Following on from the passing of Jimmy Armfield, Gordon Banks, Martin Peters and Peter Bonetti in the past 12 months, the football world said goodbye to another of the 1966 World Cup-winning squad, Norman Hunter.
Football was a different game back in the ’60s and ’70s, with most teams possessing a hard man. Some had more than one. The foundations of many teams’ success were built on the back of a player who could unsettle opponents, steal possession and generally make a nuisance of themselves. Often their presence on the pitch put fear into the opposition, already giving them an advantage.
Don Revie’s Leeds United was a classic example of this. They had a few players who would unsettle opponents. But whereas Billy Bremner and Johnny Giles were more your Dennis Wise, Hunter was more akin to a Desailly. Bremner and Giles were very much ‘stab you in the back’ or ‘kick you when the ref wasn’t looking’ type players. Hunter was more likely to put make his challenges in full view of the officials. This made him more honest in the eyes of referees and supporters alike. There was something to admire about Hunter.
He earned his nickname from a banner shown at the 1972 FA Cup Final when Leeds United beat cup holders, Arsenal. The nickname became a household name.
Hunter offered a challenge to strikers. He was brave, determined yet also talented. He was the more intelligent in the Hunter/Charlton partnership at the heart of Revie’s defence. But there lay his downfall when it came to international recognition. Bobby Moore had enough intelligence for both, so this wasn’t what Alf Ramsey needed in his side. Consequently, Hunter watched from the sidelines as his Leeds teammate, Jack Charlton, picked up a World Cup winners’ medal.
Hunter didn’t receive his until 2007 when FIFA relaxed the rules on only playing squad members earning medals. This was when Bonetti, Armfield, Greaves, Callaghan, Eastham and the rest finally received their official recognition.
He said not having a medal to show for it was the biggest regret of his career.
“It really rankled. All I had to show for the tournament were the memories, a tracksuit and a photo. We all did our bit and it will be something to really cherish”.
Born on 29th October 1943, he joined Leeds United at the age of 15. Making his debut against Swansea City in September 1962, he soon formed a strong partnership with Jack Charlton which lasted a decade.
After winning promotion to the First Division in 1964, Hunter picked up winners’ medals for the League Cup and Fairs Cup (UEFA Cup) in 1968. In 1969, the League Championship was accomplished. Another Fairs Cup was won in 1971, and the FA Cup finally arrived in 1972. 1974 saw his second League Championship medal.
But that Leeds side was probably more famous for the things they didn’t win. Losing FA Cup finalists in 1965, 1970 and 1973, they were also runners-up in the Fairs Cup (1967), European Cup-Winners’ Cup (1973) and their ‘Everest’, the European Cup in 1975, losing a controversial match to Bayern Munich. Added to that they finished runners-up in the League in 1965, 1966, 1970, 1971 and 1972.
Leeds’ rise was impressive as a year after winning promotion in 1964 they were odds-on for a League and Cup double. Eventually, they lost in the FA Cup Final to Liverpool and Manchester United in the league on goal average.
In the Cup-Winners’ Cup Final against AC Milan, Hunter was sent off for retaliation at the end of the game. By then, the game had deteriorated over the impartiality of a referee who would later receive a ban for match-fixing in subsequent games.
If you thought that Milan game was bad, it was nothing compared to the controversy over the European Cup Final against Bayern Munich in 1975. Disallowed goals and penalties not given consumed the Leeds players in Paris and to this day they believe they were cheated. Not just the players either, Leeds fans’ reaction was so violent it earned the club a two-year ban.
After 726 club appearance, 540 in the league, he left Leeds United in 1976 to join Bristol City. City had just gone up to the First Division (now Premier League) for the first time in their history five months earlier, and Hunter offered some much-needed experience and nous.
Hunter moved onto Barnsley in the summer of 1979. City really missed him and, consequently, their foray at the top table was over the season after.
He finished his playing career in 1982 at the age of 39. When you consider the amount and regularity of football, plus the pitch conditions, the lack of fitness or even dietary advice, having a 20-year playing career from 1962 is pretty impressive. Add to that the fact he never shirked a challenge and was happy to go in where it hurt, it is amazing he managed to survive fairly injury-free.
He later tried his hand at management. He took over the reins at Oakwell from his ex-Leeds teammate, Allan Clarke, who moved back to the top job at Elland Road. He won promotion to Division Two in 1981 and eventually spent four years there. He had brief spells as Rotherham and Bradford City boss before retiring in 1990.
Just over three years after making his league debut with Leeds, England manager Alf Ramsey selected him in his squad for a friendly against Spain at the Santiago Bernabeu, in December 1965. With ten minutes of the first half remaining he came on for Arsenal’s Joe Baker. The team that night included nine who started the World Cup Final seven months later.
He made three more appearances before being named in Ramsey’s 22, including a friendly against West Germany at Wembley in February 1966, where he lined up alongside Charlton.
He was back at the Bernabeu in an England shirt two years later, scoring his first goal for his country in a 2-1 win. This was the second leg of the European Championships Quarter-Final and saw England through to the finals. It wasn’t until his eighth cap when he tasted defeat for England, ironically against West Germany in a friendly in Hanover.
Hunter then played a part in the European Championships finals, which was just a four-team format in those days. They lost to Yugoslavia in the Semi-Finals with Hunter playing in midfield, then also in the Third Place Match against the Soviet Union.
His England career wasn’t a particularly fortunate one. Missing out on the 1966 tournament, Hunter was hopeful of playing a part in the next one in Mexico. But by then Everton’s Brian Labone had taken Charlton’s place at the back, and Hunter’s only contribution was as a substitute for Martin Peters late on. There were less than 10 minutes to go in the Quarter-Final clash against West Germany when Hunter took his bow. England were winning 2-1. Within a minute Seeler had equalised with the Germans famously winning it in extra time.
By 1972 he played in both legs of the European Championship clash against West Germany which England again lost. Hunter earned 28 caps for his country, five of them coming against the Germans.
In 1973 he played in the infamous game at Wembley against Poland when a 1-1 draw meant England failed to qualify for the World Cup, barely seven years after winning it. He blamed himself for the goal England conceded too, as his mistake on the right lead to the chance. He’d scored earlier in the campaign in the 1-1 draw at Wembley against Wales, but this was scant consolation for missing out on the big stage. He shouldn’t have been so hard on himself. Peter Shilton let the ball through his legs. But perhaps this was typical of Hunter to put his hand up.
His final appearance in an England shirt came under his old Leeds boss, Revie at Wembley against Czechoslovakia in October 1974. England won 3-0 in Revie’s first game in charge. Eighteen months later the Czechs were European Champions, and Hunter’s England days were well behind him.
By then, Colin Todd and Dave Watson had emerged as defensive talent and so Hunter was merely a spectator again.
On 10th April 2020, it was announced Hunter was being treated in hospital after testing positive for COVID-19. On 16th, he was described as being severely unwell. The following day Leeds United announced his death.
The whole of the football world has joined together to pay tribute to a man who became a household name.
One story you probably won’t pick up from the tributes involves my wife. As a child growing up in Bristol she attended a prize-giving at her Sunday school. Hunter arrived with Bristol City teammate, Kevin Mabbutt, to present the prizes. It was the day after City had been in action at Ashton Gate where Hunter received a caution from referee, Lester Shapter. Also receiving a prize that Sunday was Shapter’s nephew. An encounter which caused much humour amongst those present.
By my reckoning that’s 11 of the 22 picked for England’s World Cup squad who have now passed.