Football: Farewell to Leeds' `greatest captain'

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The Independent Online
A small church in the south Yorkshire village of Old Edlington was the setting yesterday for football's farewell to Billy Bremner, who died on Sunday two days before his 55th birthday.

Former team-mates of the Leeds United captain and Scotland midfielder, such as Johnny Giles, Norman Hunter, Duncan McKenzie, Allan Clarke, Eddie Gray, Terry Yorath, Terry Cooper, Gordon McQueen, Joe Jordan, Paul Reaney and Peter Lorimer, were among the congregation.

The former Derby County warhorse, Dave Mackay, was there as well, bringing to mind the famous photograph of the celebrated hard man holding Bremner by the scruff of his shirt as the young, flame-haired Leeds player protests his innocence.

Present day players were there too - Newcastle United's David Batty especially will have good cause to remember Bremner. He followed his hometown club as a child, with Bremner as its focal point. Several years later it was Bremner who, as manager of Leeds, had the foresight to sign the equally forceful youngster who went on to become an England international.

Fresh from Turin, Alex Ferguson walked sombrely alone to the church. "I knew him for a long time," said Bremner's fellow Scot and Manchester United manager. "He still had the same great enthusiasm for Leeds. He was a great player for Leeds United and Scotland."

Lorimer found the suddenness of Bremner's death from a heart attack hard to bear. "It's such a tragedy that he died so young, but I am proud to have known him and to have had the honour of playing with him," he said.

Bremner was a legend at Elland Road, making 585 League appearances for Leeds between 1959 and 1976. He won two championships, the FA Cup, the League Cup and two European Fairs Cups. He was voted Footballer of the Year in 1970 and was capped 54 times by his country.

There will always be sadness when a former leading player dies, but yesterday's ceremony was more about celebrating a life which had enriched so many lives in the 60s and 70s.

Even Father Gerry Harney, the priest at St Mary's Church, regaled the congregation with his own tales of Bremner - particularly a goal from 40 yards against Celtic in the semi-final of the European Cup.

"The throng went wild with joy, an immortal moment among immortal moments," he said. "He has achieved so much and has meant so much to so many. Billy served his country at football with passion and with pride. It was the only way he knew."

In one simple statement Father Harney underlined just what Bremner, who had been the catalyst for Leeds' greatest moments (from the FA Cup of 1972 to the League championship of 1974) meant to so many.

Yellow roses adorned the coffin and wreaths of yellow, purple and white - the colours of Leeds - surrounded the hearse. A wreath from the former Leeds United captains, Gordon Strachan and Gary McAllister, carried a tribute which read: "To Leeds United's greatest captain. It is an honour to follow in your footsteps."

Outside the church, Leeds fans from different generations stood side by side. Such was the stature of Bremner that his name still adorns the No 4 shirt in the club shop. Several were worn by mourners - one by a teenage boy too young to have witnessed his idol's greatest moments.

Even the weather turned in the favour of those who had come to pay their last respects. The threat of heavy rain was replaced by bright sunshine but when the congregation emerged after the two-hour service, the sun hid again as though honouring Bremner as well.

Among the crowd, a Leeds supporter stood beside a fan in a Manchester United shirt in mutual mourning. The respect Bremner commanded had crossed the great divide.