Norman Hunter had to wait 41 years for his World Cup winners’ medal – as a non-playing member of England’s 1966 squad he was not deemed entitled to one until the rules were eventually revised – yet the Leeds United centre-half’s no-nonsense playing style is as fondly remembered today as any other from the era when televised football turned local heroes into household names.
Partly that is to do with the wonderfully apposite nickname that followed him around after the 1972 FA Cup final against Arsenal, when a banner in the Leeds end declaring “Norman bites yer legs” was spotted and commented on by the studio pundit Brian Clough. There was more than a grain of truth in the assertion, though rather than being a menace on the pitch Hunter, whose death at the age of 76 was confirmed on Friday, was simply a brusquely physical defensive presence of a type common at the time.
Every team seemed to have a strongman with a memorable and fondly bestowed pet name – Liverpool had Tommy “Anfield Iron” Smith and Chelsea had Ron “Chopper” Harris – and though some of the tackling might be considered hair-raising by modern standards, half a century ago it was just part of the game. In a way Hunter did bite yer legs – opponents had to be good or quick to get past him – but first and foremost he was an excellent defender, not merely the enforcer his soubriquet tends to suggest.
Had Hunter not been able to play he would have been nowhere near a World Cup final at the age of 22. The reason he was unable to break into the side was because Alf Ramsey had decided Bobby Moore and Jack Charlton formed the best centre-back partnership and neither player became injured or did anything to warrant being replaced. Hunter just had to wait until 1970 but even then he found Everton’s experienced Brian Labone had moved ahead in the queue to play alongside Moore.
Hunter did manage to make an appearance in the ill-fated quarter-final against West Germany in Leon. He came on for Martin Peters with nine minutes remaining only to see Uwe Seeler send the game into extra time then Gerd Müller supply the Germany winner.
The defender’s luck was no better when he finally managed to break into the England team. He had replaced Moore in the side at long last for the 1973 game against Poland at Wembley that Ramsey’s team needed to win to qualify for the following year’s World Cup but ended up blaming himself for a mistake the visitors capitalised on to take the lead. Though England equalised, the win eluded them and for Ramsey as well as Hunter the World Cup trail came to an abrupt end.
While Hunter might have won more than 28 caps had he played at a time when England were not quite as well-equipped with centre-backs, his club career at least was eventful and rewarding. He played 540 times for Leeds after being scouted as a Gateshead schoolboy and signing on at the age of 15, making his debut at 19 and forming a partnership with Charlton that would last a decade.
Don Revie’s side were promoted from the Second Division in 1964 and were on course for a league and Cup double in the following season before losing to Liverpool in the 1965 FA Cup final and being pipped to the title by Manchester United on goal average.
Compensation for those disappointments arrived later in the decade as Leeds built on their success to become the strongest team in the country as the 60s turned into the 70s. Not necessarily the prettiest or best-liked, as Clough as Leeds manager is notoriously supposed to have pointed out, but there was no arguing with the eventual success under Revie, or that Elland Road had become the most daunting stadium for opposing teams.
With Hunter a fixture in the side Leeds won the title in 1969 and 1974, the FA Cup in 1972, and were losing finalists to Sunderland at Wembley a year later. The 1972-73 season also brought defeat in the European Cup Winners’ Cup final by Milan, a match in which Hunter was dismissed for retaliation at the end amid protests from the crowd over the impartiality of a referee who would receive a ban for match-fixing in subsequent games.
However that controversy was nothing next to the heated disputes over disallowed goals and non-awarded penalties that disfigured the 1975 European Cup final against Bayern Munich.
Franz Beckenbauer’s side won 2-0, though many still feel that Leeds, now being looked after by Jimmy Armfield after Revie had moved on to England, were cheated in Paris. The violent reaction from sections of the Leeds support resulted in the club being banned from European competition for two years, though it never needed to be applied as the great Elland Road years were effectively over.
Hunter moved on to Bristol City in 1976. The £40,000 fee was an eye-catching one for a 33-year-old and Hunter played more than 100 games for the Robins before moving back north to end his career with Barnsley. He tried his hand at management when he finished playing at Oakwell, lasting four years after taking over from Allan Clarke, though a later spell at Rotherham was shorter and his last.
Inevitably, perhaps, he spent later years as a meeter and greeter back at Elland Road, where he has a banqueting suite named in his honour. Every club should make the most of its legends, after all, and club legends do not come much bigger or bolder than Norman Hunter.