Two Years On

Yesterday marked the second anniversary of the passing (from COVID-19) of ex-Leeds United footballer Norman Hunter. The indiscriminate pathogen, which’s tainted millions of lives globally, proving a hard man reputation wouldn’t deter it from maintaining a path of death and economic destruction.

Enclosed below is the narrative I penned twenty four months ago in tribute to one of my childhood heroes. A fella who, along with his equally skilled, and at times equally uncompromising, teammates ensured several years of my childhood were laden with footballing clover.

My reverential prose playing out as follows:-

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 and circumstances seem to 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. Although riddled with sadness when the aforementioned duo passed, I can only surmise the nature of Norm’s demise have elevated my heightened indignation levels to their current plateau.

The first time I saw Norman Hunter play live 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 were also awarded a penalty. I’m unable to recollect if one of Norman’s trademark uncompromising challenges precipitated the penalty. However, whoever was the culprit was soon redeemed 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 the commencement of this rite of passage as while sauntered down Lowfields Road with my dad.

Navigating our way towards the ground through a massed throng of Leeds United supporters, I recall the most prominent view as we weaved toward Elland Road was the legacy Lowfields Road stand. Not that we were destined for ‘the Lowfields’, once we’d wandered through the tunnel astride the M621.

No, the Gelderd End (popularly known as the Kop) with it’s out of tune chanters, sporadic surges forward (scattered anyone in its path) and slowly cascading urine streams was where my Leeds United induction would take place.

The previous paragraph may seem quite a horrific experience, especially when compared to the sanitised Premier League zeitgeist. Particularly the dangerous surges which were admittedly pretty daunting for a seven year old boy. That being said, they took not one jot of euphoria away from this footballing rite of passage.

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 (predominantly) emerald coloured pitch. The playing area to my seven year eyes looking 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 until 5pm. A hundred and twenty minutes being of wanderlust consequential from the redolences and atmosphere experienced while football crowd in situ.

This redolence the scents 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. An episode of initiation amongst a like-minded brio filled congregation…… If truth be told, yours truly even marvelling wide=eyed at the dangerous sporadic surges instigated by those at the back of the stand.

Footnote – As mentioned earlier, the occasional surging from the Kop’s pinnacle down to the wall housing pitch side advertisements was a precarious vertical Mexican Wave. The momentum it generated flinging the people like toppling dominoes.

We’d moved to Low Fell, Gateshead, around that time with my dad’s job, close to Norman Hunter’s childhood home of Eighton Banks. Mercifully, though, when it came to choosing tribes my old man led me on a path whose destination was the Leeds United altar; my place of birth and roots. His intervention negating me spending decades treading the trophy barren path trodden by disciples of 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 detractors, including the London press, ammunition to water down the teams genius.

However, instead of the club and its fans taking umbrage at the misguided critiques from detractors they fed off this toxicity. The cabal of accusers galvanising the tribe into a dynasty which thrived from the hatred. A ‘no one likes us we don’t care’ mantra adopted as opposed to a more conciliatory “Forgive them father for they know not what they do.” stance.

Leeds United of my childhood, 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, who was 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, he graciously 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 adjacent to the village where Norman grew up. Sadly, knowing of the uncompromising nature of Birtley lasses, 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?!

A Subbuteo take on the infamous Norman Hunter and Francis Lee scrap

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