Liam Mackey on Norman Hunter: The show-stopper

We all of us have our first FA Cup final, the one against which all the others which followed have to be measured. It might not have been the greatest ever, it might even have been one for others to forget but, precisely because it was your first one, it captured the imagination and cemented your love affair with the game.
Liam Mackey on Norman Hunter: The show-stopper

Norman Hunter, pictured here in 1969, was described by his former Leeds team-mate Johnny Giles as ‘a truly great player. He read the game exceptionally well, and was the best defender I ever played with.’ Picture: PA Wire
Norman Hunter, pictured here in 1969, was described by his former Leeds team-mate Johnny Giles as ‘a truly great player. He read the game exceptionally well, and was the best defender I ever played with.’ Picture: PA Wire

We all of us have our first FA Cup final, the one against which all the others which followed have to be measured. It might not have been the greatest ever, it might even have been one for others to forget but, precisely because it was your first one, it captured the imagination and cemented your love affair with the game.

Lucky me, I was 11 years old in 1970, and so got to enjoy two for the price of one: Leeds United against Chelsea, the first replayed Cup final since 1912. The first game was a four-goal thriller on a Wembley pitch corrugated by the Horse of the Year Show and the second, oh joy of joys, unfolded under the atmospheric lights of Old Trafford.

For an increasingly football-obsessed kid sitting in front of a black and white TV in Tallaght, this was like Christmas Day happening twice in the same month. Nor was I the only one similarly enraptured. The 50th anniversary of that replay arrives on April 29 and I know one Leeds supporter, of the same vintage as myself, who is going to mark the occasion by watching the whole thing again, on the night, and in ‘real time’.

It will be a bittersweet nostalgia fest for him, however, since a David Webb header sealed a 2-1 win victory for Chelsea in Manchester. But, at the time, it didn’t really matter to my young mind who came out on top: it was enough that I was getting this rare opportunity — and a double helping at that — to feast my eyes on players, irrespective of whether they wore white or blue, whose names were already colonising my consciousness: Mick Jones, Allan Clarke, Eddie Gray, Johnny Giles, Charlie Cooke, Peter Osgood… Back then, It was about the ball-players for me: the wingers, the strikers, the midfield maestros. Put it this way: I wouldn’t have been running out into the back garden pretending to be Jack Charlton or Norman Hunter.

I mean, who’d want to be a stopper when you could be a sniffer? Nope, those other lads — the “teak-tough centre-halves” of print cliché — were just that little bit less seductive. (OK, read scary). Especially when, like Hunter, they came with a nickname that doubled as a health warning: ‘Bites Yer Legs’. Even Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris had to yield to that one.

Once a reputation takes hold in football, it can be hard to separate the myth from the truth. On being told one day that Hunter had broken a leg, did the Leeds coach Les Cocker really reply, “Whose is it?” No matter, it’s a good one, and it appears to fit the legend well.

Even as a wide-eyed kid for whom anything football-related was a gift to be treasured, I would not have been entirely blind to the naked ferocity with which the game was often played in those days. Indeed, the 1970 FA Cup final replay — for all its edge of the seat drama — has long since come to be regarded as a dubious classic of the genre. A few years ago, David Ellary re-refereed the game according to the laws as they now apply. His conclusion? There would have been six sendings off and 20 yellow cards doled out.

(For the record, the actual referee on the night, one Eric Jennings from Stourbridge booked only one player, Chelsea’s Ian Hutchinson, prompting Hugh McIlvanney’s memorable observation that it looked like a sending off would only have occurred “on production of a death certificate”).

One of the players likely to have seen red if the game was played now was Norman Hunter — certainly for the incident in which he was seen trading punches with the aforementioned Hutchinson. Yes, that might have done it, right enough. (In fact, five years later, another altogether more famous brawl would indeed see Hunter — and Frannie Lee — sent off after an almost comically wind-milling altercation at Derby County’s Baseball Ground).

But — and here’s the key point — there was much more to Norman Hunter than a player whose sole objective was to stop opponents, whether by fair means or foul. Just as there was so much more to Don Revie’s brilliant team than the caricature of the brutally mean machine which persists in some quarters to this day. And I have, as my witness, no less an authority than a man who was at the very heart of it all: the player formerly known as Johnny Giles.

In his autobiography, A Football Man, here is what the sage has to say about Norman Hunter, someone he describes as having been as obsessed about football as anyone he knew: “Norman Hunter had a tremendous attitude from the start — a truly great player. In training sessions, he always showed enthusiasm. I was a good trainer myself and wouldn’t stand any nonsense, but Norman was exemplary. He read the game exceptionally well, and was the best defender I ever played with.

“Faced by two, or even three attackers, he could frustrate them and buy time until teammates could recover.

“On the Norman ‘Bites Yer Leg’ issue, from the start it was clear to me that he was much, much better than that. I knew if Norman was thirty or forty yards from me, with the ball on his left side, I would receive the ball straight to my feet. Don Revie adored him.

“When we’d have a golf day, Peter Lorimer and I would always play Don and Norman. In the dressing room on the day before the golf game, Don would say, ‘Are we taking them on tomorrow, son?’

“Playing with your dad tomorrow, are we Norm?’ we would mock when Don left the room. Norman hated that.”

The takeaway line? Has to be the one where Giles says that Norman Hunter “was the best defender I ever played with”. That bears repeating: the best defender he ever played with. And, as we know, John Giles, one of the great students as well as practitioners of the game, has never been a man to lightly hand out compliments. Nor one to ever allow bias to cloud his judgement.

Former England international Hunter remained a Leeds ambassador up until his death, at the age of 76, from coronavirus, and regularly attended games at Elland Road. Fondly remembering the man, as much as the player, the club’s chief executive Angus Kinnear told the Yorkshire Evening Post: “Norman was adored by everyone he came into contact with throughout the years and it is heartbreaking to think the next time we meet again at Elland Road for a game, after we have defeated the vile illness which has taken Norman from us, that he won’t be on stage in the Suite named after him, sharing his many stories with the room.

“When Norman took to the stage you could hear a pin drop. Supporters of all ages have listened to every word he has said for over a decade in his role as an ambassador at the club. He leaves behind him a heartbroken family and our thoughts and prayers today are with his daughter Claire, son Michael, his three grandchildren and of course his wife Sue who has been his rock throughout the years, especially recently when he has experienced some health issues.

“He also leaves behind a devastated family at the club — from his former team mates such as Eddie Gray, Peter Lorimer and Paul Reaney, to our staff in Stuart Dodsley and Charlotte Taylor who worked with him every week in the West Stand and adored him.

“Rest assured, once it is safe to do so, we will find a suitable way for fans to commemorate Norman and celebrate his life. Leeds United will never forget Norman Hunter, he will always be in our hearts.”

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