One of Don Revie’s undoubted greats celebrates a long overdue honour next week (October 14th), with Norman “Bites Yer Legs” Hunter finally and deservedly entering Football’s exclusive Hall of Fame – the ultimate mark of respect.
Norm has made a few marks himself over the years, plying his trade, as he did, in an era when no quarter was asked or given. Tackles were many and varied back then, ranging from the merely severe to bordering on the psychotic; yet whinges and tantrums were few and far between. It was a man’s game in those days, the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale would have been contemptuously dismissed as hysterical fairies.
Norman’s lethal approach to the art of tackling was legendary, and yet he had the respect of his peers, noted for the quality of his left foot as well as for his utter ruthlessness. No mere clogger of a hard man was Our Norm. No Peter Storey he. If it hadn’t have been for the incomparable Bobby Moore, Hunter would have won many more than his eventual 28 England caps. As it was, he was a member of the victorious 1966 World Cup squad, as well as the one somewhat unluckily knocked out of the next tournament in Mexico 1970. He finished with 2 goals for England and, eventually, a World Cup Winner’s medal. To be an Englishman with one of those, you have to be getting on a bit – but it’s good to see a Whites legend still accruing honours well into his seventies.
Norman’s prowess as a tackler and ball-winner tended to mask his enormous skill in the distribution of the ball after it was won. He would be self-deprecating at times, saying his job was to take the ball off the opposition and give it to one of his own side who could play – a Bremner or a Giles, perhaps. Well, they certainly could play – you didn’t take the field for Revie’s Super Leeds if you were anything but an accomplished footballer. But Hunter was no slouch, despite that smiling modesty. Norman’s ability was recognised by his fellow PFA members when he was elected Players’ Player of the Year in 1974. By this time, the legendary “Bites Yer Legs” nickname was spoken with affectionate respect; the professionals knew class when they saw it – and Norman had absolutely oodles of class.
He would overstep the mark at times, but no more so than the other quite lovable hard men of the time, the Tommy Smiths and Nobby Stiles, even the likes of Ron “Chopper” Harris at Chelsea. Norman’s trademark angelic pose when whistled for an agricultural foul involved backing away slightly, hands behind back, apologetic smile fixed broadly across his face as the referee berated him. It was hard not to like Norman.
He was every bit as likeable in his more recent incarnation as match summariser on Radio Leeds. He plainly still loves Leeds United – it was always “we” and “us”, spoken in that pleasant County Durham accent – Norman is , after all, the Gateshead lad who gave his heart and soul to Leeds United. On the radio, he talked sense and didn’t neglect his duty to criticise when necessary, but his support for the Whites always shone through, and for me he was the very best of the old guard for that radio role, his delivery easy on the ear, his opinions commanding respect.
Of course, he will always be regarded first and foremost, by friend and foe alike, as the classic 1960s and 70s killing machine, a combine harvester of a player who would go for the ball and take whatever else was there too. This was the sort of man around whom legends sprang up. The classic story about him goes that he once arrived home with a bruised and bloody leg to find his wife horrified. “Nasty, isn’t it?” grinned Norm. “You’re not kidding,” agreed his ashen wife. “Whose is it?”
Every generation bemoans the lack of characters in modern-day football. It’s a sign of growing older; it’s one of those things your Dad did and you swore you never would. But sometimes you wonder if it isn’t true, now, more than perhaps it was in earlier times. You look around now for the villains with the charming smiles, like Norman of Leeds, and you just find anonymous terminators who all look alike. When you consider the likes of Big Norm, or Jack Charlton, Tommy Smith, Dave Mackay, Nobby Stiles and so on and so forth, it’s very tempting to say – if only to your ageing self – “They don’t make ’em like that any more.”
Congratulations, Norman. It was a pleasure and an honour to watch you play the game, even if occasionally it was through our fingers as we witnessed you sail into another sliding challenge, leaving ball, opponent and a few yards of rolled-up turf in your mighty wake. It’s a lost art these days, sadly. The game has changed, but probably not for the better. We shall not, I’m afraid, look upon your like again. Have a great celebration of your long overdue recognition – and thank you for being one of my heroes.