Norman Hunter: Leeds' legendary hardman bleeds for the soul of his once-great club

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The Independent Football

Leeds United v Derby County at Elland Road. Once upon a time, that would have constituted a clash between two of the powerhouses in English football.

Indeed, in the 1971-72 season, Don Revie's Leeds had only to draw their final match against Wolves to pip Brian Clough's Derby to the title. Later, there were reports that Revie had offered Wolves some money to roll over. If he did, the bribe wasn't taken. Wolves unexpectedly won 2-1, Derby were champions and Leeds had to settle for second place, albeit with the considerable consolation prize of the FA Cup in the venerable competition's centenary year.

What would the club and its ever-faithful supporters give now for such disappointments? This afternoon against Derby they begin their campaign in the Championship (as last season's First Division is now known) four years after starting the season with reasonable ambitions to win the Premiership title. The decline and fall of Leeds United is a story of greed, hubris and mismanagement, but at least there will always be some glorious memories to wallow in, and not a few of them are personified by the 60-year-old Norman Hunter.

"Last year destroyed me," says the man who played at centre-half in the greatest Leeds side of all time. "I watched it all for BBC Radio Leeds, and it was ever so hard. Everybody lays the blame on somebody, mainly on Peter Ridsdale for blindly following a dream, and allowing David O'Leary to spend too much, but I was no different to any fan. When we were playing Barcelona and Real Madrid, I wasn't saying: 'Don't buy this or that player, don't spend too much money'. I was saying: 'Ooh, go on then. Buy him'.

"Anyway, there's no point blaming anyone now. We have to concentrate on what's ahead. At the end of last season I didn't want to watch any football ever again, but then Euro 2004 came along and I got all wrapped up in that, then I started looking at who we'd bought and who we'd sold, then the fixture lists came out and I started looking to see who we were playing and when. Suddenly there's a different kind of outlook. And we couldn't have a better game to start off with than against Derby, another fallen giant."

It was against Derby, at the old Baseball Ground in the 1975-76 season, that Hunter secured his place in football's annals of infamy, with an epic punch-up with Francis Lee that resulted in both players being sent off. In his newly-published autobiography, Biting Talk, Hunter declines to let bygones be bygones.

"People write and talk about present-day players diving in a bid to win a penalty but Franny and Rodney Marsh were brilliant at it in my day," he writes. "They used to run straight at you with the ball, knock it past you and then go down."

It is fortuitous, if only for the sales of Hunter's book, that his beloved Leeds are in their current predicament. As well as wanting the lowdown on the Revie era, folk will want to know what he thinks are the club's chances of bouncing straight back up. Or, heaven and a revolving subterranean Don Revie forbid, sliding even further down.

"That was my biggest concern," he says. "That we might do a Sheffield Wednesday. But I don't think that's going to happen. Not with the players we have and the fan base. We averaged nearly 40,000 at Elland Road last year and got relegated. And although a lot of good players have gone, we have the nucleus of another good team. We've got [Michael] Ricketts up front, [Julian] Joachim, [Danny] Cadamarteri. [Paul] Butler, the big centre half from Wolves has had two promotions from the First Division to the Premiership, so he knows what it's all about. We've still got Gary Kelly and [Michael] Duberry. Fraser Richardson is a very good young player. I think we'll be in there pushing for the play-offs."

But not necessarily rejoining the top flight? "I think that will be very difficult. [Manager] Kevin Blackwell has done very well, but it will be a tall order to go straight back up. I saw the quality of the play-offs last season. It's not an easy division to get out of."

It never was. In Revie's first full season as player-manager, 1961-62, his task was not so much to get Leeds out of the old Second Division into the First, but to prevent the drop into the Third. The notion of not only gaining promotion but building a side that would win European trophies, and come within a goal of winning the Double must have seemed ludicrously remote, as it must now to Blackwell. But Revie did just that, thanks not least to the promise he saw in a skinny Geordie, on whom he forced a daily glass of sherry with a raw egg mixed into it. And not just any old sherry, but Harvey's Bristol Cream. "But there were still times when it made me throw up," says Hunter, as his wife brings us a more conventional Yorkshire brew.

The Hunters live in a nice detached house in a genteel northern suburb of Leeds. His playing style, of course, was neither detached nor genteel. I ask whether it ever bothered him that his reputation was that of a hard man with an uncompromising tackle? After all, he was the inaugural Players' Player of the Year in 1974, so he certainly had the respect of his peers.

Yet among the fans, he was cast as little more than a highly effective bruiser. When I interviewed the old Liverpool enforcer Tommy Smith, he grumbled that he was never given the credit he deserved for his ability to play. But Hunter claims to have suffered no such frustrations.

"I was never concerned about anyone outside the Elland Road dressing room," he says, "except maybe for Alf Ramsey." Even inside the dressing-room, Revie would only half-jokingly cast him as a one-dimensional footballer, reminding him that his job was to secure the ball and distribute it to the play-makers. "And he was right. Win it and give it to [Johnny] Giles or [Billy] Bremner. That's what I did."

Nonetheless, Hunter finds it remarkable that his name is synonymous even now with the turbo-charged tackle.

"It's quite amazing, really, why all those reputations should stick around from our era. The famous football hard men, even now, are Nobby Stiles, Tommy Smith, Chopper Harris and Norman Hunter, and I wonder why.

"Even youngsters seem to know about us. There have been plenty of hard men since, harder men than me, but that period just seems to stick in people's minds."

I ask Hunter whether he ever intimidated an opposing player in the tunnel before a match, as Smith did. With a few choice words, two of which invariably were "effing" and "hospital", Smith was able, on occasion, to put the wind up an opponent to the extent that he was unable to concentrate on the game.

"No, I never did that. But Don Revie always used to tell us to go in hard with the first tackle, because the referee would never book you for the first one. We used to call it the freebie. I'd go in hard, pick 'em up, say sorry to the referee, and sometimes you hardly saw the player again. Jimmy Greaves was one who didn't like it, although having said that, he scored against me almost every time we played, did Jimmy. That was a brilliant era for forward play, and most of them hunted in pairs; [Alan] Gilzean and Greaves, Jeff Astle and Tony Brown, Denis Law and Georgie Best. I used to love playing against all those guys. I was never the quickest, and always had to give myself a start against a fast lad, but I could read situations."

However, he got the script badly wrong in England's infamous World Cup qualifier against Poland, in 1973. It is often forgotten that Hunter was part of England's 1966 World Cup squad, and by 1973 he was still very much on the international scene. But he it was who lost the ball on Wembley's half-way line, whereupon Poland cancelled out Allan Clarke's opening goal. A dazzling performance by the Polish goalkeeper, Jan Tomacewski, ensured that England, world champions only seven years earlier, were denied a place in the following year's World Cup finals in West Germany, which in turn caused Big Ben to stop chiming, and Admiral Nelson to fall off his column in Trafalgar Square. At any rate, a shocked nation mourned.

Not, of course, that Hunter needs any reminding of the implications of that unhappy 1-1 draw. "It's funny," he says, with admirable lack of rancour, "I played over 700 games for Leeds, 120-odd games for Bristol City, and I'm remembered for three things: Norman bites yer legs [famously emblazoned on a Leeds United banner at the 1968 League Cup final], the punch-up with Francis Lee, and that goal against Poland. I was never even given a chance to forget about it, because every fourth year, when we tried to qualify for the World Cup, who did we draw in our group? Bloody Poland. And so the television clip of me missing the ball on the halfway line, Barry Davies commentating, them scoring, kept being shown again and again. Unbelievable."

He proclaims it unbelievable, too, that his mentor, Revie, might ever have been involved in match-rigging. But he is aware of the rumours, which surfaced again recently when Bob Stokoe died. Stokoe loathed Revie, largely because he insisted that the Leeds manager had tried to bribe him, when he was manager at Bury.

"I'll defend Don Revie to the hilt," Hunter says. "My father died before I was born, I went there when I was 15, and he was a father figure to me. I got on extremely well with him, about as well as a player and manager could. He may have bent the rules a bit, and I noticed certain things myself, but I still think he was the best manager I've ever seen."

Hunter's praise for Revie is hardly unexpected; not so the implication that the great man may indeed have been corrupt. What does he mean by saying that he "noticed certain things" himself? "Well, I heard those things that Bob Stokoe said, and there's no smoke without fire," he says, disingenuously.

"But he was a fantastic manager. Nobody paid more attention to detail than him and Alf Ramsey. He had all his famous dossiers on the opposition, and his methods were before their time. When he was England manager he tried to get Admiral to sponsor the kit, and got hammered for it. Look at sponsorship now! He also used to tell us to take the ball into the corner if we were winning with a couple of minutes to go. That was unheard of at the time. Everyone just played until the 90 minutes were up. But not Don Revie."

I make one final attempt to drag Hunter back to the subject of bribery and corruption, of there being "no smoke without fire". But he can't be nutmegged. "I never knew of money changing hands, not that I'd tell you if I did. The only time was when we were in Salonika for the European Cup-Winner's Cup final [against Milan in 1972-73] and the press guys were telling us that the referee could be bought. I thought that was awful. He gave us nothing all night, and later he was suspended."

Hunter doesn't add that he was sent off against Milan that night. Indeed, with his error in the England v Poland game, and Sunderland beating Leeds in the FA Cup final, 1973 was something of an annus miserabilis for him. Not as miserable as 2004, although if Derby are thumped this afternoon as emphatically as Francis Lee once was, things will start to look up.

Biting Talk by Norman Hunter, is published by Hodder & Stoughton (£18.99)