This interview is from The Square Ball’s Alternative History of Leeds United, a special edition magazine published in 1991. There isn’t an author named on the article, but the magazine at the time was being edited by Ian Dobson, as it was from 1989 to 2009. As we can’t credit the author, we hope you’ll take a look at Ian’s excellent book, a compendium of the best of the first twenty years of The Square Ball, available to buy here.
In the interview, Norman talks about playing for Don Revie, the unique crops of kids that came through with him at Leeds, superstitions, and regrets: how often Leeds came close came to winning what they should, only to have it snatched away. Perhaps that’s why in other interviews, when he was asked about his memories, he wouldn’t think about medals but about the team he played in. As he puts it here:
“That was what I used to do. Just win it and give it to Billy Bremner or Johnny Giles, T.C. or Eddie Gray. Terrible options! If I got stuck I used to knock it up the park to Clarkey and Jonesy. What a hard job I had, didn’t I?”
Norman Hunter, a fierce and competitive tackler. Known throughout football as a ‘hard man’ in the days when the likes of Tommy Smith and Chopper Harris would have made Vinnie Jones seem like a pussycat, this reputation tended to overshadow the fact that Hunter was a footballer of no mean skill. The pedigree of the players he lined up alongside demanded nothing less than the best and Norman was just that.
“When I came as a kid at fifteen-and-a-half, Billy [Bremner] had just got into the team as a seventeen year old and was playing on the right wing. Big Jack [Charlton] was playing centre-half. The manager was Jack Taylor, who left, and when I was seventeen it was Don Revie who signed me as a pro.
“There were so many who came through as kids — Sprake, Paul Reaney, T.C. [Terry Cooper], Madeley, myself. Younger than us there was Eddie Gray, Jimmy Greenhoff, Terry Hibbitt, Rod Belfitt — you can go on and on. I don’t think anyone will do that again, no club will get a crop of youngsters like that. There was loads and very few wanted to leave, but there’s only so many can play and so some were ‘allowed’ to leave, like Jimmy Greenhoff, Rod and Terry, people who went on to have a good career elsewhere.”
There’s been a lot said about Don Revie, in Leeds he’s almost worshipped, a legend. Outside though, feelings on his methods, along with his teams, border on hate.
“We got on very well. He was the teacher and you was the pupil. It was as simple as that. You knew how far to go with him and you didn’t overstep it. There was respect there all the time. He was the best manager I’ve been under. Okay, I haven’t been under many, but as far as enjoying myself and how the club was run I thought he was brilliant.
“His organisation and how everything was run was brilliant, he didn’t miss a thing. If any of the ladies were ill he was there with the flowers. He knew that he took us away a lot and so when we did get to the finals he made sure the ladies had an absolutely wonderful time. Everything they wanted was there for them. They used to be in a separate hotel on the Friday and we all used to meet up at the same hotel on the Saturday. They loved it.
“If he told you to do something, you did it. To us Don was just the gaffer, the boss. Whatever he told us to do was basically law. You never questioned it and he never really raised his voice.”
The Don was a stickler for certain things and the players were made well aware of what was expected of them — off as well as on the park.
“You always had to be on time. We used to go to the Roundhay Mansion for pre-match meals and I’ve seen me break my neck getting there because he was always there first if you arrived early. He was always sat there with his cup of tea. All he used to do was look at his watch. You weren’t late again and he didn’t have to say a word.”
Being a regular at Elland Road this season [1990/91] for Radio Leeds has enabled Norman to keep a close eye on United’s current resurgence in the top flight. As a Revie pupil, what then does he think of Sergeant Wilko?
“Howard and Don are totally different types of manager but I think he’s got the players’ respect. He’s got a good spirit down there, you can see it when you speak to the odd lad or two. It’s similar to what we had, he’s done well. Really well. You can see him building. You can look at the Leeds team and see what pattern he’s trying to put together and how they want to play.
“Everyone was a bit concerned when they came up out of the Second Division that they were gonna play the long ball, but to their credit they changed it around and have played some good football this year. Don Revie did that. When you look at what we were, to get out of the Second — we were a well organised, hard side but when we got in the First we gradually changed it, allowed ourselves to play more. That’s what it’s all about. Good management.”
With 724 first team appearances behind him, and a reputation as being something of a hard man, the last thing you’d associate with Norman would be nerves.
“Gary Sprake and myself used to be sometimes nearly sick with nerves. Sprakey was worse than I was. I have to be like that, I have to get wound up. I could never play in testimonial games and friendlies because I needed the buzz, the adrenalin, because that was my game. I couldn’t play it casual like some could. Some could go out and not bother what sort of game it was.”
With so much first class football behind you, can playing become instinctive?
“Every game is different. No matter how many times you step out on the park and have played against the teams and players. Every year, two or three times a season, but you’d never know what was going to happen.”
Don Revie, though, was well known for the meticulous research he carried out on the opposition, which must have helped immensely.
“The gaffer would give us dossiers on what he thought the players would do, but we knew anyway. What you did learn about was the players around you and what they were going to do. I knew where Big Jack was gonna be or where T.C., Paul Reaney or Paul Madeley were when I was defending. That was part of years and years of playing together. If I went there, it never worried me that Jack wasn’t tucked round there, or Paul Reaney. I just knew they would be. That is what becomes instinctive.”
As well as the dossiers, Revie was also known as being somewhat superstitious.
“In the early days I picked up a ball just before we went out and I threw it to Billy Bremner, who was skipper, and we went out and had a good performance. After that I had to do it every time. Every match he said, ‘Norman,’ and I had to throw him a ball.”
The superstition didn’t end there.
“We always went out in the same order. I was about third or fourth. You do that yourself. You have certain routines that you do. I always used to put my slip on first, then my socks, and have a little warm up. Then I’d put my boots on. Everything was set out — regimental.”
Every team, though, has their unruly element.
“Some people, like Billy and Big Jack to a point, never bothered. They used to be laughing and carrying on half an hour before the game, especially Billy and Johnny [Giles], and then off they went and played. Played brilliant as well. It’s common knowledge that there was supposed to be a curse on ELland Road and that Don had someone down to get rid of it. It used to be a gypsy site and they pushed ’em off so he tried to lift the curse.”
Then, of course, there was that suit.
“He must have had a few but he always wore a blue mohair suit. He must have had loads made. He used to wear ’em and wear ’em until they were shiny. This definitely rubs off. I always wore the same shirt and tie when I went into management. I’d keep a certain one until we lost and then throw it away and get another one. You pick up all sorts.
And so onto Norman Hunter the player.
“I think I had to work hard. I’m not being modest but I think that for a lot of the lads who came through and made it, like Madeley, Reaney and myself, it was a case of being there at the right time and with training and determination we made ourselves players. We were gifted to a point but we weren’t like your Giles’, Bremners and Grays. We had the right manager and, with the team work and everything else, over the years good players became great players. Don Revie always drilled into me that I was basically a defender and that I had to win it and give it to those who could play.”
So could Norman play, then?
“That used to annoy me because everyone likes to think they can play a bit. But he was right. He used to pull me down. I’d go so many weeks and then I’d probably try something and end up losing the ball. He just pointed his finger. You knew, you didn’t have to be told off. He didn’t have to raise the roof or anything like that.”
A man of few words was Don Revie, but there must have been some power in those little gestures.
“Anyway, that was what I used to do. Just win it and give it to Billy Bremner or Johnny Giles, T.C. or Eddie Gray. Terrible options! If I got stuck I used to knock it up the park to Clarkey and Jonesy. What a hard job I had, didn’t I?”
That Leeds team of the late sixties and early seventies was a veritable goldmine of international talent.
“Take Paul Madeley. There was a debate whether we were going to sign him as a pro. He’s never classed as great and I suppose to a lot of people outside the game he wasn’t. But to play with, he was an absolutely amazing player. His problem was that he was too good at too many positions. He never really had a position of his own. He could have been the best right-back this country had seen in a long, long time. Every position but goalkeeper. He even played as a striker. He was quite skilful but he couldn’t have beaten people, it was his knowledge of the game and the positions he got himself into to score goals. He didn’t score many but he got a few.”
There are some, though, whose greatness will never be questioned.
“He was as good as I’ve seen. Great player. People use ‘great’ very easily but there aren’t many great players. Giles was one, as were Billy Bremner, Terry Cooper and Eddie Gray. Eddie played three quarters of his career with an injury. He had absolutely phenomenal skill.”
Giles was rumoured to be the players’ choice for manager after Revie departed for the England job, an oversight, with the appointment of Clough, that was said to upset the players.
“I think he had a chance. Johnny was a good manager and he went on to prove that. Not getting the Leeds job was good for him. It broadened his outlook to go elsewhere because you sometimes get stuck at one club and think the whole world is at that club. He was better going off to West Brom, then to Ireland and Vancouver. It did him a favour in the end but I think he would have been a great manager at Leeds, we’d have just carried on in a Liverpool situation.”
That, of course, is something we’ll never know. But three other stalwarts of the Revie era did take the helm at Elland Road.
“I’ve said it for a long time and I’ll say it again. When you look at the squad that Eddie Gray assembled and what a lot of those players have gone on to achieve at other clubs — take them and give Eddie a few quid to spend and there was no reason at all that he couldn’t take Leeds up. He had Linighan, Lukic, Irwin, Phelan, Sheridan, Sellars, Andy Ritchie, Tommy Wright. All through the kids that he developed. A fair nucleus of players that could have carried on — especially Sellars. How nobody’s bought him yet [from Blackburn] I don’t know.”
Sentiments that very few Leeds fans would disagree with.
“But Billy was the same. He didn’t really get the money. The problem you’ve got in football now is the amount of money that you need to spend if you don’t bring ’em up through the kids. Leeds are fortunate to have got Batty and Speed through the juniors, two good players. I haven’t seen the juniors lately but you can’t see many others coming through to stop them having to pay x number of millions for a couple of players.”
Getting back to those Norman played alongside in the glory years, there’s one man who, despite making over 500 appearances for Leeds and gaining 37 international caps, is nowadays (and then) treated as something of a joke. Gary Sprake. There’s one incident in particular that had to be seen to be believed. Who could forget that game against Liverpool when he threw the ball into his own net?
“At the time they’d just brought in a coating over the ball. Previously the water used to soak in and make it heavy. I’d seen Sprakey do it a million times in training, go to throw it, change his mind and pull the ball back to him. I turned around and said to him, ‘Gary, T.C., left-back.’ Gary looked, started to throw it, and Peter Thompson came and started to close T.C. down, and so Sprakey changed his mind but it slipped out of his hand and bobbled into the bottom corner. Ken Dodd was at the top of the charts with ‘Careless Hands’, the crowd latched onto it straight away. Unbelievable! The referee didn’t know what to give for a few seconds but he had to give a goal, and they beat us 2-1.”
Despite the odd (odd being the operative word) error, Norman still rates Sprake highly.
“Great natural ability. The best natural ability I’ve seen in a goalkeeper in a long time. John Lukic and Mervyn Day are good keepers but they don’t have what Sprake had. The most natural ability I’ve seen at stopping shots and coming out to take crosses when he wanted to. Enormous hands. I remember him coming for a cross at Elland Road against Tottenham, he started to come out but the ball held up in the wind and he just went for it one-handed and it stuck in there. He was dogged by the mistakes he made on telly — and he made a few. That got to him in the end.”
Careless Hands indeed. Norman also picked up a nickname that was to stick like glue.
“ITV ran a competition to choose the best banner in one competition and there was one at the Leeds end that said ‘Norman Bites Yer Legs’. Ever since then the name has stuck with me, I’ve never lost it. It wasn’t meant in a nasty way, it was more good fun. That’s what I’ll always be known as. If you go out of the Leeds area and say my name — that’s the first thing they’ll say.
“It doesn’t bother me. I’ve had a lot of stick over the years from people about different things, but they never bothered at Leeds. They always thought I did the right thing. The gaffer didn’t mind, or Alf Ramsey, and if they could take the way I played that was alright.”
Those halcyon days weren’t all good times, and Norman had his share of disappointments.
“Getting beat by Sunderland, me being a Geordie and supporting Newcastle as a lad. I lost a few quid on that cup final ‘cos I said we’d absolutely take ’em apart. Poland in the qualifiers for the World Cup when I let one go under my foot. Another disappointment was Chelsea in the FA Cup. We were a minute away from winning it at Wembley, playing absolutely superb, until one lapse with a minute to go and Hutchinson scored with a header at the near post. Then to go to Old Trafford and playing the same again, getting in front and the to lose it at the death…”
The bad memories come rolling back.
“Once you start, there’s the European Cup, and the Cup Winners’ Cup at Salonica — the referee got banned for life after that one. Read into it what you like. When you look back at what we did and what we achieved, with the team we had we shouldn’t have lost those finals. Alright, you’re going to lose one or two, but out of ten cup final appearances, we only won four. Not a good record.”
Enough already — this is getting depressing. Onto the good times.
“The first one was winning the League Cup with Terry Cooper scoring a volley against Arsenal. It was an awful game. If you look at the goal on the ‘Glory Years’ video you’ll see a bit of a foul by Paul Madeley on the keeper. But the referee didn’t give it, it dropped to T.C. on his left foot and it flew in.
“For ten years we were hardly ever out of the top four in the league, and lost it on two occasions with 64 points. The following year Manchester City won it on 56 and we also lost it another year on 62. It was two points for a win then and one for a draw. When it came to the run-in we never really had the best of luck or the best of fortune, whichever way you want to look at it.
“When we beat Arsenal in the FA Cup, the league made us play on the Monday, which was diabolical after we’d worked and trained all year for the championship. All they had to do was let us play on the Wednesday so we could get one or two people fit. We had a lot of injuries and in the last five minutes of the FA Cup Mick Jones dislocated his shoulder. He was still laid on the ground when the final whistle blew.
“Anyway, we went to Wolves on the Monday and they beat us 2-1 and we lost the chance of the double. Can you imagine that situation happening anywhere else but in England? FA Cup on the Saturday and a vital league game on the Monday.”
United’s end of season fixture congestion in those days makes 1990/91’s problems seem nothing in comparison. But hang on, aren’t we getting gloomy again?
“In the end it came down to how the ball ran for you but we were probably just a little bit too cautious. If Revie had one chink in his armour that was it — he probably paid teams far more respect than they deserved. He should have just told us certain points and then told us to go out and beat ’em. Just left it to us.”
Norman gained 28 England caps, and would have won (and deserved) many more had he not been unfortunate enough to be contesting the number 6 jersey at the same time as Bobby Moore.
“I was fortunate enough to be part of the squad for the ’66 World Cup and the feeling among those lads was brilliant. Alf Ramsey created a good feeling with England. I can’t understand people who turn down chances to play for England because they’re tired and all that. I’ve only got 28 caps but I was delighted to get that.
“One of the saddest memories I’ve got is that of the 22 players in the squad, they only gave eleven medals. I’ve got nothing to actually show, other than a photograph taken at Highbury in our dress tracksuits, that I was part of that World Cup.”
[This wrong was put right in 2009, when Norman and the other squad members were presented with medals in a reception at Downing Street, including Leeds and England trainer Les Cocker, represented posthumously by his son Dave.]
We couldn’t let Norman go without getting his opinions on the 1990/91 Leeds season. Does he, for instance, think the current squad needs touching up?
“Ask any First Division manager — all their squads need touching up. Even Arsenal and Liverpool. I think Leeds definitely need something. Without Chapman scoring there’s nobody else going to score, you’ve got to have somebody who’s gonna knock the ball into the back of the net. I don’t care whether it’s a wide guy, a midfielder or whoever.
“The boy Shutt has done ever so well and Leeds have a far, far better side when he’s in there because he makes these runs, darts here and there. But he doesn’t finish them and that’s the problem. The lad is making the chances but you’ve got to have somebody who might not be as effective in all the work, but when it drops in the box — bang!
“If you look at Arsenal, Merson has fourteen goals, Smith has fifteen and the winger has a few, Thomas from midfield, the full-back who takes the penalties has got five or six. You look at the Leeds team and it’s Chapman.
“You can’t really compare, but when we played you had Clarkey, Lorimer, Jones and Bremner. Big Jack got 15 goals one year — as a centre-half! We had people that would score from all angles.” ◉
(photo by Lee Brown)