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McKenna: A tribute to Norman Hunter, Leeds United legend

| Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Death is always hard to stomach, and it should not take high-profile casualties in the sports world to make people realize the scope and severity of the current crisis we are living through. It is especially sobering, however, when a larger than life figure is taken from us suddenly. When models of strength and indomitable will are forced to yield to an invisible enemy, we are uncomfortably reminded of our mortality. 

Thus, the passing of legendary English center-back Norman “bites your legs” Hunter due to the coronavirus sent shock waves through the footballing world Friday night, even though it had been reported a week prior that the 76-year-old had been admitted to the hospital for treatment. The Leeds United icon was one of the most feared defenders in Europe for over a decade.

Norman’s career in the ‘60s and ‘70s coincided with the rise of televised football in Britain. Local heroes became celebrities, and Manchester United’s George Best — perhaps football’s first megastar — famously noted that he only felt obligated to wear shin guards when playing Hunter’s Leeds. Hunter was undoubtedly a physical player who characterized an era known for its bone-crunching tackles. The very successful Leeds sides he played on were among the most hated in the county, and the epithet of “dirty Leeds” lingers over the divisive club and fan-base to this day. 

Generalizations of Hunter and his Leeds comrades as mere brutes, however, does not explain Hunter’s individual accolades, nor the West Yorkshire club’s remarkable ascension. Under the notorious Don Revie, who became a father-figure to Hunter, Leeds climbed from the bottom of the second division to be crowned champions of England and reached a European Cup final shortly after his departure.

Revie’s “win at all costs” mentality was disregarded by many as an ugly artifact from a bygone era of the game when he passed away in 1989. His tactics were ahead of his time. Leeds employed a relentless high-pressing style that would be further developed by celebrated tacticians such as current Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, although it was combined with a ruthless pragmatism that invites modern comparisons to Jose Mourinho and Atletico Madrid’s Diego Simeone. Revie is now recognized as one of the early proponents of modern professionalism. He was not afraid of appearing unorthodox, even hiring ballet dancers to help the squad improve their balance. 

Hunter was an epitome of this blend of brutality and beauty, or as BBC writer Phil McNulty wrote in an obituary, a “man of steel who could produce silk.” At the age of just 22, Hunter managed to get into the star-studded England squad that won the Three Lions’ first and only World Cup to date, although he never saw the field during the tournament and had to wait until 2009 for his winners’ medal (only the 11 who played were given them at the time).

He became a superb all-around defender with a rocket for a left foot, and was recognized as such by his peers. In 1974, he was voted the inaugural Players Footballers’ Association player of the year. It is fitting that the last player to win the award before Hunter’s death, Liverpool defender Virgil Van Dijk, has similarly made his name by becoming a seemingly invincible force at the back. 

The story of Hunter’s journey to professional football, however, hearkens back to a simpler time. Born after the death of his father across the River Tyne from Newcastle in the town of Gateshead, Hunter left school to be an electrical fitter at the age of 15. He was noticed while playing for his local amateur side, however, and became part of Revie’s youth movement at Leeds. The partnership he formed with the older Jack Charlton would become the cornerstone of Leeds’ golden era. 

In his fourteen seasons with Leeds, Hunter won two first division titles, two Inter-City Fair Cups (a predecessor of today’s UEFA Europa League) and a league cup, and was famously photographed jumping in celebration when Allan Clarke scored against Arsenal to give Leeds their only FA Cup triumph in 1972. Despite the success, Leeds endured a disproportionate amount of heartbreak. In Hunter’s career, Leeds finished as runners-up in the league a staggering five times and lost three FA cup finals. 

The most gut-wrenching losses, however, occurred in Europe at the hands of suspect refereeing. Hunter was sent off in a 1-0 loss to A.C. Milan in the European Cup Winners’ Cup Final by a Greek referee who later received a lifetime ban for match-fixing. Two years later, by which time Revie had left Leeds to become England manager, Leeds lost 2-0 to Bayern Munich in the final of the European Cup after teammate Peter Lorimer had a goal controversially ruled out for offside with the game still level. 

Of course, it would be remiss to mention Hunter without some background on the “bites your legs” moniker bestowed on him by the Leeds faithful. The name gained traction when legendary player and pundit Brian Clough read a Leeds banner during his commentary that proclaimed, “Norman bites your legs.” Hunter would admit after his career that the “red mist would come down sometimes.”

In 1975, Hunter was famously sent off after a fistfight with England teammate Francis Lee in a game versus Derby County. Hunter did not just live up to the name by displaying a violent streak, however. He was also a model of durability, featuring in an incredible 726 games for Leeds before finishing his career with Bristol City and Barnsley. 

Hunter never reached the same heights on the international stage. He was again an understudy to the great Bobby Moore in the 1970 World Cup, although he did come in as a substitute in England’s 3-2 quarterfinal loss to West Germany. His career with the Three Lions is, unfortunately, best remembered for a mistake against Poland in 1973 that prevented England from qualifying for the following year’s world cup. Fittingly, however, the last of Hunter’s 28 caps for the Three Lions came in Revie’s first game in charge of the national team — a 3-0 rout of Czechoslovakia. 

 After a short career in management, Hunter’s amiable personality off the pitch translated well to commentary, and he became a popular fixture on BBC radio in the ‘90s. Late in life, he was a familiar presence greeting fans at Leeds games, where he was deservedly recognized with a suite named in his honor.  

Hunter had recently said that he dreamed of seeing Leeds return to the top flight during his lifetime, and they looked poised to do so this season under Argentine manager Marcelo Bielsa — whose notoriously demanding training sessions and scrupulous scouting (or just outright spying) are reminiscent of Revie — before play was suspended due to the coronavirus. With just nine games to play, Leeds are currently clinging to a one-point lead atop the Championship and are seven points clear of third-placed Fulham in the race for automatic promotion. When play resumes, Leeds will undoubtedly plan a memorable tribute for one of the club’s most faithful servants, and Bielsa and co. should have some extra motivation to bring Premier League Football back to Elland Road. 

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