10 clubs, 10 years, one unfulfilled ambition for Mark Yeates
Bradford's Mark Yeates has taken road less travelled but still holds out hope of Ireland call
TEN CLUBS in ten years. Mark Yeates sits back and ponders the truth in the statement. He didn't envisage his career going this way, but then every kid starting on the ladder dreams of staying at the top table forever. Only a lucky few enjoy that privilege.
For everyone else, it's about surviving on the carousel, taking the rough with the smooth and dealing with the variety of characters that populate the levels below the Premier League.
Yeates could write a book on it. The Dubliner is a big personality, a 28-year-old with plenty of stories to tell from a journey that has brought him up and down England, from a promising youth at Tottenham Hotspur to his current home at Bradford, with a number of different stops along the way. It's a transient existence.
"Unless you've had a long affinity with a club, it's hard to get really attached," he says, matter of factly. "Lloyd Doyley, a close friend of mine, has been at Watford since he was a kid – it's something you don't see a lot of these days and I admire him massively for that. I've had to take a different route."
His arms are informative, covered in tattoos that offer an insight to his mind and motivations.
"I've enough ink on me now," he laughs. On his right arm, beneath a colourful maze of artwork, he wears the statement, 'Live every day like it's your last', a suitable motto for the subject. The message on the left arm has far more emotional significance. It simply reads, 'Dad'.
He's been thinking about his father a lot this summer. A pre-season trip to Athlone set off the nostalgia. The reporter from the 'Bradford Telegraph & Argus' who made the journey was sitting in a bar when the subject of Yeates came up with a local who happened to be an Athlone Town fan.
Discussion turned to Bradford's recent capture because the former St Mel's regular remembered his father, Stephen, lighting up the old venue in his brief stint there.
"Steo" was a well-known figure in football circles in the late '80s and early '90s, spending time with Shelbourne, Shamrock Rovers, Athlone and Kilkenny and then playing on in the junior game. He was a special talent, a trickster and an outgoing soul who was popular with his peers. In 2002, on the day that Mark was playing for Tottenham Hotspur youths, he died tragically, aged just 39.
"He was still a young man," his son reflects. "It's a long time ago now, but you do have your days when you get a bit down and think about it.
"This summer was one of the longest summers I've had back in Dublin, and I pretty much spent most of it in Tallaght.
"They do a game for Dad every year, his old Shels side, they run a charity day with a few teams. Greenhills College, the last team he played for, are represented, and then just a mixture of other lads that played with him.
"It's a great day, and it's nice to see him in a good light, and hear about what a character he was. It's just a pity that he never got to see me play over here in first-team football."
His grandfather Tony, Stephen's dad, stepped in to provide guidance and is a frequent visitor with whom he speaks every day. Tony is another unique individual, not shy about speaking his mind. After taking in the Irish tour games with Athlone and Bohemians, he sidled over to Yeates' manager Phil Parkinson in the aftermath of the second match at Dalymount. "Jaysus," he announced, "You were a lot better the other night."
Yeates grins as he delivers the anecdote, adding that his boss took it well.
He enjoys working with Parkinson; having previously spent time under the 45-year-old's stewardship at Colchester and Hull. After parting company with Watford at the end of the season, he had interest from the Championship, with Millwall and Sheffield Wednesday keen without acting in a hurry. Parkinson swooped and offered assurance in the sense that he values the attacking midfielder's approach and wanted to make him a focal part of Bradford's plans.
The downside was a drop to League One, which he got past because of the rising profile on foot of their charge to the League Cup final and then play-off success at Wembley.
He has trained in more salubrious environments. Bradford rent pitches from a school based off a main road and have erected a sign to stop local kids having a kickabout on summer evenings, even if they don't have the manpower to fully police it.
On the day we meet, Yeates finishes the morning session by embarking on the long walk to a dressing-room past children playing cricket on a summer camp.
There's a positive attitude around the place, though, a quiet confidence that another promotion charge this year is possible, and the sale of 14,000 season tickets illustrates the depth of support in the Yorkshire city. And, with a partner and child to support, Yeates needs to find a settled base where he has the security of a manager who understands him. His journey (which he details club by club in the accompanying panel) has been peppered by false starts.
"I need to find somewhere for the long haul," he explains.
It would be easy to attach the journeyman label but it doesn't sit right with his style – Yeates is not the stereotypical grafter scrapping away to do a job.
By contrast, he is a technically adept performer who has struggled at certain stages because the manager who took a chance on his ability left, and was replaced by someone with a different philosophy. At Middlesbrough, Gareth Southgate made way for Gordon Strachan. At Sheffield United, Gary Speed left and Micky Adams stepped in.
"Listen," he says, leaning back into his seat. "My style definitely doesn't suit certain managers or maybe the way I approach games. I've played my best in football-orientated teams. Other managers are a bit more solid and direct and I don't suit them. That's the harsh reality of football."
As a kid at Spurs, he was given a chance in the first-team squad by Martin Jol and was close to making the grade without quite getting across the line.
A succession of loan stints led to a permanent move to Colchester, then a Championship outfit. His real big move was to Middlesbrough in 2009.
"They'd just come down from the Premier League and were looking to go straight back up," he recalls.
Southgate's sacking still rankles; Strachan arrived with different ideas, dispatched Yeates to Sheffield United, brought in a raft of Scots and failed to meet the promotion target.
After a similar experience with Adams halted a promising time in Sheffield, Sean Dyche recruited him to Watford. Yet again, change was imminent.
Yeates clicked quite well with Gianfranco Zola and regularly featured last term, although a clause in his contract which would be activated if he reached a certain number of appearances was an obstacle. The Pozzo family who run the club have an unusual approach to player recruitment, however, with a multitude of loan players ferried in from Udinese.
"You'll be training one day and then you look up and you find 14 new lads next to you," Yeates says. "In the space of two years, practically the entire squad was changed."
Leaving was a wrench, as London is the closest thing to home in England. After sporadic stays in hotels and apartments, he owns a house there. Upping sticks again was a chore.
"It's very hard," he says, "With a missus and kid, it's not just me moving around. She has family in Leeds, which makes it easier for her, and I'm hoping I can settle here. I've moved to Guiseley, on the outskirts of Leeds, next to the airport and I've plenty of family coming over so I'm positive about the whole thing."
He would like to have professional reasons to fly back across the Irish Sea more frequently, but international recognition has eluded him since he starred in a 'B' international with Scotland in 2007.
"I'm surprised that I haven't been invited to some get-togethers," he admits. "I've seen some other lads (get called) and I think, well, I've been playing at a high level for so long now, for some great clubs, so I'm going to get a call-up. But, listen, if it happens, it happens; if not, you've got to get on with club football.
"Down in League One it'll be a lot harder. I'm not being big-headed but I played 35 times in the Championship last year for a team that reached the play-offs.
"I know, deep down, I'm probably a Championship footballer. Wes Hoolahan didn't get into the side until he was 30/31 and he had to play League One with Norwich and go up that route. There's plenty of boys that have done it."
That remains the ambition, yet he knows that making it this far in the profession is an achievement, given that so many ex-colleagues have fallen by the wayside and drifted from the sport completely. Ultimately, it's why he retains a cheery disposition.
The toing and froing between the clubs is far from ideal but the bigger picture is that he's done reasonably well financially from an endeavour he enjoys. The employer changes, yet the job satisfaction is the same.
"Football has given me everything," he says. "It's the best job in the world. You have the craic every morning with 20 lads, and then at the weekend you get to go out in front of big crowds and kick a ball around. It's any lad's dream, no matter what level you play at. I'll never take it for granted."
Life has taught him to expect surprises around the corner. After a decade packed full of twists and turns, he's ready to embrace certainty.