John Bateman has taken the NRL by storm in 2019.
John Bateman has taken the NRL by storm in 2019.

How Little John defied odds to reach league peak

AROUND Bradford, people still talk about the day John Bateman walked out his front door and into a mob.

He was 15, they say. A wiry, housing estate scrapper. A schoolboy who only hours earlier had been expelled for bashing the classmate who thought it okay to steal his mobile phone.

Which is where our story effectively kicks off.

Understanding that the battered thief, well, he had a cousin. One not only three years older, but with a fearsome reputation for throwing down.

 

And so later that same afternoon, said tough stood on a small patch of grass outside Bateman's home in the notorious West Bowling estate. Around him, another 50 lads shouting for "Little John" to get his arse outside.

"So I'm behind the front door," Bateman recalls now, a decade on, "thinking, 'Shit, what should I do?'.

"This guy, he was well known around Bradford. Could really fight.

"I actually remember turning to my older brother Kyle and saying: 'Lad, honestly, this guy can fight. He can really f...ing fight'.

"And Kyle, he just says, 'Yeah, I know'."

Which is hardly a call to arms, is it?

Bateman has taken a long journey to reach the NRL. (Photo by Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)
Bateman has taken a long journey to reach the NRL. (Photo by Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)

And still, Little John opens the front door anyway. Then goes outside and into the mob.

For this is who he is. Who Bateman has always been.

A fella whose fight is tattooed to him like the name of his daughter, Millie, written large across a forearm. An inkwork, you should know, that this Englishman rubs a hand over repeatedly before NRL games because, well, this is who he is, too.

Seven weeks ago, few of us had even heard the name John Bateman.

Yet now? Well, apart from sitting fourth in Dally M voting, apart from helping Canberra assume the same NRL ladder spot, Little John is being invited on League Life, earning comparisons with Adrian Morley, even headlining a petition to have Batemans Bay renamed, err, John Bateman's Bay.

"And I'm learning to embrace it," the Yorkshireman says ahead of Saturday's Penrith clash.

"Initially when the Bateman's Bay thing popped on my phone, there were 25 signatures. I thought, 'There's no way I'm signing that'.

"But then two hours later, there were hundreds ... I thought 'Oh, shit'."

Bateman grew up in an environment that developed his toughness. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)
Bateman grew up in an environment that developed his toughness. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Seated inside a small cafe near Raiders HQ, tattoos poking from beneath a plain, black T-shirt, Bateman is opening up on his unlikely rise from housing estate scrapper to rising Canberra superstar.

And, sure, like most blokes who can really fight, the Englishman is reluctant to discuss it. More likely he wouldn't discuss it, were he not so honest.

Yet because you've asked, Bateman will devote far more time than it takes to finish his vanilla shake talking you through a life that "I wouldn't say come from nothing, but it weren't much, either".

Raised by single mum Bev and alongside older brother Kyle, Little John was arrested for fighting at 14, expelled from school by 15 and himself a father within nine months of that - having first learned of the pregnancy during maths class.

And still by 17, Bateman was playing Super League. Aged 21, an English international. And now this year, at 25, tearing into the NRL like he once did to that mob on his lawn.

For this is how it goes for the son and grandson of renowned street fighters, both 'Big' John Batemans.

Bateman made his debut for England at 21. (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)
Bateman made his debut for England at 21. (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

This Bradford scrapper hasn't only fought schoolyard thieves, but poverty, life cycles, even a dyslexia that caused him to "kick off" so badly in school, brother Kyle was regularly hauled from his own classes to calm him.

"But where I grew up," Bateman says, "you fight. And from an early age, I got a name for myself.

"At school, though, with my dyslexia, it were tough. Because while everyone looks up to you, you're sat there with no clue what you're talking about."

And so, he kicked off. Repeatedly.

Same deal during those frontyard footy games against a brother who, three years older, would continually best him on the same patch of grass where, years later, that mob would call his name.

"Oh, Kyle used to belt shit out of me," concedes Bateman, who also played all his juniors up an age group because of limited numbers.

"But every time, I'd get back up. Same on weekends, against kids who were always bigger.

The Englishman had huge success with the Wigan Warriors. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
The Englishman had huge success with the Wigan Warriors. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

"I'm always hearing people now talk about the importance of taking part. But for me, you don't get anywhere taking part.

"It's only when you're winning that people notice you."

So you're driven to be recognised?

"I'm driven to make something of myself," he says.

"Back home, people are always pointing out guys, saying 'He were a good footballer, but sells drugs now'. Or 'That guy was good, then went to prison ...'.

"Even the junior team I played for at Dudley Hill, we were National Cup finalists. Beat sides from all over England.

"There were 10 of us signed Super League scholarships ... yet I'm the only one made it."

And why?

"Some weren't good enough," he shrugs. "But others partied, did drugs ... often in life, the easiest option is also the worst."

And so Little John went the hard way.

"Because losing, worst thing ever," he says.

"Growing up, if someone got me to the floor in a fight, I just had to get up again and carry on. Didn't want anyone getting the better of me.

Bateman’s arrival has helped Canberra surge up the NRL ladder. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)
Bateman’s arrival has helped Canberra surge up the NRL ladder. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

"Because if they do, then on the street they're able to look at you like, 'I've got the better of you, John'.

"And for me, that's a no go.

"Same now (in the NRL). I don't go out there to fight, but I don't want anyone saying, 'Oh, I got one over him'."

Which is no easy thing.

"But I knew coming here, people would say they hadn't heard of me," Bateman says. "Or those who had, that I were shit playing for England.

"But I know what I can do."

Which drives him. Same deal, family.

Take mum Bev, who he wants to buy an Audi for. Or daughter Millie, aged 9, who has spent the past fortnight holidaying in Australia with Bateman's Nan, Mum, plus brother Kyle and his family.

"And just to be able to kiss Millie goodnight," dad smiles. "Massive."

Indeed, only months after becoming a father at 16, Bateman had the opportunity to not only flee Bradford, but England, following an offer from the Newcastle Knights.

Yet despite "not even knowing how to hold my baby", he stayed.

"Because Mum never turned her back on me and Kyle," he says.

"No disrespect to dad - who I still talk to - but I've always said my little girl, she's No.1. And I've told her, 'Sweetheart, if ever you need me home for anything, I'll be on the first flight'."

For this is who Bateman is. Who he has always been. Out the door, and into the mob.

Which suddenly has us wondering aloud how Little John went that afternoon on his front lawn?

"Ah, I got over the guy," he says. "Beat him up pretty decent. Which really set things off for me.

"Has meant ever since, I can walk around Bradford and people will say, 'Oh, how you doing John?'.

"And when you've got respect, yeah, I reckon that means a lot."