It is surprisingly uncommon to find a player whose passing will be marked equally between two different clubs, but the death of Ralph Coates at the age of sixty-four will be marked with sadness at all three of the Football League clubs at which he played: Burnley, Tottenham Hotspur and Leyton Orient. Coates joined Burnley in 1961 as an apprentice, turned professional with them and made his debut for them in 1964. He was, at his first club, slightly unfortunate with his age. The early 1960s were a period of great success for Burnley, but Coates’ emergence into the first team at Turf Moor coincided with a slight dip in their fortunes. Even so, Coates was an uncommonly elegant player on the mud-bath pitches of 1960s England and he made four appearances for his country as well as being in the initial squad for the 1970 World Cup finals, although he didn’t make Alf Ramsey’s final cut.
He left the club in 1971 after they Burnley were relegated from the First Division, and Tottenham Hotspur were prepared to pay £190,000 for his services. Coates’ career at Spurs began with a flourish. In 1972, Spurs won the UEFA Cup and the following year Coates was the hero, scoring the winning goal at Wembley against Norwich City. This, however, had been the last hurrah for the great Spurs side of the 1960s and again Coates was unfortunate to be arriving at a club that was at the beginning of a period of decline. They only narrowly avoided relegation on the last day of the 1974/75 season, and two years later they finally did fall through the relegation trapdoor. In his final season at the club, Spurs were promoted straight back into the First Division, but Coates left at the end of the season for Orient.
The notion of signing a thirty-four year old winger might seem an odd one, but Ralph Coates still had something to offer Orient. The club had only narrowly missed out on promotion to the First Division in 1974, but they couldn’t reach those heights again and Coates played in three mid-table finish seasons for the Os before retiring professionally in 1982. Even after this, he continued to play in non-league football for several seasons. In retirement, he managed leisure centres and became a familiar face to a new generation of Tottenham supporters as a match day host at White Hart Lane. Coates had initially found it difficult to settle in London upon his arrival at Spurs in 1971, but that he continued to work for them for such a long time says a lot about the bond that he formed with the supporters as a player.
As a player, Ralph Coates was a player that appealed to those of us with a romantic streak. A scorer of great goals rather than a great scorer of goals, he would occasionally drift in from the wing to thump the ball cleanly past a helpless goalkeeper, but he was ultimately fashioned into a winger from the old school. Blessed with endless stamina and pace that many modern players would die for, it has been suggested that Spurs never really got the absolute most out of him, but this doesn’t mean that the site of him tearing down the wing, comb-over flapping behind him like a First World War flying ace’s scarf, wasn’t a consistently thrilling one and, with the benefit of hindsight, a convincing case could certainly be argued that Coates’ fitness would have been quite an asset in the thin air of the 1970 World Cup finals.
As a man, Coates good humour was well-known and his popularity wherever he went is unquestionable. This interview with the Daily Telegraph’s Martin Smith from 2008 on the subject of his goal for Norwich City in the 1973 League Cup final demonstrates the former in spades, while the tone of the interview demonstrates the latter. Meanwhile, the extent to which the world of the professional footballer has moved on by his reaction to the Spurs manager Bill Nicholson’s £190,000 offer for him: “Don’t be stupid, no player is worth that”. His loss is a loss to the whole of football, and he will be sadly missed. In the meantime, however, we’ll leave you with some vintage Ralph Coates from the tail-end of his career – including a wonderful goal from the man himself – with a match between Orient and Brighton & Hove Albion from the 1978/79 season.
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