ONCE BITTEN, NEVER FORGOTTEN

Some line-ups seem to just roll off the tongue like they were meant to be. John, Paul, George and Ringo is perhaps one of the most obvious; then there’s the Trumpton Fire Brigade; perhaps a certain running order of nautical locations on the Shipping Forecast; and how about Sprake, Madeley, Cooper, Bremner, Charlton, Hunter, Lorimer, Clarke, Jones, Giles and Gray. Anyone of a certain age or raised in a specific geographical region will instantly recognise the starting (and finishing) eleven of the Leeds United side that played in the legendary two-match clash of the titans with Chelsea in the 1970 FA Cup Final. Three of that Leeds team – goalkeeper Gary Sprake, versatile ‘utility man’ Paul Madeley, and ginger midfield dynamo Billy Bremner – had already passed away before the death today was announced of defender Norman ‘Bites Yer Legs’ Hunter, coincidentally just a few days after Chelsea’s keeper from that bruising encounter, Peter ‘The Cat’ Bonetti, also left the pitch.

It’s easy to forget that the young players constituting a football team which made such a sizeable cultural impact and still carries an air of immortality about it bestrode an era that is now half-a-century ago. The odd ingenious purchase aside, most members of that team had come up through the Elland Road youth ranks together in the early 60s; but the survivors are now old men whose loss of pace courtesy of natural causes is often exacerbated by the scars of the more physical game they played in the 1960s and 70s. Leeds United under Don Revie had something of ‘a reputation’ when it came to the physical game; but let us not pretend this was unique to Leeds or to Norman Hunter. After all, Liverpool had Tommy Smith and Chelsea – despite being ‘Soft Southerners’ (joke) – had one of football’s most lethal hatchet men, Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris. Some players from that time retrospectively sound like characters from a war comic, but in an age in which heroes were largely home-made, they were indeed larger-than-life – or as large as Captain Hurricane.

Purely by coincidence, I downloaded both the FA Cup Final and its notoriously combative replay of 1970 from YouTube earlier in the week with a view to watching them in full at some point over the weekend. Back when live football on TV was restricted to three fixtures a season – yes, a season! – the unprecedented rematch between two teams of such contrasting styles following a 2-2 draw at Wembley was an unexpected bonus for armchair supporters when Leeds and Chelsea met again at Old Trafford for the decider. 28 million viewers tuned in – which remains a record for the competition and places the broadcast at No.5 in the roll-call of most-watched programmes in the history of British television. April 1970 was a good month for Event TV, mind; one place above the game in question on the all-time list is the dramatic splashdown of Apollo 13, which took place less than two weeks earlier.

With England’s ultimately doomed defence of the World Cup scheduled for the intolerable climate of Mexico in June, the players could have done without two energy-sapping matches lasting 120 minutes each; but the tough game they played back then bred tough men capable of fulfilling a fixture list that could total well over fifty games a season. Indeed, the league programme consisted of 42, whilst Leeds had also progressed to the semi-final of the European Cup as well as hoping to get their hands on the FA Cup. Both they and Chelsea had never won the trophy at this point – each suffering defeats in the Final over the previous five years – and coming away from the Wembley mud-bath to go through it all again was a prospect that resulted in the boiling-over of long-standing enmities between the two sides. A contemporary referee viewing the replay in 1997 concluded modern rules of the game would have led to the awarding of six red cards.

In the end, nobody was sent off and it was the men from the King’s Road that walked away with the cup; Leeds had to wait another couple of years before they finally lifted the trophy with a line-up that included just two changes from 1970. In the brick wall of a defensive partnership he formed with Jack Charlton for a decade, Norman Hunter’s job was to prevent anyone getting past that wall with the unforgiving efficiency of an armed sentry in East Berlin. However, as with the likes of Liverpool’s Smith and Chelsea’s Chopper, to assume the Gateshead-born hard-man was a one-trick pony would be a mistake. All three had long careers that being limited to a solitary skill on the pitch wouldn’t have facilitated. Hunter played over 700 games for Leeds in all competitions from 1962-76 and played over a hundred more for Bristol City. He was also capped 28 times for England – a member of the 1966 World Cup squad – though spent the majority of his England tenure as underused understudy to Bobby Moore.

Norman Hunter followed the familiar route into management following retirement, though he later followed an equally familiar route by becoming a match summariser when his former team were covered on local radio. Although two of the moments on the pitch Hunter would no doubt have preferred to forget are bound to be resurrected for his obituaries – his misjudged tackle that enabled Poland to score and thus deny England World Cup qualification in 1973, and his punch-up with Francis Lee when tempers flared during a Leeds game with Derby in 1975 – neither incident sums-up a man whose playing career spanned twenty years. But the early 60s to the early 80s was not like the early noughties to now in footballing terms. Football doesn’t make men like that anymore because the game isn’t like that anymore.

Hunter had been hospitalised with the coronavirus last week and his name at the age of 76 has been added to the list of famous faces from the past to have died with Covid-19 in their bloodstream. Whether or not it was the virus that killed them will perhaps remain as debatable as all the other deaths attributed to it. Information seems as mixed as ever a month into a lockdown we are informed will probably carry us through at least one more. A mainstream media relishing the sudden upturn in its appeal appears intent on indulging in an ongoing inquiry that feels more like a premature post-mortem, constantly telling us where we (and the government) went wrong and how we should have done this or that differently back in January or February; but of course, it is always easier to be wise after (or during) the event than before it, and speculation is never a substitute for the facts that can only come when the dust has settled.

So, as the NHS – sorry, I’ll start again; I should have said OUR NHS, like the army become OUR BOYS when there’s a war on. Yes, as OUR NHS is reborn as a cross between a charity and a church, Britain remains the sleepy pre-war village it has unexpectedly reverted to thanks to this surreal state of affairs. I walked a friend’s dog today and – judging by the sudden high visibility of dog-walkers jostling with joggers for pavement space – I’m not alone in exercising my right to exercise in a way that beats aimless strolling for the sake of it. Throwing a ball down a hill for a dog that will eagerly bring it back and then demand an action replay is a rather pleasant method of enjoying the wind in your housebound face again. And unlike Norman Hunter, the pooch in question doesn’t bite yer legs.

© The Editor