Bradford City AFC

“Ultimately, I do still see myself as a footballer.”

That there is any doubt about that for someone keen to carry on, who played in 14 consecutive seasons across England’s top four divisions, and three more since 2017 in the National League, tells a tale of a ruthless industry taken to new levels by an ongoing pandemic. Six of Mark Yeates’ seasons after leaving Tottenham Hotspur have been in the Championship, the last of which had him featuring often for Gianfranco Zola’s Watford side that reached the play-off final.

More recently, the former Colchester United star was a reliable supply line for an Eastleigh team that were only denied a place in the National League play-off final by a penalty shootout with Salford City little over a year-and-a-half ago. A move to AFC Fylde ahead of last season was unquestionably with reaching League Two the objective, bordering on expectation, but it was a campaign far below what the club envisaged.

The Coasters were, nevertheless, in touch with safety and still had nine games left when 2019/20 was halted last March. A points-per-game relegation it ultimately was, and immediate perception is everything in football, as Yeates has since found more than ever.

“I’ve been here in England for 20 years now and I’ve always been a full-time footballer,” the Irish attacking talent says. “My deal finished at Fylde, I found myself like loads and loads of lads, out of contract in the middle of a pandemic.”

“I was training with lads that I’d played with and just sort of waiting by the phone. I had a few conversations with managers in the National League.

“I did have options to go back down south; I had two brilliant years at Eastleigh, but the travelling up and down (from his Lancashire base) was really tough. Things didn’t go the way we all wanted and all expected at Fylde, but it probably was a big shock for myself that clubs in the Conference North weren’t belling my phone, and the ones that were, they wanted me to come in and train, and play the odd game, which I had no problem in doing.

“I actually did that at a club in the North and it was decent, they seemed to want to do something, but there were problems with their squad being full, the money restrictions. I still feel fit, I still feel capable.

“It was only 18 months ago that I finished at Eastleigh and we just missed out on going to Wembley, and I think the two years there, I got the most assists in the league. So, I felt a little bit hard done by that a season at Fylde where, other than a couple of lads, I don’t think anyone really came out with much credit, because ultimately, the club went down.

“Lads who had really good reputations within that league, for some reason just didn’t click. I think that probably didn’t help when clubs were looking at their recruitment for the year after, because I’ve been in the game a long time, and when you’re hot and you’re doing well, everyone wants to grab you, but when it goes the other way, you start to see who fancies you and who doesn’t.”

The Lytham St Annes-based ex-Middlesbrough and Sheffield United winger successfully applied for a job up the coast, coaching Fleetwood Town’s Under-13s and 14s. While 2020/21 has seen him in the unusual position of not training full-time, he has been playing for Bamber Bridge, and his impressions have been extremely positive since signing for the Northern Premier Division side in late-September.

As Brig boss and ex-Everton and Blackpool midfielder Jamie Milligan said on this site last month, though, there is a mutual understanding that the 36-year-old’s capabilities still belong higher.

“I know Jamie, we live in the same area and we often used to bump into each other, and he’d say ‘you’d love it down at our place’. I knew some of the boys there anyway, Macauley Wilson was a young lad at Blackpool when I was there and made his debut with me, so it was easy to go in.

“A really good club, very welcoming, It’s a great little ground and the pitch has got to be up there with the best in the league.

“The way Jamie and Hillsy (assistant John Hills) want to play, it works well for me, because they want to play football, they want to get it on the deck. His coaching’s really good, he’s like me, he wants to see lads get on the ball and express themselves.

“I think I’ve only played five games since I’ve been there because of all these different circumstances, with games being called off, the lads having to self-isolate for a couple of weeks.”

Player unavailability has hit the Lancashire side hard this season, with Brig also one of the clubs forced to withdraw from the FA Cup in September, with the team self-isolating and unable to fulfil their tie with Atherton Collieries. Yeates, meanwhile, had a memorable ‘welcome to the Northern Premier’ moment.

“I got a bit of a rude awakening when I came into the league! I think it was Buxton, one of their lads absolutely lifted me in half and I ended up in Blackpool A&E that night.

“I thought I broke a bone in my hip I got hit that hard, so I ended up missing a couple of games from that as well. It’s been hard because I was really looking forward to it and dying to get out there and play games, but I can’t speak highly enough of all the people who are at the club.

“I’ve got no doubt if the league was back going, we’d have got ourselves going. Everyone was back fit and I was looking forward to it.”

Momentum has indeed never been more elusive for clubs and players alike. Yeates’ career has included multiple seasons in which he has played at least 50 games.

He managed 66 over two seasons at Watford, which was no mean feat considering that the second of those saw the influx of predominantly overseas talent into the squad, following summer 2012’s Pozzo takeover of the club. The Hornets memorably went all the way to the Championship play-off final, and extra-time, with Kevin Phillips’ penalty agonisingly putting their dream of a top-flight return out of their grasp.

Known as an ever-lively member of the changing room through his career, Yeates fondly remembers being able to foster a connection with much of the suddenly ultra-cosmopolitan squad.

“You’ve only got to look at the Burnley squad, Sean Dyche likes the bulk of his squad to be British/Irish lads, and the first few games (of Zola’s first season at Watford), it was still a large chunk of Dychey’s signings. Then out of nowhere, we were training one day and two black seven-seaters pulled up, and it was just a stream of lads walking into the changing rooms!

“They were in the changing rooms on the other side of the building from us really. Some of them couldn’t speak English, some of them had broken English, but at the end of the day, playing a game or training on a football pitch, it doesn’t really matter, you can play football together and you can gel together.

“People have different cultures and different sort of banter but I managed to get on with most of the lads, they were all great fellas. We had (Almen) Abdi and (Fernando) Forestieri, Matty Vydra, Daniel Pudil; I still speak to some of those boys.

“Marco Cassetti, he’d been a full Italy international and he was one of the soundest guys you could have come across. He was always up for a laugh, and if there was a night out, a meal, he’d be there with you.

“I was best mates with Hoggy (Jonathan Hogg) and we still get on. The gaffer was such a good guy, everyone wanted to do well for him, and within that, we started having a bit of success.

“The football we played that season, we deserved to go up just on that, because I haven’t seen many Championship teams play that sort of footy. Troy (Deeney) and Matty Vydra up front were just a ridiculous pairing.”

It was unique, and undeniably exciting to be around, particularly with such a roundly revered former player in the dugout. Such were the ambitions and the unrelenting new approach from the top, though, that Yeates felt he would not get a third season at Vicarage Road – at least not how he wanted.

“It was a great club, Watford, I just sort of knew deep down that they were gonna bring even more people in. When I spoke with the manager, he would have liked to have kept me for another season, but I probably would have been lucky to get ten, 15 games.”

In that second season, Zola’s side had run out 4-1 winners against Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough on a freezing November evening, with Yeates setting up two and coming up with the goal of the game himself, with a perfectly-struck half-volley from the edge of the box.

Pressure had especially intensified on Wednesday manager Dave Jones that night, but he ultimately guided his side to safety at the end of the season. But for a seeming drop-off in interest from the Owls management, former Sheffield United man Yeates might well have been lining up in the blue and white for 2013/14.

“I think at the end of that season, Dave Jones had spoke with my agent and there was a bit of interest. I’d gone away on holiday and I was sort of waiting for the deal to be emailed over or whatever, but it went a bit quiet in the end.

“There was contact and I did speak to people at the club. Sheffield’s a brilliant city.

“Obviously I was at United and loved every minute of my time there, but Sheffield Wednesday’s a club I think everybody’s got a soft spot for, because it’s such a big and well-renowned club, and a historic club. I suppose if I’d signed for Wednesday, I would have got some pelters off the Blades fans!”

His next destination was another strongly-backed Yorkshire club yet to return to the Premier League a couple of decades on. Bradford City had led an unforgettable 2013, as League Cup finalists and then League Two play-off winners.

Crucially as well for Yeates, the manager was someone he knew especially well.

“I think with Parky (Phil Parkinson), that spell at Colchester (as The U’s won promotion to the Championship in 2006), he just sort of let me be and let me go and express myself. Yes, he had the reins on me to get back and help out a bit.

“He was a young manager, it was his first ever job, and he was a lot different when I went to Bradford. He had a lot more experience himself, and he knew me inside out as a lad, and he probably let me away with little bits, but maybe not as much as when I was 20 years old.

“I look back now on some of my career and think ‘how did I get away with that?’ I was always – and I still am – a bubbly lad in the changing room and I just tried to keep the place going and be a good lad around everyone.

“With managers, I’m sure they’ve torn their hair out plenty of times with me! Like you do, young Irish lad, you might like a night out or a bit of craic with the lads; sometimes that can go against you.

“Some managers at the start might think it’s okay, and then you have a couple of games and that becomes an issue with them. I was never one who loved going in the gym and lifting weights, I’d rather be out practicing free-kicks or doing a bit of dribbling.

“Sometimes you clash with different sports science people, where my mentality would be ‘what’s lifting this weight gonna do when I can lift this free-kick over this fella’s head?’”

His time working again with Parkinson, who had also signed him on loan from Spurs as Hull City boss in summer 2006, included a certain FA Cup match. It is not only Bradford City fans who vividly remember the Bantams’ glorious 4-2 win over Jose Mourinho’s Premier League title-bound Chelsea, six years ago this month.

With Didier Drogba already leading the line, the home side threw on Cesc Fàbregas, Willian and Eden Hazard to try and turn a fourth-round tie they had led 2-0 back their way. After Andy Halliday put Bradford in front late on, though, it was Yeates who bagged the fourth, taking a deft touch from Jon Stead in his stride and slotting past Petr Cech in front of a packed and delirious Stamford Bridge away end.

That was Yeates in his late-20s for Parkinson, and he figured far more as a substitute than he had for him at Colchester, but the connection from their first spell has never been forgotten. Yeates’ time at the club over two spells, which included netting the first competitive goal at their new Community Stadium in 2008, commands an extra special place in his affections.

“Still to this day, that Col group of lads, we all still are really close and have a group chat. We actually played a charity game against Southend (in 2019) for their skipper (ex-captain Adam Barrett) and his family (raising money for Havens Hospices).

“That (initial) time (on loan), I was 20 years old, I was playing every week, we were winning. Neil Danns is still one of my closest and best friends in the game, we speak every day.

“I got so much out of that loan. I’ve been lucky to have been to a couple of play-offs but that’s my only medal.

“After that, where people sort of knew me from was my time at Colchester, but I’ve had some really brilliant spells, I could go through every club. I’ve had some tough spells as well, that’s just footy.”

Fresh from scoring 13 goals for The U’s, he joined Middlesbrough in 2009, a club just down from the Premier League and with current England manager Gareth Southgate still in charge. Despite being in touch with the Championship’s leading places, he was sacked in the October, leading to one of football management’s sharpest-witted characters taking over.

Gordon Strachan’s relationship with winger Aiden McGeady at Celtic is one notably remembered for being strained. For Yeates at Boro, strained would have felt like progress.

“Strachs came in and I thought ‘if there’s anyone who might like me, it’s the ex-Celtic manager.’ I’m a big Celtic fan, Irish lad, I have a little bit about me, and he’s a bit like that.

“He just seemed to take a disliking to me pretty quickly. I think in his first five games, I came on for five minutes against someone, then we had a chat and he told me how much he liked me, he said he was gonna give me an opportunity, and I actually did really well.

“We beat QPR away 5-1, I scored, made a couple, and I thought ‘right, well, I’ve earned his trust here’. On the Monday, he pulled me in the office and said ‘yeah, I thought you did well but you’re not starting tomorrow’.

“Then I was in and out a bit from there. I’ve told this story a few times, we played Newcastle away and I came on well into the second half.

“We lost 2-0 in the end, came in, sat down, and he came flying through the door and was like ‘where’s Yeatesy?’ I’m thinking ‘what’s he calling my name here for?’

“He started having a pop at me, saying I should have blocked the cross for the second goal, and I was looking at him thinking, ‘Are you having a laugh? I wasn’t even on the pitch, I was sitting behind you with my sub’s jacket still on!’

“I just genuinely thought ‘I’m gonna get no change out of this guy’. I was thinking I might come back for pre-season and it’d be one of them where he makes you train with the reserves.

“He brought in a load of lads from Scotland, and in the end, I thought it was the best thing to go. I bumped into him after that when I was at Sheff United and we were fine.

“I’m too old now, I wouldn’t hold grudges; he had his opinion at the time. I think he could have dealt with things better, because I was one of the lads who was over the moon to be at Middlesbrough at the time, because I’d worked really hard to get back to a club of that stature.”

On what was his Premier League debut in May 2004, he set up his fellow south Dubliner Robbie Keane in a 2-0 win at Wolves. As Keane once put it, ‘you can’t fool a man from Tallaght’, and Yeates recalls returning home earlier in his career with some ‘unconventional’ fashion choices for his local area.

He feels confident, though, that he never got too carried away with the extravagance that is possible for a footballer at the higher levels.

“I’m not one for that, I’ve never been. We’re just normal lads from an estate in Dublin; it’s obviously a rough area and you have to have a bit about you.

“I wasn’t into buying flash cars; I didn’t start driving until I was 25, I think, and I had to do it in an automatic because I was that rubbish at driving! I don’t think I ever came across as flashy; I probably came across as a bit stupid at times.

“I had some rascal barnets, and living in London, when I’d go back to Dublin for my breaks, I remember turning up in a pair of slip-on, Gucci loafers. It’s what people wear now anyway, but I turned up in the local boozer with a pair of skinny Moschino jeans or something like that – you wouldn’t see that where I was from, put it that way!

“I had these stupid earrings in, they were like cubic zirconias, so it wasn’t even like I’d spent any money on them! Silly things like that, but that was just being young and foolish.

“I was always just normal, or I’d like to think I was.”

Normal perhaps, but multi-talented, given the few impromptu bars he reserves for special occasions.

“I think I can MC a bit, so I ended up doing a bit of that (for initiation) at Oldham! A few of the lads knew me, so knew that I could do it, from nights out and that.

“They said ‘you’ve got to do that’, so I gave it a go, just off the top of the head, freestyle! Got a good little ripple for it.”

While there is every desire to hear his name read out in starting line-ups on Saturday afternoons for a little while yet, the ongoing circumstances have naturally accelerated his pursuit of non-playing endeavours. He has been getting going with The FA’s Talent Identification courses, via the PFA, while his aforementioned coaching at Fleetwood Town has provided added enthusiasm for the future.

“I feel I have another year in me at least to have a go at it. This is not the way I wanna hang my boots up, I wanna do it properly.

“Footy has been my one and only sole focus from a kid. My dad (Stephen Yeates) obviously played at League of Ireland level and he was probably unlucky not to get himself over to England at some stage.

“When I went to Tottenham and when the old man passed away, my whole focus was ‘I wanna be a footballer, I wanna get my head down and make it here’. The kids nowadays, they’re given everything, and even back then, I was.

“I think at times, I just relied on my own natural ability. After I got older and had my kids, I became a lot more professional, but maybe that’s just the worry of ‘you’re coming to the end of it’.

“On the flipside of that, I’ve seen lads who do it right, day in, day out, live their lives like a monk, and they probably haven’t or won’t play the amount of games or sign for the clubs I have. It’s swings and roundabouts, I think you’ve got to be happy and lucky for what you’ve managed to do.

“Any regrets would be really small, because I came over at 16 from Ireland, and to say that I was still playing professional football up until 35 and a pandemic hit, I think I’ve done alright in the end.”

Interview/article by @chris_brookes