This afternoon, I was desperately sad to hear of the passing of ex-Leeds United centre back Norman Hunter’s from COVID-19, at the age of 76.
Even when you’re not personally acquainted with the deceased, it’s a sombre time when the lost contributed towards numerous existential high points. Throw into the mix this childhood idol passed from contracting the insipid COVID-19 virus, circumstances which ascend melancholy levels to an altogether higher plateau.
Despite the players also being my childhood heroes, I can’t recall experiencing similar levels of distress upon hearing of the passing of Hunter’s fellow warriors in white, Billy Bremner and Paul Madeley. I can only surmise the nature of his demise has elevated my indignation levels.
The first time I saw Norman Hunter play lives was Saturday 19th September 1970. An occasion where he stood imposingly in the Leeds defence during a 1-0 victory over Southampton; the winning goal courtesy of a Johnny Giles spot kick.
During the game, Southampton also were awarded a penalty. Whether one of Norman’s trademark uncompromising challenges precipitated the penalty I’m unable to recall. Whoever was the culprit was redeemed, though, when Leeds goalkeeper Gary Sprake saved his fellow Welshman Ron Davies spot kick.
Sprake’s leap to his left similar to the one he’d made when conceding a soft Peter Houseman goal in the Leeds v Chelsea FA Cup Final a few months earlier. Thankfully, though, on this occasion he managed to stop the ball crossing the goal line.
That September afternoon will always be indelibly etched in my mind. I was seven years old and recall excitedly striding towards my rite of passage while walking down Lowfields Road with my dad.
As we navigated our way through the massed throng of Leeds United supporter towards the ground, the legacy Lowfields Road stand was the most prominent view while heading Elland Road Kop bound, via the tunnel astride the M62.
My old man was a man of few words. However, even if he had’ve proffered dialogue in my direction, I probably not’ve heard him anyway. I was too wrapped up in the occasion and the anticipation of the metaphorical ceremony where I’d initiated into a tribe which, like the mafia, once I’d joined there’d be no going back…… Not that I’d ever want to, I’d hasten to add!
On arriving through the stand’s turnstiles, I marched my dad as hastily as my little legs would allow up the lower Kop stairs. Coming to a halt atop these steps, rendered temporarily static on witnessing the massed terracing and vast emerald pitch, which to my 7 year eyes looked impossibly vast.
The old man led me to the front of the lower terracing behind the goal, plumping me on a stanchion, my viewing point for the next couple of hours. A hundred and twenty minutes where introduced to the wanderlust consequential from the redolences and atmosphere while football crowd in situ.
This redolence the scent of Tetley Bitter (of varying staleness), cigarette smoke and Bovril. I realise this doesn’t really translate as an appealing aromatic amalgam, but I was in clover experiencing this, along with crowd euphoria the match. Even marvelling at the audiences dangerous sporadic surges.
Footnote – The occasional surging from the Kop’s pinnacle down to the wall housing the boundary advertisements was a precarious vertical Mexican Wave. The momentum it generated flinging the people like toppling dominoes.
We’d moved to Gateshead around that time with my dad’s job, close to Norman Hunter’s childhood home of Eighton Banks. Mercifully, though, my old man to me on a path to the altar praising Leeds United, my place of birth and roots. Thankfully, he intervened when he did, negating me treading the barren path as a disciple of one of the north east teams.
I feel truly blessed to’ve had the opportunity to witness the great Revie team. Allan Clarke and Mick Jones as main strikers, Giles, Bremner, Lorimer and Eddie Gray the sides engine room. The defence imperiously marshalling by Norman Hunter, aided by Jack Charlton, Paul Reaney, Terry Cooper and Paul Madeley.
The defenders, five England international footballers whose boots were laden with stardust; capable of contributing as much offensively as they did when required to ‘put in a tackle’. The latter winning them few friends; maddeningly allowing prejudiced critics, including the London press, ammunition to water down the teams genius at their trade to those who didn’t know better.
Leeds United of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s one of the greatest teams to have graced English club football. A side with eleven international players, a meticulously astute manager and vociferous following. A side with trainer Les Cocker, spirited enough to allow his diminutive frame fireman’s lift injured players from the field. As skilled an exponent of magic sponge application as you’d see.
To clarify, I’m by no stretch of the imagination a diehard fan. I don’t follow the team away like many thousands of Leeds supporters do, and although witnessing hundreds of home games over nearly five decades and possessing a wealth of knowledge about the club, these days I only go to the odd game…… This despite living back in Leeds for the last 24 years).
I met Norman Hunter a few years back during an evening of footballing anecdotes at the Old Peacock pub, opposite Leeds United’s Elland Road ground. Following his tales of footballing yore, this gracious guy signed me a picture of him celebrating Leeds’ winning FA Cup final goal in 1972.
On the reverse side of the photo he kindly wrote a note to my incurably ill estranged wife who hails from a north east town a mile from where Norman grew up. Knowing of the uncompromising nature of Birtley lasses, unfortunately he was reticent to pen my requested message of ‘Would you let Gary go to the Norwich match, please!….. All the best Norman Hunter!”
RIP Norman Hunter
Is that the sound of St Peter looking for his shin pads I hear?!