Football: The man who had the passion to set Leeds aflame

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The Independent Online
At the heart of Leeds United's glory years was Billy Bremner. Today they go to Chelsea where he made his debut 27 years ago. David Robson remembers the midfielder who died this week.

They buried Billy Bremner on Thursday and today Leeds play Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. The celestial authorities certainly know how to make a week of it. For those with age and eyes to see, there will be ghosts out there in front of the Harding stand.

Billy made his first team debut for Leeds against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. He was 17. It was 1960.

Through his vintage years Chelsea were a special enemy but Billy was often too much for them, then he was often too much for any opposition. Certainly he scored brilliant goals that beat them in crucial matches; but in 1970 Chelsea inflicted a blow that stays forever in the Yorkshire memory. Leeds were trying to win three trophies that year and ended up winning none of them. There was the League (we got close), the European Cup (not so close) and the FA Cup (it still doesn't bear thinking about). Chelsea won the replay having been run off the pitch at Wembley to no conclusive effect. I saw, through yellow eyes, the Cup paraded down the King's Road on a double-decker bus escorted by several hundred hideous skinheads

It took Chelsea 25 years and the importation of half of Europe to create a team fit to compete with the memory of that Osgood, Cooke and Harris lot. Leeds never have produced a team to step into the boots of Billy's. Then they were bigger boots.

I remember watching him in one of his early games at Elland Road, he was small, slight, ginger-haired and whey-faced. He was playing on the wing and he ran a bit and scrapped a bit. I remember thinking he was probably just another crap player from Scotland and we'd had plenty of those. Actually we'd had plenty from everywhere. We were more or less useless. Always had been, always would be, it seemed.

Billy was not the beginning of us getting great; that was Don Revie and Bobby Collins and a board of directors with money and ambition. But he became the spirit of Leeds. He was brilliant and dirty, cynical and indomitable. He could do everything: win the ball, beat men, give it long, keep it short, shoot, head, see opportunities, make opportunities and score goals when all else had failed. He made opponents angry and thrived on it.

A lot of people who didn't love him hated him. Hated us. We were so damn good. At the start of the golden age that stretched from 1965 to '75 we were mean, well organised and hard to beat. By the end of it we were mean, well organised and absolutely sensational.

But perhaps there was some bad karma at play (as they say on the terraces). The lads talked to referees more than any other players on earth, sometimes spent the whole game talking to them, but it didn't stop them from getting some of the worst decisions in human history. It was normal to see Billy "doing" someone, getting penalised and looking aggrieved. Or Norman Hunter doing something trenchant to someone's leg, then raising a hand in acknowledgement to the referee ("Yes I know ref, fair cop! I did it, you saw, he felt it and I might do it again"). Oh yes, even we realised there was some moral ambiguity (as they say on the terraces).

I remember sitting in the upper tier at Stamford Bridge at a Chelsea- Leeds game and looking down on what nowadays they call "movement". It was awe-inspiring. Nobody ever had the ball without two or three options for laying it off - it was a game made easy. They played in tight little triangles on the left: Hunter-Cooper-Gray, each available for the other. Up front there was Mick Jones, always brave, always strong in the air, laying it off for Allan Clarke to be lethal in the strike. On the right wing there was Peter Lorimer, one of the weaker brethren in this company, but very strong with his right foot 25 yards from goal.

But above all, there was Bremner and Johnny Giles in the midfield, hard little men working brilliantly together, tackling, dribbling, weaving an intricate basketwork of passes between them as they moved upfield. Giles had the greater vision but it was Billy who had the passion, the fire that set the team aflame.

I talked to Alan Hudson yesterday, the most gifted Chelsea player of roughly that vintage (he was signing copies of his book The Working Man's Ballet; Billy's book was called You Get Nowt for Being Second).

How good was Billy? "He was brilliant. He was so good he made you play better against him - no going out on the night before a Leeds game." They were the best weren't they? "Yes, by far. They had great players in every position. We were probably two players short of being a great team."

Were they a dirty team? "Yes, very dirty." Would they have done even better if they hadn't been? "I don't think they could. It was part of their character. They liked frightening people." Did you hate them? "Yes, we hated them and they hated us. We'd like to have played them every week."