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'I know I've made my family proud and that will always do for me'

From a Premier League debut at 19 to his move into full-time coaching, Mark Yeates reflects on his career.

ON THEIR FIRST night at a North London digs, three talented teenagers over from Dublin for trials at Tottenham Hotspur were fearing that they’d flushed away their chances of making it as professional footballers before they’d even laced up their boots.

Upon hearing some commotion coming from the bathroom, Mark Yeates and Stephen Quinn went upstairs to find the aptly-named Willo Flood dragging his feet through pools of water.

“We were these little lads from Cherry Orchard going over to a Premier League club to try and earn ourselves a living, so we were already nervous enough anyway,” laughs Yeates.

“Then the very first thing that happens is we go to the house, Willo goes to the toilet and he ends up flooding the place. This poor lady who owned the house, she had pink carpet and it was destroyed.

“The three of us ended up pegging it up to the attic to hide, thinking we were going to be sent straight back to Ireland on the first flight out of London.”

inpho_00172963 Mark Yeates on Ireland U21 duty in 2006. Source: INPHO/Lorraine O'Sullivan

Fortunately for the trio, the decision-makers at Tottenham saw the funny side of the incident and they each went on from there to carve out decent careers in the game. No more bathrooms or pink carpets were harmed in the process.

Flood was signed by Manchester City, Quinn joined Sheffield United (via St Patrick’s Athletic), and Yeates – despite being labelled as “one of the Irish boys who flooded the house in Enfield” – decided that Spurs was the club for him.

Twenty years since he swapped Tallaght for Tottenham to start his journey in the professional game in England, Yeates recently began a new phase of his football career.

In his role in the academy at League One club Fleetwood Town – Yeates’ first full-time coaching gig – he has a philosophy akin to the one that underpinned his approach as a player.

The importance of football as a source of enjoyment for those who play it, and entertainment for the spectators who pay to watch, has never been lost on him.

“From a lot of people I’ve spoken to, the advice is to bring your personality to what you do. That’s what the feedback was as well when I got the role I’m in now,” he explains.

“There are loads of coaches who can build hard workers who’ll pass it left, pass it right and stay in their position, but for me it’s about putting a structure in place but also letting them off the leash.

“I have my ways and I have non-negotiables with the way I do things; lads have to work hard and take on board the information that’s being put to them. On the flipside, you don’t want to take away any natural ability or creativity from young lads, because they’re the difference-makers. 

“When they get in the right areas, I want them to go and excite me. I want my team to represent me and the way I like to see the game being played. I like young lads to play with the freedom to express themselves. You get a lot of joy from seeing that.” 

Although he’s still lending his talents as a player to non-league outfit Bamber Bridge, Yeates’ career as a professional is now behind him. Like many of his peers, he used the shutdown enforced by Covid-19 as an opportunity to take stock.

“I suppose we all had plenty of time during that period to reflect on our lives – and yeah, it [his career] has been brilliant, especially because playing football is all I’ve ever wanted to do with my life,” he says.

“When [Fleetwood Town] put out the announcement about me taking the coaching role and they put the facts about my career down on paper, you tend to look at it and realise that you did okay. 

“You’ll always have people who’ll say you were destined for certain things, but there’s a reason for everything. I might not always have done things the right way, and in other moments it might have been about a bit of luck that wasn’t there, but I have no regrets.”

As a skilful dribbler who was regularly a source of assists and goals in the youth set-up, Yeates quickly demonstrated to the coaching staff at Tottenham that he possessed the raw materials required to graduate to the next level.

Heading into his second season as a trainee, there was a proud family back home in Dublin – not least his father, who had nurtured his love of football from as far back as he can remember.

A well-known footballer on the domestic scene, Stephen Yeates enjoyed a League of Ireland career that took in spells at clubs like Shelbourne, Athlone Town and Kilkenny City.

In late September 2002, 17-year-old Mark was on the team bus travelling to a Tottenham youth team game in Coventry when an unexpected call came through from home.

At the other end of the line, his mother explained that his father had suffered a serious head injury in a tragic accident. Things weren’t looking good. 

After taking the next available flight, Yeates returned home to see his dad laid to rest at Bohernabreena Cemetery. Last week, he marked the 19th anniversary of a man he described in the aftermath of his death as “my idol… my best friend in life”. 

“I still think about him every day,” he says now. “I’m going on 37 now and he would have been the same age. It’s crazy to think that someone so young could pass away so suddenly, especially when he was so fit and he was still playing his own bit of footy.”

As he began to grieve, London initially lost its appeal for Yeates. However, recognising that he had an opportunity to pursue the kind of career that was once his father’s dream too, he gradually accepted that only one of his options made sense.

“It kills you at the time, living away from your family in a room in a digs in London. It was really tough, but you’d ask yourself what else you could do if you didn’t keep going – go home to your estate in Tallaght, drink cans every weekend and get roped into whatever else? 

“I could have done that, or I could look at the three-year contract that was on the table at Tottenham and get my head down to go after that. It was hard, but a bit of willpower and the desire to be a footballer – which I had since I started kicking a ball – got me through it.

“My ma back home did an unbelievable job raising three kids: my brother and two sisters. She worked her socks off, doing probably two or three jobs at times, so while it might have been hard for me, it was even harder for her.”

soccer-nationwide-league-division-two-notts-county-v-brighton-hove-albion On loan at Brighton in 2003. Source: EMPICS Sport

Progress was the product of his perseverance, as Yeates was given his first taste of competitive senior football within a year. While it was “an eye-opener into the men’s game”, he describes his loan spell at Brighton & Hove Albion as “brilliant” for his development.

That short-term move came during the early stages of 2003-04, a season that ended with Yeates making a significant impact in his Premier League debut for Tottenham.

For a visit to Molineux to take on Wolverhampton Wanderers, he was named in David Pleat’s starting line-up alongside Ledley King, Jamie Redknapp, Christian Ziege, Jermain Defoe and Robbie Keane.

There was considerable Irish interest in the fixture – not due to the involvement of a novice 19-year-old winger from Dublin, but because it was the 902nd and final game in the decorated career of the great Denis Irwin, who went close to giving Wolves an early lead with a free-kick that struck the post.

On a milestone day of his own, Yeates helped give the visitors the lead against the run of play. In the 34th minute he laid on a cross for Keane, teeing up his fellow Tallaght native to score against his former club. Defoe then sealed the 2-0 win with a goal early in the second half.

“I was celebrating more than anyone,” Yeates says of his assist, “but Keano was kind of nudging me as if to say: this is my old club here so I’m not going to be going mad or anything. You take it all in your stride at the time, but yeah, that was a very special day.”

After Premier League experience had been added to his CV, he occasionally sported “some dodgy clobber” during trips back to Dublin. Nevertheless, if airs and graces ever threatened to emerge, they wouldn’t have lasted long in the company of his friends from home when they assembled at The Cuckoo’s Nest on Greenhills Road.

“I had a good group of mates who had no bother pulling me up if it was needed. I see some of the old pictures now and I cringe. Lads out in Dublin would be looking at me and saying to themselves: is this fella on a wind-up?

“I used to try and tell myself that I was ahead of my time with stuff like that. Some of my get-ups were suspect, to say the least, so I needed a thick skin. You live and learn!”

Yeates’ next appearance for Tottenham came against a star-studded Chelsea side who were en route to winning their first Premier League title under Jose Mourinho.

He played twice more for Martin Jol and, had he been prepared to sit and wait, further opportunities may have arisen. However, instead of lying idle, he preferred to go back down the loan route in search of more regular game-time.

After a short spell with Swindon Town, he joined Colchester United and played a key role in a landmark season for the club as they achieved promotion to the Championship for the first time in their history. He then had a stint with Hull City, before moving to Leicester City, where he scored after just six minutes of his debut.

PA-1947904 Celebrating after setting up Robbie Keane to score against Wolves. Source: Nick Potts/PA Archive/PA Images

A return to Colchester following his permanent departure from White Hart Lane in 2007 saw Yeates link up with former Tottenham colleague and Champions League winner Teddy Sheringham. From there, he was signed by the man who guided England to the Euro 2020 final.

After being recruited by Gareth Southgate as a replacement for Aston Villa-bound Stewart Downing, he was enjoying life at Middlesbrough until the current England manager was sacked and succeeded by Gordon Strachan.

By signing Yeates, men like Southgate – as well as Kevin Blackwell (Sheffield United) and Sean Dyche (Watford) later on – knew that although he was unlikely to clock 12 kilometres per game while tracking the runs of marauding full-backs or midfielders, the pay-off was his ability to conjure up a moment of brilliance in the form of a decisive goal or assist.

Not every manager was prepared to make such an allowance, however, and Strachan was in that category. The pair “didn’t see eye to eye” and Yeates left for Sheffield United after playing just eight times under the ex-Celtic boss.

An 18-month stay at Bramall Lane ended in the summer of 2011, when Dyche – declaring himself “thrilled to have an effervescent wide player coming into the fold” – paid an undisclosed fee to bring him to Watford.

By now, Yeates was hopeful that his displays over a sustained period at Championship level would be worthy of a senior international cap from Giovanni Trapattoni, but it was a coveted honour that never came his way.

Having played for Ireland to U21 level, he later featured in a team that also included Glenn Whelan, Wes Hoolahan and Jonathan Walters in a B international against Scotland.

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With a ball at his feet, Yeates was one of the most technically accomplished Irish players of his generation, cut from the same cloth as the likes of Hoolahan and Andy Reid.

That such a claim isn’t backed up by international achievements can perhaps be partly explained by his own admission that he didn’t marry his talent with a devotion to other aspects of the game that were beginning to play a more prominent role in the life of a professional footballer.

If fitness coaches scheduled a gym session, Yeates felt his time would be better spent by staying on the training pitch to perfect his free-kicks. A predilection for crisps, fizzy drinks and nights-out didn’t aid his cause either.

At this stage he doesn’t see the value in regrets, insisting that it would be unnecessarily destructive to take such a perspective on a career with which he was more than content.

Instead of wishing that things had happened differently for him, Yeates intends to ensure that the young players now under his stewardship at Fleetwood Town can make the right choices based on the advice that stems from his own experiences.

soccer-coca-cola-football-league-championship-middlesbrough-v-sheffield-united-riverside-stadium Yeates tangling with his old pal Stephen Quinn while playing for Middlesbrough against Sheffield United. Source: PA

“I’m sure there are certain things that would have benefited me physically, but the reality was that I didn’t live like a saint,” he says. “Everyone who knows me would know that that’s just not my personality. I’ve always been a fella who likes a bit of craic; just a normal Irish lad from an estate who happened to love playing football. 

“I maybe played it in a different way to a lot of lads, in that I was an off-the-cuff footballer and I liked to express myself. I wouldn’t be put off trying something just in case it didn’t come off. Even if someone wanted to get on my case I’d just go and try it again.

“I believe that my personality actually helped me as a footballer in the end, because you do get gaffers who want someone to come into their squad and bring a bit of a spark or whatever you want to call it. That got me over the line with certain people.

“The way I played the game represented me as a person. I’m glad that was the case, although sometimes that happened in the wrong way because I could be a bit of a moaner as well and I liked throwing my arms in the air if things weren’t going well. 

“I suppose it’s just all part of what makes someone an individual. If every player was the same then football would be a very boring game, and I’ve always gravitated towards those players who have the ability to do something that will excite you.

“From an Irish point of view, we had quite a few really good footballers like that who didn’t get the amount of recognition they deserved. Weso [Hoolahan] is the obvious one, because it was a long time before he got his caps. There are plenty of lads who’ll run around all day and pass the ball left and right, but the game needs all different types of players.

“I do think there was probably a time where I deserved a chance [with Ireland]. There was a period of four or five years when I was doing well for decent clubs in the Championship and putting in performances that I thought would have been good enough to get me in the door, but that’s the way it is.

“People pick teams and have their own opinions on the game and how it should be played. That’s football – and I’m sure I’ll find myself on the other side of those situations as a coach.”

For Yeates, the disappointment of missing out on representing his country at the highest level is supplanted by his club experiences, so many of which would have been cherished by his late father.

At Watford he played under Gianfranco Zola, who had been a favourite of his Chelsea-supporting dad. In January 2015, while playing for Bradford City, he scored in an astonishing 4-2 upset as the League One side went to Stamford Bridge and eliminated Mourinho’s Premier League champions-in-waiting from the FA Cup.

“Losing your da is not something you can put to the back of your mind, because it’s always at the forefront,” says Yeates, “but you just have to find a way to see a positive and use it to drive you on. It’s just unfortunate that he never got to be in a stadium to see me play, but I’m sure he was looking down.”

Family life and ascending the coaching ladder are his priorities nowadays, but an enduring love of football has sustained a playing career that’s still active with Bamber Bridge, a club aiming for promotion to the National League North.

soccer-fa-cup-fourth-round-chelsea-v-bradford-city-stamford-bridge Beating Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech as Gary Cahill and Cesc Fabregas look on. Source: PA

“It’s right on my doorstep and it allows me to keep ticking away, because I still just enjoy getting out and playing. I’ve got legs around me so I can still keep producing the odd little bit here and there when I get on the ball.”

Even a night spent in the A&E department of a Blackpool hospital following a robust challenge from an opponent during one of his earliest appearances for the club wasn’t enough to convince him to call it a day.

“This lad nearly cut me in half and I actually thought I had broken my hip, but it turned out to be only severe bone bruising. I was like: do I need to be doing this at this stage of my life?

“But I’m doing it simply because I still enjoy it. I do have a lot going on at the moment and it is taking up a fair bit of time, but because it’s football it just doesn’t feel like a chore. As long as I’m out on the grass, I don’t mind being at it for hours.”

Reflecting on a career that spanned over 500 professional games, he adds: “A senior cap with Ireland is probably the big thing that was missing for me, but I can’t complain overall because the whole journey has been unbelievable. I’m blessed to have been involved in the game for this long.

“There’s a good sense of pride when I look back but, probably even more importantly, I know I’ve made my family proud and that will always do for me.”

About the author:

Paul Dollery

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