One of the great cliché-truths about humanity is that each subsequent generation is weaker than the previous. Or so the previous generation, declining in retirement by the fireside and about to be replaced, would have you believe. When the scary Visigoths sacked Rome in AD 410, the ageing parents of the victorious soldiers, receiving news of the event by horsemen and carrier-pigeon, would have spat contemptuously into their own fireside flames and uttered the time-honoured phrase ‘Bah! It wasn’t like that in my day.’
Back in their day they would have met real resistance, from real men whom they could defeat, but at the same time respect. Defeating a bunch of Romans who by then were too busy strumming their lyres and scratching their syphilis was a day out in the park. And if this is true of warfare it’s certainly true of football. My father’s generation regaled us with tales of manly centre-backs coping with aerial bombardments from equally manly strikers, all of whom had seen action in the trenches the week before. The players of the sepia-tinted era ‘didn’t mess about’ and in some ways this was probably true, given the circumstances that prevailed in the world before the swinging sixties began to distance the memory of all that real hardship that came before. When the summer of love came along and we discovered sex and Black Sabbath, things would never be the same again.
You’ll probably know where this is going, because as I enter the last third of my life and sadly remain as obsessed with football as in the opening two-thirds, the untimely death of Norman Hunter last week caused me to reflect again on whether the great cliché is true – and one is forced to admit that it probably is. This is an evidence-based conclusion. I’m not doing it through some rose-tinted inability to assess the past.
Norman ‘bite-yer-legs’ Hunter, in case you didn’t know, was a left-footed centre-back who formed a Visigothic partnership with the giraffe-like Jack Charlton, in the infamous Leeds United side of the late 1960s and 70s that also terrified Europe like the Barbarian hordes. They certainly terrified me, and as a kid I hated them with a passion that now embarrasses me. People talk about hard men now……ha! I spit in your fire! Sergio Ramos? Had Ramos ever come within a social-distancing metre of Norman Hunter, he would have swiftly exited stage-left, pursued by a bear.
I’m not a great fan of those tedious ‘hardest player ever’ galleries that proliferate on the web, where status-challenged members of the male species gather in keyboard combat to produce the definitive hierarchy. I’m not a fan because they never do produce the definitive list, and their perspectives are commonly narrowed by the fact that they’re too young to understand. I spit on their carrier-pigeons, but I’m right. All they have to do is to watch the excellent interview that Yorkshire TV did with the great Norman Hunter in 2015 to understand the truth.
Even at the age of 70, sitting hunched on his sofa and speaking in soft Geordie-tinted tones, you wouldn’t have messed with him. And the great thing about Hunter was that as a player, he fitted the hard-man thug profile to perfection. It remains an interesting fact that in general, football’s most celebrated thugs did actually look like criminals, with the notable exception of Man Utd’s Nobby Stiles, who looked like an undernourished young child, inexplicably allowed onto a football pitch. Peter Storey, Vinnie Jones, Trevor Hockey, Chopper Harris – they all looked as though they’d done time in the slammer (some of them did) and John Terry, possibly the last of his line, will soon be earning post-football income as the next Guy Ritchie geezer-protagonist. Roy Keane, lest his absence from the list cause anguish, was never a hard man. He was a psycho. There’s a difference.
Norman Hunter was almost beyond categorisation, right at the extreme end of the continuum. With his dark hair and drawn cheeks he looked like something out of a Hammer Films classic, half-way between Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. He was a Geordie version of the Kray twins, with a slightly stooped gait when he played, as if he were scouring the horizon for prey. A hunter indeed.
Whereas the slightly younger Italian assassin Claudio Gentile sported the ironic surname ‘kind’, Hunter was a hunter. I couldn’t stand him as a player, and I couldn’t stand the team he played for – although I recognise their greatness. The young Visigoths these days just don’t get it, and indeed, I have felt the need to educate my own son in the lore and legend of Leeds United, in much the same way as I have desperately attempted to get him to appreciate Dylan and Beefheart. He’s still struggling with the latter, but he’s ok with the former. You can’t understand contemporary music without those two, and you can’t really understand football without some knowledge of the Leeds template. That’s how good they were, and that’s why everyone hated them.
Hunter was a shy Geordie who’d been given six months to prove himself at Leeds in 1961, having given up his job as an electrical fitter two years earlier. When Jack Taylor was sacked as manager and replaced by Don Revie, the rest, as they say, is white history. Hunter was handed his debut in 1962 in the 2nd Division and never looked back. A solid and keep-it-simple defender, he became the bedrock of the side that every football fan of my generation can recite, like some failed attempt at free-verse:
Sprake Reaney Cooper
Bremner Charlton Hunter
Lorimer Clarke Jones Giles Gray
When I interviewed the Spanish football writer Santiago Segurola for my book about Real Madrid’s centenary, he took me for lunch to a posh Madrid restaurant. A great writer and a hopeless Anglophile, he suddenly stopped the conversation half-way though the soup and stared at me with wide-eyed insistence. ‘Leeds took their colours from Real Madrid. You know that? Revie said it would give them confidence. He liked the clean white thing – no colour, no distractions.’ As I was about to reply, he suddenly reeled off the free-verse line-up, ending with the inevitable rhetorical flourish of ‘sub…Bates’ – the sign of the true nerd. Few club sides in the history of football have traversed national and international cultures in such a way, and Hunter was a big part of it.
He represented a system of football now on the wane, where a single hard-man would be mono-programmed to win the ball, by fair means or foul, and give it quickly and simply to those who knew better. He had a decent left peg, but in a side with Johnny Giles, Eddie Gray and Billy Bremner, you didn’t need Hunter to linger too long on the ball. Indeed, centre-backs nowadays are not ‘ball-winners’ in the same way as Hunter et al, possibly because the role of the protective defensive ‘pivot’ was less developed in those days and centre-backs, more exposed, needed to depend on referees’ greater tolerance, cloaked by the general culture that prevailed. Indeed, if you watch the Hunter interview, he talks almost reverently of the old ‘first tackle’ paradigm, where referees would only book players on the subsequent fouls. So Hunter and his ilk took this as a licence to kill, and that’s what they did. Would Leeds have been so successful without him? Probably not. He was kept out of the England side by Bobby Moore, a cultured defender who was fashioned from a completely different template – but who won fewer trophies. Hunter did get 28 caps, but the set-up of the England side was different when he got to play, of course.
It is one of the saddest ironies, during this time of plague, that the 76 year-old Hunter was eventually felled by a protein that measures 120 nanometres. A nanometre, I am reliably informed by Wikipedia, is a billionth of a meter. You can do the Maths, but not necessarily understand its significance, unless you saw him play. I never liked him, but I was moved by his death in ways that I never expected to be. In the interview, Hunter is asked which forwards he most feared in those days, and before politely correcting the interviewer on his choice of ‘feared’ he responds by citing Andy Lochead, a player I remember from Burnley, but who was otherwise unremarkable. ‘He was strong and solid’ says Hunter. ‘He never said anything to you, but just looked you in the eyes’. Real men, real tussles. The age of iron, with its game-of-thrones celebration of hairy masculinity, with its threats and fist-fights but the manly handshake afterwards. Neymar wouldn’t have survived long in this environment. Messi would, because they’d never have caught him, but Messi is an alien. And if you want a taste, the clip below is one of football’s most celebrated scraps, but only because Derby’s Francis Lee gets the better of Hunter. It was the only time, until last Friday, that he was ever felled.
I’m unsure of whether this Visigoth-parent stuff is really worth celebrating, and the modern game has its villains, albeit pantomime ones. Gifted players are more protected nowadays, not only by referees but also by a thousand cameras, watching every move, every breath they take. De Jong’s famous lunge on Xabi Alonso, in the bright lights of a World Cup final, might even have gone unnoticed in the grainy black and white final of 1962, whose TV nano-audience was unaware of anything but the distant time-delayed images. Pele was kicked out of the 1966 World Cup for precisely those low-surveillance reasons.
Maybe it’s for the better that the game is losing its appetite for the Norman Hunters, but as ever, something is lost. Something is lost of their villainous honesty, and of the respect and fear they engendered. Whilst the rest of the country was hating Leeds and Hunter in 1974, his fellow professionals voted him as PFA Player of the Year, on the first occasion of that award. It remains a significant moment in football history, and a symbol of the divide in understanding of the game between spectators and professionals.
Hey – and stay safe, because if it can get Norman, it can get us all.
Phil Ball @PhilBallTweets