Norman Hunter RIP

Norman Hunter  (29 October 1943 – 17 April 2020) .

An appreciation of the great Norman Hunter and Don Revie’s mighty Leeds United of the late 1960s and early 1970s [from my 2012 book “A Piece of My Mind”

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Anyone of a certain age who grew up in the tribalistic shadow of the 1966 World Cup, supported a football club. It was simply a part of growing up. If you were a Londoner, it might be West Ham, with their claret and blue shirts, led by Bobby Moore, the last gentleman footballer. If you were unfortunate enough to be born west of the Pennines you probably become misty eyed over Busby’s Babes (a moniker, incidentally, which still makes me think of top shelf magazines more than footballers). But if, like me, you grew up in God’s Country, your footballing allegiances had only one legitimate outlet, at Elland Road, home of the pride of Yorkshire, Leeds United.

Being in my mid-50s, the Leeds United that I remember was the iconic side of Don Revie. To this day, in the same way that Catholics can recite the Hail Mary, I can remember the details of that mighty team — Gary Sprake, Paul Reaney, Paul Madeley, Billy Bremner, Jack Charlton, Norman Hunter, Peter Lorimer, Allan Clarke, Mick Jones, Johnny Giles and Eddie Gray.

 Gary Sprake, a mixture of inspiration and exasperation in goal, was capable of pulling off acrobatic saves of almost balletic beauty and then, from nowhere, gifting the opposition a goal in circumstances that invariably find their way into “what happens next?” compilations. Such as the memorable moment in 1967 when he somehow contrived to hurl the ball into his own net at Anfield. For the rest of the afternoon, the Kop treated him to an unending chorus of Des O’Connor’s Careless Hands. It remains one of life’s injustices that he is remembered more for the tiny handful of occasions he cost Leeds a game than the huge majority where he saved the game.

 In front of Sprake were the Pauls — Reaney and Madeley — two of the finest, yet least celebrated, full-backs in the league at that time. In any other club but Leeds, with its array of talent, they would have been justly feted for their miserly goal allowances. Paul Reaney, the right back, was almost always looking to overlap the midfield, in essence the game’s first wingback, although there was no such term in those no-nonsense days at Elland Road. And at the same time, he was acknowledged even by George Best to be one of the finest man-to-man markers in the game.

 Paul Madeley could and often did play anywhere on the field. Although nominally a full-back he was comfortable even as a winger. During his time at Leeds he wore all the shirts from number two to eleven and, you have to remember, this was back in the days when shirt numbers related to position rather than squad numbers. His retirement, a time for reflection on the many glories of the time, has been dogged by ill-health — a brain tumour in 1992, a heart attack in 2002 and, as if this were not enough, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2003.

 The Leeds midfield trio of Bremner, Charlton and Hunter were the powerhouse of Revie’s dreams. Billy Bremner, the human embodiment of a fox terrier, never gave up on any ball, never stopped running and harassing opposition players. And when he had hounded an opponent into releasing possession, he would distribute the ball quickly and effectively, usually to Johnny Giles.

 In the same way that Bremner controlled the ground, snapping at opponents’ heels, Jack Charlton commanded the air. Supremely tall and imposing, Jack was more than a match for any centre forward, even “our kid” as he affectionately described his brother Bobby who just happened to play for a team on the other side of the Pennines.

But wearing the number six shirt was the man who, more than any other, embodied the robust physical — even, dare one say, cynical — type of football that defined Leeds United in the early 1970s. If Bremner was a terrier, Norman Hunter was a Rottweiler. Hunter had no illusions about his role. The ball might get past him sometimes. Or the player might. But on no occasion would both pass him. And yet, whenever he was booked or sent off for brutally scything an opponent down, as he so often was, Norman somehow managed to feign a hangdog expression of innocence worthy of Shakespearean theatre. Norman never romanticised his role in the team. He knew his place and recognised that great footballing truth that you cannot play football if you don’t have the football. His role was very simple – get the ball from the opposition. When the Leeds trainer was once told that Hunter had broken a leg, his reaction was “whose?”

On the right-wing was Peter Lorimer, the youngest player ever to take the field for Leeds, making his debut at fifteen. A Scot with a cannon of a right foot, there was no more terrifying sight for a goalkeeper than Lorimer lining up a free kick. Capable of scoring from thirty yards out, pity the poor souls who had to form part of the wall. More than once Lorimer concussed players with direct hits. To my recollection, only one goalkeeper ever saved a Lorimer penalty, and that was at the expense of a broken wrist.

To his immediate left was Allan “Sniffer” Clarke. In a largely homegrown team (difficult to grasp in this age of highly paid mercenaries, but this was the norm then), Sniffer joined the club from Leicester City in 1969, immediately justifying Revie’s faith in him with twenty six goals in his first season. A stylish dribbler, he had that knack, like all the best strikers, of being in the right place at the right time. If Bremner and Hunter were rough purposeful earthenware, Clarke was fine bone china.

And Clarke could have no better foil than the Leeds centre forward Mick Jones, a strong, courageous old-fashioned work horse of a target man. His muscular energy in the middle created the havoc in opposition defences upon which Clarke thrived. I still remember him collecting his 1972 FA Cup winner’s medal, arm in a makeshift sling, his face contorted with pain from a dislocated elbow suffered in the last minute

In the number ten shirt was Johnny Giles, a genial, soft-spoken leprechaun of infinite subtlety and touch, a foil to Lorimer’s sabre. Along with Bremner, Giles controlled the game. Bremner won the ball and Giles would distribute the fruits of that victory. If Michelangelo had been reincarnated as a footballer, it would have been as Johnny Giles.

Completing this glittering side was Eddie “The Last Waltz” Gray. A classic winger, in many ways a throwback to a former era of football, the twinkle-toed Gray would ghost past defenders before cutting inside to shoot or lashing in crosses for Mick Jones or Big Jack. In a team built on the muscular ball winning of Bremner and Hunter, no player better embodied the finesse to which Leeds aspired. Amazingly, in a side that attracted cards like bees round a hive, Gray was never booked.

Don Revie’s Leeds were a Jekyll and Hyde enigma. Playing in an all white strip, an aspirational nod to Real Madrid and their fancy continental football, they somehow never quite achieved what their talents deserved. So often the bridesmaid, rarely the bride.

Never a popular side, Leeds were often demonised by the predominantly southern press for a brand of football that was seen as cynical. Certainly Leeds played a style of football that was, by any standards, physical and aggressive, but it was rarely as calculating as portrayed. And the media emphasis on the decisive, even brutal, tackling of the Leeds defenders somehow shone the spotlight away from the luminous creativity of the Leeds midfield and poetic expression of the strikers.

Even at their worst, they were a difficult side to beat. But at their best, Leeds played champagne football, posturing and preening like matadors. And for nearly a decade, Don Revie’s men were the footballing manifestation of Yorkshire — that unique combination of coal-fired grit and determination, with the poetry and lyricism of the North York Moors. 

When, in 1971, I went away to boarding school, I found myself alone among southerners. Among so many who supported Arsenal, Chelsea, West Ham and Spurs, I was the only boy from Yorkshire there. It marked me out.

 “So who do you support?” they would ask, in plummy Home Counties accents.

 “I support Leeds United” I said.

 And I was proud.