time nights for club and country on the international stage. In the 51 weeks he spent out of action from April 1994 to April 1995 he feared his career would be ended by a split bone in the side of his right ankle. It was only the last resort of removing the bone, after six months in plaster, that solved a seemingly incurable problem. Batty has added nine caps to his England collection since then, and won over the sceptics who urged Keegan not to buy him.

Now he is part of a Newcastle team flying the St George flag with some distinction in the Champions' League, having scalped Barcelona at St James' Park and overturned a two-goal deficit to draw in Kiev, and part of an England squad on the threshold of the World Cup finals for the first time since the heady days of Italia '90. Whether Batty and England negotiate the final hurdle to France '98, however, remains to be seen. Only twice before have England beaten the Italians in Italy and the most recent occasion was seven years before Batty was born. It was in May 1961 that Jimmy Greaves struck the winner in a 3-2 triumph in the Stadio Olimpico.

"You know it's going to be a difficult game against Italy," Batty said, "no matter what year you play them or what the circumstances are. Needing a draw to qualify is a lot better position to be in than going there having to win but it would be a little bit dodgy if we went there to play for a point. You go a goal down and your whole game plan has got to change and sometimes you just can't do that. We've got to go there in a positive frame of mind, looking to win. Italy have got good players throughout their side but we've got some of the best players in Europe."

And that was not the case when Batty made his England debut, as a substitute against the Soviet Union at Wembley in 1991. Entering the latter-day Roman amphitheatre of the Stadio Olimpico with a team of Woods, Stevens, Dorigo, Wise, Parker, Wright (Mark), Platt, Thomas, Smith, Wright (Ian) and Barnes would have had the uncomfortable feel of a throwing to the lions exercise about it. "I think our result against Barcelona and Manchester United's against Juventus have shown that we've learned from the foreigners who have come to England," Batty said. "Club level now is more like international football. It isn't such a big step up to play for England."

Precisely how much the English game has learnt will be clear when Batty and the rest of Hoddle's boys negotiate the big step ahead of them in Rome.