He was here, he was there, he was every ……………….
Players come, players go, that’s how football works and sometimes we are pleased to see the back of them, other times we are disappointed and then came the morning I learned we had sold Ralph Coates to Tottenham Hotspur.
I was no longer a young kid but a 19-year-old university student who could not quite take in the news that we’d sold our best player no matter how inevitable it was given that we’d just been relegated after a 24 year stay in the First Division.
What was it about him that left me devastated? Why would I be so upset about one player leaving? We had not messed about either. He had played for us in a 1-0 defeat at Wolves on 1st May 1971; four days later he was a Spurs player.
Let us go back a few years, to 1961 to be exact when, with some persuasion, his mum agreed to allow him to leave home and join Burnley as an apprentice. He had been spotted by scout Jack Hixon who Mrs Coates trusted, despite being anything but keen to see her son leave home at such a young age, and then there was the influence of manager Harry Potts who, like the Coates family, hailed from Hetton-le-Hole.
This very unlikely looking footballer, and he himself described himself as a short and rounded centre-forward, was to make a huge impact over the next ten years. He progressed so well, becoming a prolific scorer in the junior teams, that he was immediately offered a professional deal on his 17th birthday in April 1963.
The goalscoring continued in the reserves, but my dad was not over impressed. He was never so keen on the shorter players to be honest, and he did not think the lad had anything like the quality to become a first team player. My dad was a good judge of a footballer and did not often get it wrong but this time he very definitely did.
Even so, we had a wait before we saw him in first team action. That was no surprise; the Andy Lochhead and Willie Irvine partnership was in its infancy but was already proving itself with their goal tally close to twenty goals as Christmas approached in 1964.
On the final Saturday before Christmas, we played Sheffield United at home with Lochhead ruled out because of an injury. In stepped Coates. Alan Woodward gave Sheffield United the lead before Alex Elder equalised from the penalty spot just before half time. Two Irvine goals in the final quarter of an hour gave us a 3-1 win. Coates hadn’t scored but he had played well although we rarely ever so him play in that position again.
When he next played it was as an outside-left at Manchester United and he played a few more games in that position before the end of the season. Now, with that number 11 on his back, my dad was far more impressed, maybe not quite Billy Elliott but he was impressed.
Coates had introduced himself and for the next six years was a first team regular although there would be another switch of position during the 1968/69 season.
That 1965/66 season, his first full season. What a team and what a forward line which read Willie Morgan, Andy Lochhead, Willie Irvine, Gordon Harris, Ralph Coates. It ended the season in third place behind Liverpool and Leeds and we have never been so high since.
I recall a couple of games in particular during that season. There was my first ever visit to Ralph’s homeland to see us beat Sunderland 4-0. He and the irresistible Brian O’Neil were wonderful that afternoon. “I will go down on record as saying that this is already a better team than the McIlroy-Adamson inspired outfit which won the championship in 1960,” wrote Keith McNee in the Burnley Express. Would anyone really dare argue?
Move on to New Year’s Day and the 2-0 triumph against Blackburn at Ewood Park. With us dominating the game, Ralph opted to do a bit of micky taking and sat on the ball. It didn’t impress McNee who thought we should be above that sort of thing, but the Burnley fans simply loved it.
The Burnley fans loved him and that love only grew when he moved off the wing into what would now be called a central midfield role. His all action style and pace, combined with his natural ability had turned him into THE crowd favourite which brought with it the memorable chant from the cricket field end: “He’s here, he’s there, he’s every fucking where, Ralphie Coates, Ralphie Coates.”
I could pick out any number of games but two more will always stand out. In October 1968 we hammered champions elect Leeds 5-1 at home. What a performance that was with Dave Thomas and Ralph standing out on a memorable day.
In 1970, having drawn 2-2 at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea in the FA Cup, Ralph tormented them in the replay. He scored a wonderful goal to give us the lead but Chelsea were, if I’m being kind, a very physical team at the time and they kicked him senseless before taking the game into extra time and beating us.
We Burnley fans could never understand why some of our players didn’t win England call ups. Those of us around at the time will continue to express our disbelief that Brian O’Neil never won an England cap but in 1970 Ralph did just that and was very close to making the World Cup squad.
He made the initial squad and travelled to Mexico. Rave reviews were coming back but when Alf Ramsey reduced the squad to a final 22, Ralph hadn’t made it.
By then, Potts had been replaced as Burnley manager with Jimmy Adamson taking over. That was a blow to Coates who had a very close relationship with Potts and by the end of the following season we were relegated after a magnificent 24 years as a top flight club.
His departure was inevitable; we all knew he’d be sold during that summer but it was so quick. We didn’t have the chance to get our heads round it but that morning when my flat mate, who had absolutely no interest in football but had heard it on the radio, broke the news to me is one I’ll never forget.
He’d signed for Spurs at a hotel by the M6 close to Stoke where they were playing that night. He was no longer our player. His time as a Claret was sadly over.
In the years after his playing career, Ralph spoke fondly of both Burnley and Spurs. He would always ensure both received equal praise from him and so, rightly, there should be mention of his time at White Hart Lane.
I spoke to friend Martin Cloake who is joint-chair of their Supporters Trust. Martin told me: “Ralph Coates was a little before my time spent watching Spurs live, but I remember him clearly as an influential figure in the team I first became aware of. I was a kid in north London who latched on to the local team in the absence of any interest in sport from my family. I found my own way, and Coates stood out.
“He arrived in May 1971, and there was a bit of a fuss even in those pre-hype days as Spurs paid Burnley the then enormous sum of £190,000. When told of the fee, he said: “Don’t be stupid. No player is worth that.”
“He started on the right wing and was part of the team that went on to win the UEFA Cup in 1971/72. But despite helping to secure a European trophy, Coates wasn’t at his best. He admitted his confidence had been knocked after moving from Burnley, where he had led the dressing room, to a team of more established stars.
“He revelled in his midfield role, going on to help Spurs to the 1974 UEFA Cup Final against Feyenoord. But that infamous night was the beginning of the end. Nicholson, who had helped Coates regain his confidence, quit four games into the following season – scarred by the violent scenes in Rotterdam and increasingly disillusioned with the modern game. Coates never really regained his standing and, after 188 games for the club, left to join Orient after a brief spell in Australia.”
Before one final moment for us at Orient, Martin added: “He’s remembered as something of a cult hero at Spurs, due to his appearance as well as his contribution on the pitch. The distinctive comb-over prompted the terrace chant of “Ralph Coates, Ralph Coates, Ralphie Ralphie Coates; He’s got no hair and we don’t care, Ralphie Ralphie Coates”, repurposed years later in praise of Martin Jol.
“Coates is in the Tottenham Hotspur Hall of Fame, and was rated the 45th best player in the club’s history by the writers of The Spurs Opus. He never forgot Burnley was his club, but his respect for Spurs and Bill Nicholson was rooted in watching the great Double-winning team of the 1960s, and he felt he couldn’t turn down a move when the great man made a bid.
“He’s still remembered fondly by fans of both sides – a rare achievement in increasingly tribal times.”
Orient – Martin mentioned them. We played Orient at Brisbane Road on the opening day of the 1979/80, a season that saw us drop into the old third division for the first time, a season that kicked off our club’s worst ever period that lasted some twenty years.
That opening day game ended 2-2 with us twice having to equalise to get that point. Leighton James scored our first and Steve Kindon the second, but who scored both Orient’s goals? It was Ralph. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I’d shed tears when we sold him; I wasn’t going to let him do so again but it was so difficult to be angry with him. I can’t even recall if he played in the return game that season but I do know that I was never to see him play again after that season.
It was some years later that I first spoke to him. I’d had a message passed to him on behalf of someone. He phoned me and I was star struck again, but the conversation was a lengthy one and I came off the phone knowing he was every bit as good a person as he was a footballer.
There was the occasional phone call after that day but the last two occasions I saw him were in 2009 and 2010. The first of those occasions came when he was interviewed on the touchline at Spurs during the half time interval in our League Cup semi-final.
Well done Spurs. They opted to conduct the interview right in front of us, the Burnley fans. “You’ll always be a Claret,” rang out and Ralph looked up with a huge smile on his face. He was working as a match day host for them at the time but we all knew that he had this great affection for us.
He was back at the Turf early in the 2010/11 season. We beat Leicester 3-0 and he was there with Brian O’Neil. These two greats signed a shirt for me that we were to auction. I’m so pleased I saw him that day because just a few months later Ralph suffered a stroke and on 17th December of that year came the sad news that he’d passed away aged just 64. Did I dare suggest I wouldn’t allow him to reduce me to tears again? Oh he did, I cried that day I can tell you. This superb footballer and lovely man had been taken from us far too soon.
Paul Fletcher, a former Burnley team mate, was chief executive at Turf Moor as the sad news arrived. He said: “He kept in close contact with Burnley Football Club over the years and he was here earlier this season. He is still very much one of the sons of Burnley Football Club and someone who came through the revered youth system. I understand he has been working for Tottenham Hotspur for the past 20 years, but we all remember him with great fondness here in Burnley. He was revered here and it is a very sad day for everyone. He will be very sadly missed.”
Martin Dobson, another who played with him at Burnley, added: “I think the greatest compliment I can give Ralph is that he was a great guy. He was immensely popular with the fans and in the dressing room, and he always had a smile on his face. What a player he was, and everybody warmed to him. I was very fortunate, when I arrived, that Ralph had established himself in the side and his presence helped because of the feel-good factor. You just knew the supporters were genuinely happy to see Ralph playing for Burnley and there’s not many players who have that warmth and affection. He was just a smashing guy and it’s a sad, sad loss.”
In our first ever Premier League season we set out to write a book. Sadly it was never finished but it afforded Richard Oldroyd the privilege of visiting Ralph at his home to conduct An interview with Ralph Coates which was published just before Ralph passed away.
A player who was here, there and every fucking where. We loved him – Ralphie Coates, Ralphie Coates.
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