Ralph Coates: honouring one of the best players we never had

Fans at more than one ground gave him a one-minute silence on Tuesday. Now Jeremy Robson, in far-off Canada, pays tribute to a player who came from Durham mining stock and ought really to have played for Sunderland, but instead joined what was then an exodus of talent from the region to follow his trade elsewhere …

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Or at least so it seems. It came as a shock at the start of the Spurs v Newcastle Utd game when there was a tribute to Ralph Coates, the former Burnley, Spurs and Orient winger who had recently departed. I hadn’t heard the sad news of Ralph’s death even though he had passed away on Dec 17, aged 64.

Ralph Coates was a true son of the Durham coalfield. Born in Hetton-le-Hole just after the war. Surprisingly for a player with an abundance of talent he became an apprentice at the pit and was destined to spend his working life as a fitter.

It was only when Ralph’s talent was spotted by the legendary Jack Hixon that he got his chance in professional football with Burnley. Ralph was a good old fashioned winger who would terrorise opposing full backs. He was a player that was hugely admired, particularly by Sunderland fans, many of whom, myself included often hoped that one day he would come home and play for us.

There are a few players that this scenario has applied to, including Mickey Hazard who also featured for Spurs, and of course Mick Harford who was the scourge of Sunderland defenders for the various clubs that he played for. Hazard never came to Roker and unfortunately by the time Big Mick arrived he was well past his prime, as he
acknowledged himself.

Unfortunately Ralph Coates was another who never made the trip back home. He made his debut for Burnley in December 1964, and stayed at Turf Moor until 1971 playing over 200 games, and moved to Spurs only when his beloved Clarets were relegated.

He was capped on only four occasions for England, and narrowly missed out on the final squad for the Mexico World Cup in 1970. If Ralph had been born 20 years later he would probably have won 50 caps or more.

It seems like only yesterday that I was watching Ralph Coates play for Orient at Roker Park at the tail end of his professional career, but in fact it was over 30 years ago.

And it is surprising to me that there was no lasting place in the modern game for a man with his his experience in coaching or management. Ralph made his home in the south and worked in the leisure industry after his retirement from the professional game and a brief spell coaching at Brisbane Road.

We live in an era where terms like legend and hero are frequently bandied about to describe those who are not worthy of such adulation. Ralph Coates is a legend not only at Burnley, but also at Spurs where he earned winners’ medals in the UEFA Cup and League cups of 1972 and 1973 (where he was Man of the Match and scorer of the winning goal) respectively, but I dare say at Orient too.

There was always a special affection for Ralph Coates amongst Sunderland supporters. He was one of us. He was one of ours, and certainly one of the best players, if not the best that we never had.

I’d already have put pen to paper to produce this personal tribute to a player that I admired hugely as a boy, if only I’d known sooner. By strange coincidence our family got a labrador puppy for Christmas, and by strange coincidence (or was it really) he was named Ralph. The kids couldn’t have picked a better name.

My thoughts are with Ralph’s family at this time. Rest in peace, you true son of Durham.

* Ralph Coates: (born Hetton-le-Hole, County Durham, 26 April 1946, died Befordshire, 17 December, 2010).

6 thoughts on “Ralph Coates: honouring one of the best players we never had”

  1. Some of these modern day superstars are unfit to polish the shoes of a man like Ralph Coates, Bill!

    The fact that a man of Ralph’s stature in the game was effectively a glorified doorman is a real tragedy in the modern game. It shows how times and earning potential has changed the game for the worse. When he wasn’t at WHL apparently Ralph as a regular at Turf Moor. Unlike so many of these modern professionals you never heard a bad word about the likes of Ralph Coates. He was a man who understood the privilege of his profession. having started out his working life down the pit shaft. He took care of his talent and was still playing football until 1982 in non-league. I’m sorry to say that men like this are only too rare in the game of today. More is the pity for that.

  2. Well said, Jeremy. As Colin and I know full well, 64 is no age. Ralph had apparently suffered a series of strokes, poor guy.
    According to Wikipedia, he’d spent 20 years with Spurs as a “match-day host.” I’m not sure what that is but it sounds like a bit of a comedown. He deserved better.
    Mind you, it reminds me of Charlie George who I believe is now a tour guide at the Emirates stadium. Hard to imagine some of today’s young “legends” having that kind of thing in their future. What price Wayne Rooney selling programs at Old Trafford?

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