Norman Hunter - Leeds United mourn a true Elland Road great

Just the soubriquet guaranteed Norman ‘Bites Yer Legs’ Hunter would resonate long after his retirement in 1982.

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Why Norman Hunter embodied best of Leeds United and football - The Yorkshire Pos...

Like the Leeds United side he was synonymous with, there was far more to the notorious central defender than an uncompromising toughness long since lost from the game.

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When Hunter died on Friday of coronavirus aged 76, football lost more than one of its great characters and pantomime villains, it lost an under-rated player who, like so many of his profession, was a very different character off the field to on it.

Three Lions: Norman Hunter of England. Picture: Action Images

In 1974, the players’ union, the Professional Footballers’ Association, created an award which, by virtue of being voted for by colleagues on the pitch, remains English football’s most cherished individual bauble even today. Hunter was the first Players’ Player of the Year.

Eight years earlier, he had been a part of England’s 1966 World Cup squad and although he did not make it onto the pitch, there was no disgrace in that – he was the understudy to Bobby Moore. Hunter’s only World Cup finals appearance came as a substitute in England’s last match of the 1970 tournament but despite the presence of his country’s greatest captain, he won 28 caps.

But what Hunter will forever be remembered for is being part of the team which transformed Leeds from second-tier also-rans into giants of English football, winning the Second Division championship, two First Division titles, FA Cup, League Cup and two Fairs Cups at Elland Road and more runners-up medals than he would have cared to remember. The last for Leeds came in the 1975 European Cup final.

Hunter made 540 league appearances for what became his club, before ending his playing career with Bristol City and Barnsley.

Elland Road great: Norman Hunter.

“I do not think he has been given anything like sufficient credit for the ability he possesses and his great dedication and will to win,” said Don Revie in October, 1973. “No manager could wish to have a better player on his books.”

Later that season, Tom German of The Times wrote: “Whatever harsh words are applied from time to time to Hunter’s forthrightness, he really is a sustaining pillar; his skill in reaching out a toe to bring the dropping ball under control, the accuracy of his forward chips, and the way he moves into strategic positions are of immeasurable value to Leeds.”

At times, his image used to frustrate Hunter. “Revie used to say to me, ‘Win the ball and give it to the ones who can play’,” he once said. “That used to make me angry. I could play!”

Generally, though, he was happy to play on it. He called his autobiography Biting Back, and enjoyed his light-hearted nickname, first given by a journalist but made famous by a banner in the Wembley stands at the 1972 FA Cup final.

Champions: Leeds United's Mick Jones and Norman Hunter celebrate after wrapping up the League Championship with a 0-0 draw against their closest rivals for the title.

One of his favourite after-dinner stories involved his wife telling her neighbour: “Our Norman came home with a terrible leg last night – all bruised and bleeding. The trouble is he doesn’t know who it belongs to.”

When Leeds coach Les Cocker was told Hunter had broken a leg, he was said to have replied: “Whose is it?”

Hunter played in an era when, in his own words, “You virtually had to commit murder to get sent off,” but he still managed from time to time. The Match of the Day footage of him trading punches with Derby County’s Francis Lee after a red card at the Baseball Ground is infamous.

By comparison, the push in the chest of Ricardo Sogliano which saw him dismissed late in the 1973 European Cup Winners’ Cup final was one of his gentler misdemeanours but that was a night when even the neutral Greek fans felt absentee-hit Leeds had been hard done-to by referee Christos Michas.

At last: Norman Hunter kisses his 1966 World Cup medal, presented by Prime Minister Gordon Brown. When England lifted the World Cup it was customary that only the 11 players on the pitch at the final whistle were awarded medals. The decision was later reversed and Hunter and others collected theirs in 2009.

At times, Hunter’s and Leeds’ fearsome reputations counted against them but the Elland Road crowd knew the true value of a County Durham boy who arrived as a scrawny teenager rejected by his beloved Newcastle United and was transformed into one of the club’s all-time greats thanks to Revie’s nous, his own natural ability and spirit, and a morning diet of a raw egg washed down with a glass of Harvey’s Bristol Cream sherry which often quickly come straight back up again.

Moore’s future international partner Jack Charlton played alongside Hunter on the latter’s September, 1962 debut at Swansea Town, and for most of the next 11 years. While his fellow north-easterner was imperious in the air, Hunter was brilliant at sweeping up.

Despite the ferocity of his tackling, there was a great resilience, playing over 50 games a season for nine consecutive campaigns, and in every major final Leeds were in between 1965 and 1975.

He was admitted to hospital during a week which saw a backlash against some of the belligerent language used about the coronavirus he contracted. If anything showed succumbing to covid-19 was down to fate, not a lack of fight, this was it. Norman Hunter would never lose a fight.

But as well as being a skilful footballer beneath the tough-guy image – he was also Leeds’ player of the year in 1970-71 – there was a generosity of spirit too. After picking up his only FA Cup winners’ medal in 1972, he ran back down to help his injured team-mate, Mick Jones, up the 39 steps to collect his.

When his direct involvement in the game was over and he became a local radio commentator, he was a popular figure in the Elland Road press lounge. He was a regular speaker in the Elland Road suite bearing his name and the last match he attended was the 2-0 win over Huddersfield Town, the final game before the coronavirus lockdown. He would have been delighted to see his adopted club closing in on a Premier League return.After leaving Leeds for three seasons at Bristol City in 1976, Hunter joined Barnsley, initially as a player, then winning promotion from Division Three in 1980-81 as player-manager before finally giving centre-forwards’ ankles a rest and staying in the dugout for his last two years at Oakwell.

Tributes are laid at Elland Road for Leeds United legend Norman Hunter. (Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe )

He had a spell coaching West Bromwich Albion and two years managing Rotherham United. He also coached Bradford City and had three games as Leeds’ caretaker manager after the sacking of his old captain Billy Bremner in 1988.

Whatever anyone else thought of him, at Elland Road, Hunter was adored. His passing will hit the generation who witnessed Leeds’ glory years hard, and touch many more who only knew the myths and legends he helped create.

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