The Interview Norman Hunter: A laugh instead of the bite

The most famous destroyer in football is cruising gently through his life nowadays.
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The Independent Online
THERE WAS a beautiful savagery about it, like a pair of bucks engaging antlers in the rutting season. Even now, three decades on, when Norman Hunter recalls what he euphemistically describes as "the odd confrontation with Peter Osgood", his eyes glisten with nostalgic fervour. It became a classic conflict, savoured by aficionados of both teams, and did not merely concern boot against shin, or torso against shoulder. This was a clash of two acerbic characters whose antipathy both on and off the ball encapsulated the enmity between two teams separated by the North- South divide - those same two clubs who renew hostilities at Stamford Bridge today.

Then, it was Don Revie's Leeds, purveyors of such rare talent but cynically efficient and calculating; and it was Tommy Docherty's Chelsea, all brash, flash and occasionally rash. Hunter and Osgood were potent symbols of their respective teams. "Oh, there was a tremendous rivalry between Ossie and myself," recalls Hunter, once the enthusiastic grim sweeper of all opposition bearing the shirt numbers 7 to 11, but now an avuncular 56- year-old.

"At 19, when he came on the scene, I thought, `Bloody hell. Who's this?' He was some player before he broke his leg. And he wasn't bad afterwards. You started getting into him a bit and to be fair he'd come back at you, would Ossie. He was not afraid at all."

Hunter still possesses that toothsome smile, rather reminiscent of a shark just about to clamp on to its prey, although one's limbs are now relatively safe from any cannibalistic urges of the man who, it used to be proclaimed famously on banners, would "bite yer legs".

"I remember we beat Chelsea 5-2 down at Stamford Bridge in 1970, the same year they defeated us in the FA Cup final," he remembers. "In the first half, Gary Sprake and I had a bit of a misunderstanding, and Ossie just got up and nodded it into the net. It put them 2-1 up. He went to the crowd, came back to me and jeered, `Where were you for that goal, Norman?'

"Fortunately TC [Terry Cooper] whacked in an equaliser and I looked for Ossie, ran over and growled at him, `Now we've got a game'. Then I got hold of his sideburns and pulled them. He had his hands down by his side, otherwise for two pins he'd have knocked my head off. We had a few square- ups like that in those days, but we laugh about it now."

Norman Hunter. The words have become a metaphor for the archetypal hatchet- man; a name to be positioned alongside Tommy Smith and Ron "Chopper" Harris and, in the rival supporters' perceptions, just behind Dr Crippen in Scotland Yard's Black Museum. You wonder that they didn't name warships after those three destroyers, the like of whom we will never see again.

"There was a fairly thick file on me at Lancaster Gate," the former England man admits wryly. "And that was at a time when you virtually had to commit murder to get sent off. There were two or three incidents when I was reckless and afterwards I've looked back and thought, `God Almighty, I haven't done that, have I?' But I had.

"You never intentionally went out to hurt anyone, but that will to win became so strong and you'd get wound up and the red mist would come down sometimes. Of course, you'd always pick them up and say, `I'm very sorry about that, ref'."

His only profound regrets are his infamous contretemps with Francis Lee at Derby and his aberration in the 1973 World Cup qualifier which contributed to England failing to be present at the following year's showpiece. "That's stayed with me ever since," he insists. "I was a defender and I should have put the ball in the Royal Box, but for some reason I tried to keep it in play."

It was certainly out of character for a man who, at club level, had been given one mission in life. "The gaffer would say to me, `Norman. You win the ball and you give it to those who can play.' And that was Giles, Bremner, Gray, Cooper and people like that. Not bad options, were they?" he says.

Hunter developed from a 15-year-old who was nearly rejected by Revie's predecessor, Jack Taylor, because he wasn't considered strong enough, into a performer who instilled trepidation into every forward he encountered. Together with Jack Charlton, he formed the Leeds rearguard upon which so many successful campaigns were based, domestically and in Europe.

Apart from Revie, his principal early influence was Charlton, although it could be an infuriating association for the student defender. "Big Jack used to boss us around. It was, `Do this, do that; stand there'. Even `Trap the ball, Norman'. He was like a traffic warden. One day we were playing West Ham at home and Jack got on at me about something, but I had a right go back at him. According to Jack I told him, `I've been with you long enough and I've learned my bloody lesson now.' And the Kop were roaring, `Go on, Norman, have a go at him.' Jack wasn't one to hold grudges, though."

The durable defender was to feature in no fewer than 10 finals, although Leeds won only four. "But I was there. I was part of it. That was the important thing. In 10 years we never finished out of the top four and twice we were champions. I wouldn't swap any of it with today's players, except for their money."

In 16 years at Elland Road he made more than 700 appearances, before departing for Bristol City, followed by a move to Barnsley, for whom Hunter also enjoyed a successful three years as manager before the inevitable sack.

He perceives many similarities between the Elland Road of the Sixties and Seventies and the present one, not least the way the spirit engendered by David O'Leary's team of the new Millennium matches that of Revie's squad. There is also a continuity between eras, a rarity in football these days. Eddie Gray is O'Leary's number two, Hunter himself shows corporate guests round Elland Road as well as following the team for BBC Radio Leeds, while Peter Lorimer and Allan Clarke also work for the club.

Revie's utilitarian approach meant that Leeds were never truly afforded the wider appreciation that their often sublime interplays merited. "It rankled me when I was younger, but doesn't bother me now," Hunter says. "With the team we had we should have won more. For two or three seasons, Leeds were as good as anyone, in Europe, anywhere. It was a little bit like Leeds at the moment. We got involved in far too many competitions."

One less to contend with this season after Wednesday's Worthington Cup defeat at Leicester. On to Stamford Bridge and back to the Premiership, a competition which their ex-player believes Leeds can win, if O'Leary's squad are reinforced early in the new year with a goalscorer in the Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink mould.

Today, Frank Leboeuf against Alan Smith and Jonathan Woodgate against Tore Andre Flo or Chris Sutton doesn't have quite the same edge as the days of yore, but Hunter is not one of those old-school enthusiasts who regale you with how "in my day, you could buy 10 footballers for sixpence and still have change. And they'd see this lot today off..."

Instead he maintains: "The good players now would have played in our day without a shadow of a doubt. Young Woodgate is going to be some player, while McPhail, Harte, Bowyer, who have benefited more than anybody under O'Leary, are far better players now. Bakke is going to be a good player, while Smith and Kewell are bubbling nicely."

He even has not one good word for Chelsea, but several. "As a passing and moving team there are none better, and Vialli has done very well, but their foreigners are finding that our League is very demanding," he says. In that respect, not too much has changed since those battling days of the Norman conquest.