The 111-year delayed derby

On March 20th, 1910, about 60 metres from the house where I now sit at my keyboard, Athletic Bilbao, sporting for the first time their iconic red and white stripes, defeated Vasconia (about to become Real Sociedad) 1-0 in what was essentially the final of the breakaway tournament UECF (Spanish Union of Football Clubs), now officially recognised in the history books.  Remigio Iza scored the goal in the 56th minute and the ref (Lavat) had come from across the nearby French border to San Sebastián to officiate the tournament’s games. Madrid FC were the other side, and the next day they lost to Vasconia 2-0 in what was essentially a 2nd/3rd-place play-off. 

Athletic win the derby, 1910

Had some sooth-saying fairy suddenly appeared back then and whispered into the Basque captains’ ears that it would take another 111 years for the occasion to be repeated, they would have either laughed at such an improbability, or dismissed the fairy as a liar. Well of course, the fairy would have needed to have been privy to the fact that the pandemic would delay this long-awaited occasion by yet another year, but hey, on Saturday it’s actually going to happen, come hell or high water – only this time down in Sevilla, in La Cartuja stadium – not quite the same as the Ondarreta stadium in 1910 which was basically a bit of reclaimed boggy marsh next to the sea, roped off on four sides.

Nevertheless, Saturday’s game will have fewer spectators than in 1910, and is timed to kick off at 21.30 to ensure that there will be no sweaty heaving conglomerates in the two cities’ bars, in a region where the watering-holes close by edict at 20.00 and the night curfew begins at 22.00.  For the citizens of either Bilbao or San Sebastian, any fountain-jumping or marine-wallowing will have to wait until dawn on Sunday.  I just nipped down to the beach for an optimistic rehearsal, and with the water at an icy 12 degrees I managed to stay in for a ball-shrinking five minutes before emerging refreshed but with the flesh a kind of pale blue – not quite Real Sociedad’s darker blue but it could be a sign, who knows?    

Ondarreta beach, San Sebastián, with celebration walkway prepared.

Spain being an urban balcony culture, the victory will be celebrated with folks spattering each other over shortish distances with champagne showers, as long as the fluid is not deemed to spread the Covid virus.  When Athletic and Real Sociedad won their places in the final last season on the cusp of the first lockdown (ten days later) there were copious memes of King Felipe looking up to the sky in desperation with a speech bubble saying ‘Lo que faltaba’ (just what I needed), the meaning of which – in case it’s not obvious, is that the last thing the King needed, after another annus horribilis in the ‘firm’, was an April final in Seville with 60,000 heaving Basques, all tanked up and primed for the mother-of-all booing sessions of the Spanish national anthem. The pandemic saved his royal bacon, and has kindly repeated the gesture this year.  Felipe can smile behind his mask on Saturday and convince himself for another year that there is no sundown on the union.   There was talk of holding the game in the Basque Country, once it became obvious that the pandemic was not yielding, with Alaves´ Mendizorrotza ground the obvious choice, situated, as it is, in the Basque capital of Vitoria-Gasteiz, but the Spanish Federation held firm and maybe they’re right.  In commercial terms, the game now means nothing to the city of Seville, but there’s some sort of tradition attached to playing a cup final at a regionally neutral venue – a necessary venture into semi-foreign territory to taste the sensation of an event, to turn it into a big day. 

King Felipe hears the semi-final results

Bizarrely, the league derby between the two clubs was originally scheduled for this very Saturday, and so the clubs will cross swords again the following Wednesday in San Sebastián. Ten days later, Athletic will return to Seville to gorge on yet another final (against Barcelona), having also reached this year’s through a rampant act of cup gluttony. And talking of gluttony, Athletic’s line in the good-natured banter between the two communities tends to focus on the huge quantitative disparity between the trophies won by the two sides since that 1910 meeting, the main joke consisting of ‘Just think – if Athletic win both finals they’ll have won more cups in two weeks than Real Sociedad in their entire history’ – which is harsh but true. Real won it in 1987 under Toshack in Zaragoza against Atlético Madrid whilst Athletic have won the trophy 23 times, second only to Barcelona whom they of course defeated in this season’s Supercopa, the win unleashing an orgy of pent-up celebration after years of relative trophy-lessness.  Athletic last won the cup in 1984, again against Maradona’s Barcelona, in a game that ended infamously in mass fisticuffs.  Nevertheless, for all Bilbao’s crowing, their post-Franco trophy haul is neither better nor worse than Real Sociedad’s, both sides winning consecutive leagues in the 1980s in a four-year Basque-fest of dominance.

 All the above is actually a preamble to stating that the final in Seville is an event of socio-cultural significance, whether Spain at large gives a fig or not.  There has been a tendency in the foreign press, particularly in the UK in recent years, to idealise the whole Athletic vibe – impressive though it is. But the idea that Athletic are somehow the sole representatives of Basque culture, the ‘flagship’ of the region’s football, is largely a myth of its own making, relentlessly fuelled by the club’s daily self-proclamation as to that alleged fact.  The truth is rather more subtle, rather more interesting, but the foreign press prefers the myth.  The myth also feeds the idea that the Basque Country is a mono-cultural collective when in truth the regions of Bizkaia (Athletic) and Gipuzkoa (Real Sociedad) are very different in temperament.  There is a basic solidarity between the two regions, and derby matches are largely friendly affairs, but Bilbao’s insufferable self-belief can be politely described as Quixotic whist San Sebastian’s more cautious conservatism is easier to swallow.  It makes for a fascinating contrast, as do the current styles of the two teams. 

Contrasting styles

In terms of quality, Real Sociedad have the edge if they have their big guns up and running.  A healthy midfield of David Silva, Mikel Merino and Martin Zubimendi – the latter perhaps the new Xabi Alonso – is capable of taking any side apart, whereas Athletic base their approach on the more traditional virtues of dagger-in-teeth aggression and spirit.  That said, Sociedad have nobody like Iker Muniain, unlucky not to have been picked for the current Spain squad, and the centre-back partnership of the turncoat Iñigo Martinez plus Yeray is one of the best in La Liga.  Yeray is the next Laporte.  He won’t be staying much longer in Bilbao, and Unai Simon, their excellent keeper, probably won’t be either.

Zubimendi, the new Alonso? No pressure.

The game has become a regional obsession, with both communities attempting to outdo the other with outward displays of flag-waving proclamations and good-humoured banter.  Schools have become red or blue centres, balcony flags speckle the urban landscape and when folks stop you in the street for a quick chat about whatever, the game either begins or ends the conversation.  It has become all-consuming, slightly tiresome and yet it’s impossible to stay dry in the footy-soaked moment.  The father of one of Real Sociedad’s defenders (I’ll keep it discreet) has moved into the flat directly above me, and the son comes over from time to time to hang out.  A few days ago, having ventured to the bins, I was returning to the steps outside the building when said defender suddenly appeared from the main door, meeting his girlfriend who was walking her dog.  The dog, on seeing the defender, jumped up in happy greeting and connected directly with his wedding gear, whereupon the victim effected the classic head-down grimace, hands clutching the offended parts.  Amused and unable to resist, I quipped (from behind my mask) ‘Oye cuidado! Necesitamos a este el fin de semana’ (Hey – be careful! We need this guy at the weekend’).  And I meant it.  I don’t know if he was amused. You can’t really tell when people have masks on.

I’ll leave it there. It would be churlish to turn this article into some sort of anti-Athletic rant because in truth, if the game were to be played in normal circumstances, 60,000 Basques would have descended upon Seville and mixed peacefully but boisterously in the streets for days in a perfect display of what sport could and should be about.

‘V’ for victory, in case you’d misunderstood

 In the stadium itself, the supporters would have sat together and taken the mutual piss in a friendly fashion that has developed naturally over the years.  It’s brilliant, and a lesson to us all.  Athletic consider themselves the most important sporting institution on Earth, but that is the endearing and defining quality of Bilbao’s baffling lack of self-awareness, whilst Real Sociedad are rather more modest and aloof in their pretensions, mirroring the more upmarket breeding of Gipuzkoan conservatism  – sometimes to the detriment of the competitive edge that Athletic possess, almost genetically.  But Sociedad play great football and produce as many, if not more, locally-bred Basque footballers from their ranks.  That these two clubs, coming from such a small territory, have written such a significant chapter of Spanish football history says a lot about the Basques – who despite their wealth have never had an easy time of it.  It’s an amazing place and I feel blessed to have raised my children here, one of whom was good enough to play alongside and against some of the players who will be on the pitch in La Cartuja on Saturday. 

These two clubs have been waiting 111 years to enact this unique cultural celebration. Saturday is an important wee day in the history of the Basque Country that not even a damned virus can ruin, and if Athletic could just find it in themselves to generously gift a trophy to their little brother, they would be more than happy if big bro were to stuff Barcelona a fortnight later.

Phil Ball, San Sebastián

Literary pitches, football bitches

I’ve recently finished writing a kids’ novel, and during the process of coming up with the ‘elevator pitch’ (the blurb to convince the literary agent in less than 20 words) I’ve learned various things, the most important of which is that if you don’t have a simple story line with characters who have punchy kid-like features, you can’t write the pitch….and therefore your book probably sucks, or won’t sell.

It also got me thinking about football in a slightly different way.  Imagine that football didn’t exist, and that you were pitching it (as a commercial concept) to some wealthy ideas person whom you just happened to have met in an elevator. You’d probably get their attention before the ‘ping’ and the opening of the penthouse doors.  They’d probably give you a quick parting glance and say ‘Yeah ok.  Tell me more’ and leave you to work out how exactly to do that – I mean by finding out the e-mail of the schmuck in the hierarchy to whom you really send the pitch.  The pitch itself will be easy.  Football?  The basic rules are simple, the parameters clear, and the attraction for tribalism obvious.  But as I get older and reflect on a life following the tortuous ups-and-downs of my beloved two teams, of watching my son play as a vicarious extension of my own hopes and failures, of experiencing, for nine months a year, the vile aftermaths of defeat and the absurd and irrational ecstasy that accompanies a win – I’ve suddenly realised that the pull of football has nothing at all to do with winning and losing.  It’s like a bolt from the blue beyond – and I’ve only seen it because of the obligation to do the literary pitch.  Bear with me.

To get kids interested in a book, you have to create a sense of injustice.   You need goodies and baddies, sure, but that ain’t enough.  Anybody can do goodies and baddies, but creating a story in which the reader gets the brutal idea that the world is hopelessly unfair is basically your only ticket to getting published.  The only carrot that keeps the kid reading is the desperate hope that injustice will be vanquished – that the world is actually okay and that the goodies will be treated fairly, in the end.   There’s also the small matter of impunity, where in the follow-up book the Voldemorts will get their just desserts….but that can often wait. 

If you took away the sense of injustice from football, the entire edifice would collapse overnight.  Almost all of my mates – at least those who are as emotionally afflicted as me by football – are convinced that there is a high-level conspiracy being carried out against their team – and hence against their very own persons.  No amount of therapy can cure this. And not only is there a conspiracy, there is also a cabal of referees who are against their team, and hence against them.  It’s personal, of course.  Some referees may be incompetent, but it is their alleged bias that rubs folks up far more. 

Leo has his say on ref corruption

The emergence of VAR has only fuelled these feelings of injustice, given that we were sold the idea that it would somehow correct all errors overnight – as if it were as simple as the tennis hawk-eye configuration. In tennis now, it’s in or it’s out, and McEnroe can leave his testosterone in the changing-rooms, but in football the configurations are more complex, of course.  And so the guys in the VAR room –apparently there for our protection, have in fact become an integral part of the conspiracy, aiding and abetting the officials in their personal vendetta against our club.  Like Winston Smith in 1984, we are wary of any campaign to undermine our paranoia.  If there is no injustice, football loses a large part of its magic, just like that Harry Potter novel without Malfoy.

Justice in football is a fleeting emotion. If you deserved to win that league title then fair enough, you won it – but the satisfaction will never last as long as a perceived injustice. It will never fuel your love for your club in quite the same way.  Leeds United’s league titles glow more dimly than their historic sense of outrage at their home defeat by West Brom in 1971, where an offside decision not given (allegedly) cost them the league title.  As Barry Davies, the commentator at the time famously yelled: ‘Leeds will go mad, and they’ve every right to go mad’.   The game and the referee, Ray Tinkler, are now a part of Leeds’ DNA, and no matter what Bielsa currently achieves, he will never exorcise this from either the club or its community. 

Leeds go apeshit. Does anyone care?

Put up the question on the twittersphere, and word it something like ‘In which game in the history of your club were you most fucked over?’ and you will be guaranteed a flood of angst-fuelled answers, like a sociopath convention where members are invited to air their grievances.   Of course, there will be different levels of validity, with regard to the responses.  Here in Spain, Barcelona’s president was murdered in the mountains by the Nationalist forces at the outbreak of the civil war.  That seems like a decent enough injustice to carry around in your knapsack, except that of course, the anti-Barça brigade have accused them of ‘victimismo’ (victim-complex) over the years, whining about Madrid and political oppression whilst happily raking in the lolly.  You decide.

Josep Sunyol. Barça’s martyr

Further down the pecking order, this doesn’t mean that an Elche fan (for example) should feel guilty at complaining about a penalty decision awarded in the Camp Nou against his team, because Elche will have their own historic grievance to sustain them, whatever it is.  Other teams’ grievances are of little concern. The sociopath is only concerned with his own sense of injustice.  Stoke City fans will fuel their rage by being associated with wet Tuesday nights. Is it always wet on a Tuesday night in Stoke?  Perhaps not, but football’s pervasive discourse has conspired to convince us that this is actually the case.

Stoke next Tuesday. Busting the myth.

You would think that Real Madrid, as Spain’s record trophy-holder, would have little cause to rail against the runes, but of course they do. The chant that still echoes around Spain’s stadia ‘Asi, asi, asi gana el Madrid’ (That’s how Madrid win) alludes to the alleged favours done them by Franco’s regime, and the continuation of official favours to this day.  Madrid fans protest, for example this season, that they are the La Liga team who have been awarded the least penalties – a statistical truth rebutted by howls of historic protest – ‘Well it’s about time!’  They can never win this particular argument because the injustice stakes are high in the collective consciousness of a nation. Madrid fans’ own sense of injustice thus resides in the feeling that their team’s achievements are undermined, and that their image is unjustly sullied.  They may be right, but nobody really gives a shit. Outside of their admittedly extensive church, their every defeat is celebrated in a writhing orgy of schadenfreude, with Catalonia at the naked forefront. Meanwhile, poor Real Madrid sit like King Midas, surrounded by gold but unable to eat.

The two sides that have invaded my emotional self and battered my psyche from the age of roughly 9 years are Grimsby Town, on whose terraces I grew up, and Real Sociedad, in whose plusher seats I have sat for the last 30 years. I like to think that destiny chose me these two teams because of their particularly virulent sense of injustice, but that would contradict my thesis.  The supporters of Crawley Town, to select an outwardly pointless team at random, will also have their stories to tell. But if we take Real Sociedad, with their acute sense of politico-cultural discrimination, we might be tempted to admit that they have a point.

Traditionally viewed as the Basque bad guys, allegedly conspiring against the state and applauding terrorism from behind the walls of their cold northern Mordor, their fan-base took it for granted that the referee collective was against them, and that the Spanish state viewed any prospect of their success with fear and loathing. Their two league titles in the 1980s were further proof of this, since their supporters reasoned that Franco’s death a decade before had finally given them the chance to compete on a semi-equal footing.  Note the word ‘semi’, for there was no still general feeling that anyone was on their side.  Their hard-balled team of the 1980s was in fact so good that nothing could stop them, but the titles were certainly earned. 35 years later, the conspiracy mentality still suffuses the club, engulfs its very being. 

Ricky Zamora hits the title winner in Gijón in 1981. Franco turns in his grave.

They may be right – I wouldn’t like to say, but it sure makes for a fun club to follow. The greater the sense of injustice, the better the feeling is when the team sits temporarily at the top of the table, or reaches the King’s Cup Final, as was the case last season.  Even this game’s delay (it will be played on April 3rd, a year late) is seen as a conspiracy – an attempt by Spain’s monarch-kissing unionists to spare King Felipe the inevitable public trashing of the national anthem by the massed ranks of hooligan Basque nationalists from Bilbao and San Sebastián.  Pandemic?  Nah. Nothing to do with it mate.  It’s those Falangist civil servants in Madrid, serving up their neo-fascist poison. *Don’t write in. I’m being ironic.

Grimsby Town is an altogether more complex case. Shivering out on England’s east-coast margins and cut off from the country’s main transport networks because nobody cares, the surviving hard-arsed populace has traditionally required its football team to understand this cut-off psyche, and to treat all visitors to its sagging old stadium as unwelcome ponces, to be tolerated for 90 minutes only because the rules of the game demand it. 

Welcome to Grimsby Town.

The club currently sits 92nd of the 92 league teams, the victims of years of neglect and a Nero-like president, not even fiddling while his house burned. Be that as it may, Grimsby fans will direct their anger more quickly at the infamous phrases repeated by generations of higher-league players, quote: ‘No disrespect to the likes of Grimsby’ or ‘No disrespect to your Grimsbys’ – the latter one really pushing the buttons, as if your Grimsbys were a collective metaphor for everything that is shite. Well, that’s the problem. It is a convenient metaphor for everything that is shite (ask Sasha Baron Cohen) and the sense of injustice that this confers upon its fan-base has become the reason for its very being, a reason to rage against the dying of the light.

No disrespect to your Grimsbys

Okay – if you’ve got a few thousand followers, stick that question up on Twitter.  In the end, the sense of injustice that saturates football’s afternoons is its very lifeline, the reason that we will continue, post-pandemic, to return to its gleaming church to pay its indulgences, listen to its phoney orators and pray for a paltry three points to keep us happy for at least the following week. And given these rather challenging times, I reckon that’s absolutely fine. Meanwhile, must get on with writing to that agent…..

The LaLiga show….so far

Phil reviews what’s happened so far, with special focus on Real Sociedad

The international break is always a good time to take stock. You take off your mask, breathe in breathe out, then decide whether, nine games in, you’re up and running again with the current season and the state of your nation. Maybe this season there’s little choice, confined to barracks as we are, slowly getting used to turning off the pop-up ads on the footy-streaming site and assimilating the fact that Rakel, 22, whose arse has just appeared in the far north-eastern corner of your screen, does not actually live around the corner. It’s all part of the new reality of bums, buffering and empty terraces. Bring it on.

Continue reading “The LaLiga show….so far”

It’s getting messy

I’ve been asked to write about Messy-gate but it seems to me that the situation hardly requires a profound analysis. But maybe that’s the point, because the behaviour of the Barcelona president and his diminishing band of acolytes is so bizarre that one can only rub one’s stubble in wonder.  Is there any sense whatsoever in their ‘policy’, if such it can be labelled? Now the league’s got involved and sided with Barça.  Conclusion?  Read on. Continue reading “It’s getting messy”

A rough night in Lisbon

After events such as Lisbon, one can always count on Shakespeare.  Macbeth, sitting down in the morning for coffee and porridge after murdering the king in the night and having had a bit of verbal with the missus, is asked by fellow party-goer Lennox if he’s had a decent night’s sleep.  ‘Twas a rough night’ replies Macca, deadpan.  This is often used to teach the concept of dramatic irony to GCSE students in England, but if Shakespeare were alive today you’d probably prefer to just ask him – ‘You were taking the piss, right?’ Continue reading “A rough night in Lisbon”

It’s The Balls! 2019-20 LaLiga round-up.


Never mind the bullocks – it’s The Balls

Yes – it’s that time, albeit rather late this year.  The annual look-back on Spanish football antics normally takes place just as the new-born lambs have stopped their gambolling and the strawberries are beginning to look like mush.  It’s been a weird season, and you may well be asking yourself whether I’m referring to Real Madrid winning the title, Deportivo dropping to Segunda ‘B’ or the irruption onto the scene of a pandemic.  Perhaps all three. Continue reading “It’s The Balls! 2019-20 LaLiga round-up.”

Four Seasons in One day

Four seasons in one day, rub-a dub-dub and it’s helter-skelter through what remains of our fragile sanity at the fag-end of the league campaign. Never fear, there’ll be a hammock and rest for us somewhere, in the close season at the end of the universe.  I was happy that football was back, and now I can’t escape it.

Continue reading “Four Seasons in One day”

After the Gold Rush

Don’t it seem like a long time?’  That’s from a song written by Ted Anderson and performed by Rod Stewart in 1971, in the days when the latter was still good.  And since he likes football, he’ll have been suffering too, and possibly singing that one in the shower.  Don’t dwell too long on that one.

Back on March 10, when Real Sociedad beat Eibar 1-2 in an empty Ipurua, the only consoling thought, like the First World War being likely to last ‘at worst, a few weeks’, was that the lockdown wouldn’t last either.  Now it’s been three whole months. The previous season finished on May 19th and started up again on Friday August 16th – a day Aritz Aduriz is unlikely to forget.   Anyway, Aduriz aside, that was a three-month break but one that was scheduled. Continue reading “After the Gold Rush”

A weekend with Drew Carey and the galácticos

Originally written March 2006 (adapted)

There was an interesting moment in the Bernabéu on Sunday evening, sometime around the 30th minute.  Cicinho played in a clever diagonal ball from the right, near the half-way line, intending it for Ronaldo to run onto.  But the striker saw it too late, thought about it, then decided not to waste his energy on a ball that was running inevitably to the opposition (Depor) defence.  As the crowd fidgeted with impatience, several boos began to float into the mild evening air.  Madrid were winning 1-0, but Ronnie was still unloved and unwanted.  Get thee back to Italy, the boos seemed to say. Continue reading “A weekend with Drew Carey and the galácticos”

The strange death of Norman the Hunter

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 2
Norman Hunter. RIP.

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.

Kray twins
Norman (right) in Kray Twins mode

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 in classic pose, taking out Liverpool’s Steve Heighway

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

Sub Bates

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.

Leeds United, 1969-70. Nobody liked them. Nobody could beat them.                                               Norman Hunter standing, 2nd from left.

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.

Bobby Moore – fashioned from a different template

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