Football: Toon Army finds a new general

Simon Turnbull on David Batty, whose defensive qualities will be much needed by Newcastle tomorrow
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The Independent Online
David Batty's head has been seen of late buried in a weighty tome described on the dust jacket as "a modern history of hideous crimes". The Newcastle United midfielder has a fascination for real-life horror. Perhaps it is just as well.

Each time he turned on his heels in Budapest on Tuesday night, he could see football's equivalent of a horror show unfolding before his eyes. Had it not been for Batty's calming influence, Newcastle's Uefa Cup challenge would probably have perished with their death-wish defending against Ferencvaros.

It was not simply that he steadied a sinking ship with his combative play in Newcastle's midfield anchor role. Batty's typecast Yorkshire terrier image has never done his talent true justice. He showed his creative pedigree in Budapest by setting up Alan Shearer for his impressive equaliser.

Batty's form must surely be a source of some reassurance for Kevin Keegan, the Newcastle manager, as he ponders the case against a defence that was not so much at sixes and sevens as ones, threes, fives, 12s and 19s in that 3-2 defeat against the Hungarian champions. Indeed, if Shearer's is the first name the Newcastle manager pencils on his team-sheet for tomorrow's visit of Manchester United, the defending champions, to St James' Park, Batty's will be a close second.

Batty, in Keegan's estimation, "has been nothing short of sensational" since his transfer from Blackburn in February. Yet if the Newcastle manager had been swayed by the Toon Army, he would not have allowed the Yorkshireman close enough to St James' Park to put pen to paper.

"I got shoals of mail saying that I shouldn't sign him because he wasn't good enough and we didn't need him," Keegan recalled.

Tomorrow afternoon, you would not find one local heading up the hill to Newcastle's ground who would confess to being anything other than batty about Batty - unless, of course, you came across the Geordie Judases, as they have come to be known, in the Northumberland branch of the Manchester United supporters' club.

Batty made his debut in the corresponding fixture last season and while it was Eric Cantona, a fellow graduate from Leeds' champion class of 1992, who struck the decisive blow that March night, the Newcastle new boy won over the doubters.

In doing so, he won the man of the match award and has had countless more statuettes for company on the after-match drive back to the Wetherby home he shares with his wife, Mandy, and their toddler twins, George and Jack. "He is the best signing Kevin Keegan's made," Barry Venison, one of Batty's predecessors in Newcastle's defensive midfield slot, said on a return visit to Tyneside this week. Certainly, the pounds 3.5m acquisition of Batty must undoubtedly rank as one of the Newcastle manager's smartest deals.

He cost pounds 500,000 less than Warren Barton and less than half the price of Faustino Asprilla. At 27, he is at the peak of his playing powers and, having been picked in Glenn Hoddle's squad for the Moldova game, is back in the England picture again.

Yet in the 51 weeks he spent out of action from April 1994 to April 1995, Batty feared his career would be ended by a split bone in the side of his right ankle that screws failed to mend. It was only the last resort of removing the bone, after six months in plaster, that solved a seemingly incurable problem.

"That was the worst period of my life," Batty said. "I really thought my playing days might be at an end."

Such a close shave perhaps explains why Batty has been playing with renewed relish since he left Blackburn, where his Moscow tiff with Graeme Le Saux and Ray Harford's signing of Lars Bohinen threatened to stifle the promising comeback he made at the end of Rovers' 1994/95 championship-winning campaign.

It was Kenny Dalglish, Keegan's successor in the Liverpool No 7 shirt, who took Batty to Ewood Park in 1993. Dalglish never forgot the 18-year- old who played alongside him in an Elland Road testimonial match for John Charles and Bobby Collins.

But the manager who moulded Batty, and who he cites as the greatest influence on his career, was the man who caused Keegan to lose his shirt, as well as his rag, in the famously uncharitable 1974 Charity Shield match at Wembley. "I knew he was a diamond the first time I saw him play for Leeds City Boys," Billy Bremner said.

Come tomorrow, Keegan will doubtless be grateful for his polished gem as he plots how to get his hands on the crowning jewel in the Old Trafford trophy cabinet.