To play two hundred games for a club in any era is no mean feat. To be re-signed by that same club and go on to make a further three hundred plus appearances is as rare as hen's teeth. But then, Neil Coates wasn’t just any old player.
Two spells at The Avenue totalling 518 games, came either side of six seasons at Yeovil Town, where his winning strike against Hereford United in the FA Cup, quite literally saved the Glovers from going bankrupt in 1993 . He holds legendary status at both Huish Park and The Avenue, and so when Coates was awarded a well-earned testimonial in 2001 against West Ham, fans from both clubs were in attendance.
Beginning his footballing career in the youth teams of both Watford and AFC Bournemouth during his teenage years, he made the break through at Yeovil where he became a regular fixture on the right side of the Glovers’ team – either at right back or in a more advances role. However, the appointment of Brian Hall as Yeovil manager would see him fall out of favour, and he made the journey over the border to join Keith Miller’s side in March 1988.
"I went to Dorchester on loan to start with for a month or two, and then when Yeovil let me go in the summer, I didn't think of going anywhere else other than Dorchester having been at the club and got to know the lads. I'm not sure about how Dorch found out my availability initially, but Keith Miller was a good bloke and a really nice man."
Neil would make twelve appearances for the side as The Magpies marked their first season back in the Southern Premier league (then the league below the GM Conference), joining a side that were settled and had no shortage of quality as well as graft.
"Pete Morrell and I were on the right-hand side and he'd bomb on and I'd fill in, or vice versa. We had Craig Morrison, Robbie Russell and Tony Diaz going forward, and Brian Chambers was absolute class. He could play in the centre or at the back and it was like he never had to make a tackle!
“But as a team, we had to be tough. As much as we could play, we could grind out results as well. We'd put our foot in when we needed to. We were tough to beat and break down but we should have done better with what we had. I think we underachieved a bit."
It was during this spell that the club made the short move down the hill from the old Avenue Ground to the new Avenue Stadium.
"The old ground wasn't the nicest place to go for away teams with the facilities and the slope, and a lot of teams didn't fancy playing us, especially midweek on that slope. We knew how to play it but it wasn't a bad pitch. I never knew it to cut up or be a mud pit. There was nothing grand about it with the old wooden stand, the dressing rooms were nothing special and it all seemed quite old. You never got many away fans and it was very open.
“We could see the new ground being built from the old one. The new ground was a complete change, you felt like a footballer. We were now coming out of a tunnel and up those steps onto the pitch, there was the players entrance, big changing rooms, it was much more welcoming. It was our little Wembley.
“The Chelsea game for the opening was brilliant, although I had to play in a headband as I'd got 11 stitches in my eyebrow from the last league game."
Neil's first spell at the club would come to an end when Yeovil would come calling with the Glovers paying a fee of £1,500 to help ensure they got their man. It was an enjoyable time in Neil's career as his last gasp goal in the second round of the FA Cup would see the Glovers beat Hereford United to set up a third-round tie with Arsenal. A goal which would write Coates into Glovers’ folklore forever, as although they would lose 3-1 to the Gunners’, the game saved them from near-certainty bankruptcy.
However, loyalty is a well-known scarcity in the game and with the re-instalment of Brian Hall as manager in 1994, Coates once again found himself surplus to requirements. Stuart Morgan was now in charge at Dorchester and knew Neil from his AFC Bournemouth days.
"I enjoyed my time at Yeovil and Arsenal in the FA Cup was a great experience, as was Fulham (a 1-0 victory) the following season. But once Brain Hall came in again, I knew I'd be on the move. Trowbridge were interested and that's where a lot of ex-Yeovil players seemed to go, but Stuart Morgan got in touch and I knew Stuart and I knew Dorchester. So, after speaking to him that's where I went. He also made me captain, which was nice. I was captain from there on for most of my time there."
And the side that manager Morgan created was not only a very good footballing side, but close-knit group.
"Stuart had a thing for players from the South-West area with people like Danny O'Hagan, Ryan Cross, Martyn Sullivan, Owen Pickard, Craig Taylor, Darren Garner, and the list goes on. We were a sociable team and we'd have many heavy nights out after games when we'd stay at Taffy's house. We had some big nights out with that team - I blame Andy Harris for a lot of that!"
"I think Stuart's side was probably the best, as he knew how to get the best out of players. I always used to get a bit of the red mist and Stuart knew this. So, if he wanted to raise the team or get a reaction, he'd be on the touchline calling me all the names under the sun, saying how useless I was and all sorts. I'd be livid and the next bloke to come at me would have it in the tackle and it would raise the team a bit. I'd still be angry and look over at the bench and Stuart and Benji (Brian Benjafield) would just sit there and laugh. He'd do things like that to get a reaction from the team and it worked. Stuart was far more serious but Benji took the edge off.
"Stuart knew what he was doing with me, I wouldn't have wanted to play against myself. I'm the nicest person off the pitch, but put that shirt on and I have to win. I’m a bit Jekyll and Hyde."
Despite that and despite his reputation, Neil was never sent off as a player.
But defence wasn’t the only asset that team had, with goals never in short supply either.
"For anything around the area, Owen Pickard was the complete finisher; Danny O'Hagan was brilliant in the air; Shep (Martin Shepherd) was a presence; Groover (Matt Groves) came in later and gave a different dimension, and Tommy Killick was a nightmare for defenders. I can't believe he's a manager now! He'd be late for training, forget his kit, have the wrong boots, I was shocked when he took over at Poole but he's done well."
The quality and style of play would see the team finish a record high fourth place in 1997-98 and further success came in cup runs with an FA Cup first round appearance in 1995 and a FA Trophy third round appearance in 1997. Both games would prove memorable for different reasons...
"Oxford was a disaster! Stuart made us believe that we could beat them and was saying how he'd watched them and they were nothing special. He made us believe that we could win and there is an interview somewhere I did with the headline; 'WE WON'T LOSE - COATES'.
Well, we had players dropping out the week of the game and many injuries, I think we had some youngsters and Dorset Premier League players playing that day and we lost 9-1. We got a sympathy pen from the ref for our one.
“Our goalie, Ken Veysey, was ex-Oxford and when we came out for the second half, he tapped me on the shoulder and asked, "do you think I should wear this?" Well, he'd got an Oxford bobble hat from somewhere so I said, yeah go on, so he put it on and ran towards our goal where the home terrace was, and their fans loved it! They were chanting his name, cheering him and every save, it was a hell of an atmosphere there and you couldn't help but stop, watch and laugh. He had them in the palm of his hand."
"The Woking game was good. We came so close to beating them. We had a great team that year, the game stands out for me as the closest we could have come to a major trophy. We played seven games to get there, four away and three at home – and a double reply against Slough and a local derby against Salisbury.
The game against Woking was very well supported - I think over 3,000 attended. Beforehand we had heard their goalie was out and they didn’t have a reserve keeper but we found out on the day they actually loaned the ex-Wimbledon goalie, Hans Segers. Who just happened to play a blinder as well. We got off to a great start with Tom Killick scoring after about five minutes. I think they equalised mid-way through the first half and we went in level at the break.
The second half was just an epic game. We took the lead midway through and I am sure we had a couple of chances to kill it off. I remember they literally scored two in the last eight minute and the winner right on full time. We were gutted as we had gone so far, and Woking went on to win it. We came so close."
Having played with several high-quality players across both his Dorchester spells, picking the best of the bunch was a difficult task, but a couple of names stood out:
"First time around I'd say Brian Chambers, he was class. Watching him as a player was brilliant. He never seemed to get his kit dirty or sweat. He probably didn't need to shower after some games. He was just so good at reading the game. I'd come off caked in mud and he'd look the same as he did at the start. He seemed like he never had to tackle as he was just so good as reading the game and doing the simple things so well.
“Second spell I'd probably pick Craig Taylor. He could play out from the back, was good in the air, very difficult to beat and hard to get around. He went to Swindon after us, I think, and it was easy to see why he'd gone to a pro club."
Looking back across both spells, Neil recollects the change in mentality that the move to the new stadium brought with it:
"On the old coach back in the 80's, you'd have sandwiches made by the ladies at the club that would be in old ice cream tubs; no toilet onboard; and no stopping on the way back. It wasn't the best. Second time around it was much more professional. We had much better facilities, we'd have a pre-match meal, the travel to away games was different with a coach that had a toilet, video player, drinks machine and things like that. Everything improved a bit."
And a lot of that came from the top down from manager Stuart Morgan, a man Neil rates as the best manager he played under:
"All my managers were different and I was lucky as I never really had a bad manager. But Stuart was quality and knew how to get the best out of people. We used to play quite wide and Stuart was fascinated with pitch length and width. He liked to get the ball out wide and get balls in so he preferred a wider pitch. We had a very changeable formation and could play with wingbacks or a back four. He bought in good players together and we clicked. Everybody trained as we played, and we played hard.
“Everybody worked hard and we had respect for each other, nobody fell out. We'd have words and there would be bollockings, but we'd have a beer after. We were all local lads and derby games meant something. Poole and other teams weren't as important, but we always wanted to beat Weymouth."
With Stuart Morgan departing the club following a 3-0 loss to Taunton Town in the FA Cup in September 1999, Neil would depart the club at the end of that season with him not featuring in new manager, Mark Morris', plans.
That wouldn't be the last time Neil would lead a side out at the Avenue however, as he was awarded a testimonial game against none other than West Ham United.
A youthful Hammers’ side featured future Premier League stars’ including Jermain Defoe and Leon Britton, as well as England left-back Stuart Pearce on the touchline. The Premier League team ran out 9-2 winners in a highly entertaining game, that was a fitting end to his time at The Avenue.
"I wasn't too fussed about the testimonial but I wanted to come back and say thank you to the fans and say goodbye. It was a brilliant night. I've got great memories of my time there. I was honoured to be club captain and have no bad memories. I've been really lucky with all my teams and managers, I've not had a bad one at all."
And being recognised by the fans and having a seat in his honour in the stand is something he has a sense of pride about.
"It's an absolute honour. To be recognised by supporters is unbelievable, I'll never forget some of the players and fans there and thank you to Annie and John Greenslade for sponsoring me."
His love for football refuses to wane and he’s still out there getting muddy running his “Fast Feet Football” academy in Shaftesbury, as well as managing the under 18 side. His passion for the game continues to be as strong as ever and his love of his time at the Avenue(s) shine through when he recollects stories. We look forward to hopefully welcoming him back to the Avenue at some point soon, where he can share a few more of them. Something says there’s a few more to be told…
Words: Stuart Voss
Images: Idris Martin
Neil has kindly been sponsored by Annie and John Greenslade. You can sponsor a legend as part of our Sponsor a Seat campaign by clicking here.