Norman Hunter obituary

Uncompromising defender who won two league titles with Leeds United and was a member of England’s 1966 World Cup squad

The footballer Norman Hunter, who has died aged 76 after contracting Covid-19, was a hardman with an abrasive style and a formidable left foot. He was an essential element of the Leeds United team that achieved such success and notoriety under the managership of Don Revie in the 1960s and 70s. He was also a member of England’s World Cup winning squad of 1966.

His popular nickname was Norman “bites yer legs” Hunter, and the epithet was well deserved. Detailed to perform an uncompromising, committed role at centre-half, he was a crucial element in a Leeds team that for much of its reign was widely disliked as cynical and mean.

Operating alongside another tough figure in the tall centre-half Jack Charlton, Hunter’s fierce tackling made life easier for the club’s two creative players, Billy Bremner and Johnny Giles, to whom he would feed the ball that he so often won. Revie was given to praising Hunter with such frequency after matches that his oft-repeated remark “Wasn’t Norman Hunter marvellous?” turned into something of a comedic catchphrase. As Leeds became more successful, they gradually modulated into a team that could play elegant football, but Hunter rarely stooped to such frivolity.

Stories of his misdemeanours were legion, and he told many of them himself in later years. Even as a player in times when hard tackling was the norm and sendings-off were a rarity, Hunter admitted that the Football Association had “a fairly thick file” on him at its headquarters in Lancaster Gate. Once, notoriously, in a match between Leeds and Derby County in 1975, he came to blows with his England teammate Francis Lee and both were dismissed after the argument turned into a spectacular and prolonged fist fight. He also entertained a long-running feud with the Chelsea striker Peter Osgood, whose sideburns he was given to grabbing and pulling.

Norman Hunter with England 1966 squad
Norman Hunter (back row, fifth from right) with other players and staff from England’s 1966 World Cup squad. Photograph: PA

“You never intentionally went out to hurt anyone, but the will to win became so strong that you’d get wound up – and the red mist would come down sometimes,” he once said. “Of course, you’d always pick the player up and say ‘I’m very sorry about that, ref.’”

Born in Gateshead, Norman was brought up by his mother, Betty, and two football-playing uncles; his father, also Norman, died before his birth. But it was Leeds, not his local team Newcastle United, who took him on straight from school. A lightweight in his early years, he was eventually built up by Revie’s trusted daily concoction of sherry and raw egg, and if he was never a stylish footballer, his highly dependable presence in defence did much to help the club achieve glory.

With Leeds he won the First Division Championship (in 1969 and 1974), an FA Cup winners’ medal in 1972, the League Cup (1968) and the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup (1968 and 1971). Yet the team were frequently bridesmaid rather than bride, five-times second in the First Division and three times in the FA Cup. Twice, in European competition, they were also runners-up, though each time denied by dubious refereeing. In 1973, in Salonika, when they lost to Milan in the final of the European Cup Winners’ Cup, Hunter was sent off by Christos Michas, a Greek referee, who later received a life ban for match‑fixing. Two years later Leeds again suffered from suspect refereeing in the European Cup final against Bayern Munich, in which Hunter also played. Between those two disappointments, in 1974, Hunter was voted the first ever player of the year by the Professional Footballers’ Association.

Norman Hunter and Manny Cussins
Norman Hunter receives a silver tray from chairman Manny Cussins to commemorate his 600th game for Leeds United. Photograph: Colorsport/Shutterstock

He won the first of his 28 England caps, plus three more, in the 1965‑66 season, and was picked for the England squad for the 1966 finals, although he did not play in any of the matches. His international career was always and inevitably overshadowed by another, more cultured, No 6 – Bobby Moore – and came to a halt at Wembley in 1973 after an uncharacteristically ill-starred World Cup qualifying match against Poland, when he allowed the clever winger Grzegorz Lato to glide past him and set up a goal for Jan Domarski, which would eventually restrict England to a 1-1 draw and eliminate them from the competition.

In 1976 he left Leeds after 14 years and more than 500 league appearances, moving to newly promoted Bristol City, where he stayed for three years. He then joined Third Division Barnsley, where his former Leeds teammate Allan Clarke was the manager. He made 31 league appearances for Barnsley, moving up from his coaching role to become manager when Clarke took the job at Leeds in 1980. He raised the team to the Second Division and stayed in the post until 1984, when he was dismissed after a run of six games without a victory, complaining that football was “a sneaky business”.

Giles, another former Leeds teammate, promptly gave Hunter a coaching job at West Bromwich Albion, but travelling to and from the Midlands was wearying, and he returned to Yorkshire to manage Rotherham in 1985. There he stayed until 1987, when he was dismissed after a humbling 4-0 FA Cup defeat to non-league Macclesfield.

Two more appointments in Yorkshire followed: first in 1988 as a coach at Leeds, where he was sacked by the manager Howard Wilkinson a year later, then as assistant manager at Bradford City under another ex-Leeds player, Terry Yorath, who also dismissed him in 1990. “I’m looking forward to doing something outside football,” he said ruefully afterwards, and settled down to after-dinner speaking, a small property business and some ghosted journalism.

World Cup squad members in 1966 did not receive winners’ medals but, following a campaign by the FA many years later, Hunter was presented with a World Cup medal at Downing Street in 2009.

He is survived by his wife, Sue, son, Michael, daughter, Claire, and grandsons, Sam, Max and Ted.

Norman Hunter, footballer, born 29 October 1943; died 17 April 2020


Brian Glanville

The GuardianTramp

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