Football: `You're a dirty little so-and-so,' Ramsey said. `But you can play'

Ken Jones
Sunday 23 October 2011 01:57
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In February 1968, when Sir Alf Ramsey was running the England football team, he came across Billy Bremner in the foyer of a Glasgow hotel. It was a few hours after Scotland had drawn 1-1 with England at Hampden Park and Bremner, who was with the ace dribbler Charlie Cooke, addressed Ramsey politely. "Yes," Ramsey replied in that clipped way of his, "you're a dirty little so-and-so - but you can play."

When Bremner was telling the story a few years before his untimely death this week at just 54, repeating the dialogue word for word as though his encounter with Ramsey had taken place an hour before, one was struck with the many changes that have since occurred in football.

There were many more hard cases around then, but for all his fiery reputation, Bremner was not considered in the game to be one of them. He was too up front for qualification. The guys to worry about in the Leeds United team of Bremner's time were those whose ruthlessness seldom registered with the public.

This was not an uncommon feature of football in Bremner's day, and the news of his passing set me to thinking some more about it. Leeds were unloved but they did not hold a monopoly on intimidation.

I don't know how some of those players would have fared in the present climate, but today's crop should be grateful for the protection they are getting.

When mourners gather from Bremner's funeral today there will doubtless be some talk about this and what it was like to play against Leeds in the Don Revie era.

Like many football managers, Revie was a contradiction of himself as a player. An extremely skilful footballer who was at his best with Manchester City in the deep centre- forward role perfected by Nandor Hidegkuti of Hungary, he left the tough stuff to others.

Revie built skilful teams but they reflected the combination of ability and hardness he had admired at City in the Welsh international, Roy Paul.

Fired by Paul's example, Revie saw Bremner as the epitome of his policy; skill allied to spirit, passion and meanness. Because this was often carried too far, Leeds could not complain about the hostility that grew up around them.

However, they were unquestionably a great team and Bremner was at the heart of their successes, first with Bobby Collins, then John Giles, who both had to be approached with caution.

On the eve of the 1965 FA Cup final between Leeds and Liverpool it was put to Collins that it would be inadvisable to run the risk of being sent off at Wembley. With less than 15 minutes played, the Liverpool full-back Gerry Byrne was left with a badly damaged collar-bone after going into a tackle with Collins, the smallest player on the field.

I got to know Bremner quite well but not intimately. You don't have to be a roughneck if you grow up in the impoverished circumstances he knew as a boy in Stirling, and he wasn't. Wild, certainly, but there was a goodness in him to which his friends and team-mates always testify.

One of Bremner's finest hours came when he captained Scotland against Brazil in the 1974 World Cup finals. At the final whistle Bremner was still so fired up that he went around seeking an extension of hostilities. Feeling a pat on the head he turned angrily to find himself staring at the chest of an opponent who was smiling down at him.

Later, at Scotland's retreat, Bremner offered an explanation for his behaviour. "The bastard insulted me," he said. "Called me `Primo' whatever that means." "Billy," somebody said, "the big guy was paying you a compliment. He was saying that you were the best." Bremner hung his head in embarrassment.

For any Johnny-come-recently who never came across Bremner until his playing days were long past, and has only the evidence of videos to go on, it it is probably his truculence that springs first to mind.

That is selling Bremner short. I don't know where he fits in the pantheon of outstanding footballers, but as Ramsey said all those years ago, he could play. Couldn't he just.

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