The Day We Lost Billy Bremner, a Superstar to Eclipse Any Today – by Rob Atkinson


The more I see of football these days, with all of its allegedly “world class” stars, the more I think of the guy who scored the first goal I ever saw Leeds United score – in the flesh, so to speak. His hair was red and fuzzy and his body black and blue, and his name was Billy Bremner. God alone knows what he’d be worth today – sadly, he hasn’t been around since that awful time, eighteen years ago exactly, when football was deprived of a legend and Leeds United began to come to terms with the loss of a man who embodied everything that the Last Champions were all about, at their very, very best.

On the 7th December 1997, two days short of his 55th birthday, our greatest captain Billy Bremner died following a heart attack after a bout of pneumonia. The Leeds United world was plunged into shock and mourning at the death of a true hero, and the game’s great and good attended his funeral in Edlington. The tiny church, packed to the rafters with household names, was resounding testimony to the respect in which the wee man was held by all who knew the legend. Old comrades and old foes alike were there to say goodbye to an icon who had left us tragically young, but who had emblazoned his name across an era not wanting for stars.

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Scoring for Leeds

Billy Bremner was quite simply a phenomenon. From the earliest days of his Leeds United career, once he had recovered from a bout of home-sickness for his native Stirling in Scotland, he was an automatic selection for the first team, unless injury or suspension ruled him out. He was a warrior, despite his diminutive size, but he was blessed with all the other attributes needed for a central midfielder on the battlegrounds of the English First Division. Skill, courage, “workrate” – as it’s known these days – were combined with sheer guts, tenacity, will to win – and that indefinable x-factor that ultimately set him apart from other gifted performers. A ball-winner, a talented user of the ball once won, a relentless harrier of the opposition for the full ninety minutes plus of each gruelling game – and a scorer of great goals too. Bremner was a big occasion man, a serial winner of semi-finals (Man U being his favourite victims), a man who unfailingly stepped up to the mark when his team-mates and fans needed him. He was utterly self-effacing in the interests of what was best for the team. Side before self, every time was his motto, and he lived up to those words for as long as he was involved in football.

Some called him dirty. And he was as capable as most other combative central midfielders of a bit of feisty skullduggery – but to define him by his occasional sins would be short-sighted in the extreme and would display, moreover, a lack of awareness of exactly what his game was all about. A consummate passer of the ball – with the neat reverse pass a speciality, flummoxing and wrong-footing many an international-class opponent – Bremner was the epitome of Don Revie‘s Leeds United, a team who said “If you want to play, we’ll out-play you; if you want to battle, we’ll out-battle you.” They usually out-thought and out-psyched the opposition as well. Many a visiting player was artfully allowed a glimpse as they passed by of the sign on the home team dressing room wall at Elland Road. “Keep Fighting”, it said – which was what Leeds United, guided by Don Revie off the field and Billy Bremner on it, did – and they did it better than just about anybody else.

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Leeds United hero

The Sunday Times perhaps summed-up Billy Bremner as well and as succinctly as anyone. “Ten stone of barbed wire” they called him – the image of a spiky, perilous bundle of energy conjured up in five telling words. I saw an old clip on YouTube recently, grainy black and white footage of some or other game back in the day, and there had been an incident that set the players en masse at each other’s throats. Bremner – unusually – must have been some way off when the flashpoint occurred, for he was nowhere to be seen with the melée already well established. And then, from the right-hand margin of the screen, came this white-clad, unmistakable figure, tiny but fierce, hurtling towards the centre of the conflict with the desire to weigh in on behalf of the team writ large in every line of his being. He was a frenetic mixture of Yosemite Sam and the Tasmanian Devil, plunging into the fray like some one-man whirlwind, wreaking his own inimitable brand of havoc. Bremner was famous, even notorious, for this – for his battle-cry of “cut one of us, and we all bleed.” Billy shed blood in the United cause – usually, it must be said, not his own. But a thug he was not, and any team, any time, anywhere in the world would break the bank to have a Billy Bremner in his prime among their number. Fortunately for Leeds United, he loved the club and served it for sixteen years, becoming synonymous with the famous Whites of Elland Road. As Leeds fans, we could nominate no better candidate for the honorific title of “Mr. Leeds United”. Only the great John Charles, operating in a much less successful era at Leeds and destined to win his medals on foreign fields, could come anywhere near.

My second match as a Leeds United supporter was the European Cup semi-final, first leg against CF Barcelona, Johann Cruyff, Johann Neeskens and all. Those two Dutch masters, with all the other glitterati of the Catalans’ world-class line-up were expected to have too much for a United side on the cusp of just dipping over the hill.  The previous Saturday, I’d made my first visit to Elland Road and had seen us lose to Liverpool. I was all agog at the atmosphere, and didn’t really care about the result – I just wanted more.

BBC Commentary, Leeds Utd v Barcelona 9.4.75

So it was that my first ever Leeds United goal came to be scored by Billy Bremner himself, the greatest player in the greatest team United ever had. A long ball from Johnny Giles, headed down by Joe Jordan, found King Billy in enough space on the edge of the area at the South Stand end. He measured the situation, took aim and rifled the ball superbly, well wide of the helpless keeper, into the top left-hand corner. The din was deafening, like nothing I’d ever heard before, and rarely since. “Elland Road erupts” intoned David Coleman for the BBC, when he could make himself heard. The image of the small, red-headed giant belting that ball home will live with me to my last day. I’ve always been proud that my first goal was scored by King Billy. I feel as though, in a funny way, I own that goal.

ImageLeeds United’s first match after the death of Billy Bremner was away to Chelsea, the kind of fixture that Bremner used to relish. It turned out to be a game that couldn’t have been more of a tribute to the departed Billy if someone had designed it so. United had two men sent off in what might be termed a lively encounter, and with nine warriors left, inspired by the memory of The Greatest, they battled, scrapped and fought their way to a 0-0 draw in the finest traditions of the Leeds United of old. The travelling hordes in Leeds colours were fully aware of the significance of the occasion. “Nine men and Billy….we’ve got nine men and Billy!“, they sang, loud, proud and raucous. “Billy Bremner’s barmy army” got many a refrain as well. The fans had said farewell to the Captain of the Crew in a manner hugely identifiable with the man himself and with the fighting traditions of the great side he led with such distinction. As far as these things can be, it was deeply fitting, and those who remembered Billy gave a knowing nod of appreciation.

RIP  Billy Bremner. Departed far too soon, and greatly missed still. It’s unlikely we’ll ever have another quite like you.

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49 responses to “The Day We Lost Billy Bremner, a Superstar to Eclipse Any Today – by Rob Atkinson

  1. Steven Emsley

    Thanks Rob for a moving tribute to a great man, I had tears in my eyes just reading your post. I have a post card of the wee man its hand drawn and he still looks unbeatable in it with the ball under his control at his feet.

    MOT Billy the greatest

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  2. Too young to remember but not too young to forget..,never saw Billy play but his legacy runs through the spirit of the club. He will always be remembered as the very best of the very best.

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  3. Leeds v Barcelona – A typical Bremner masterclass and probably the greatest game I have seen at Elland Road. Bremner and Clarke 2-1 to Leeds and the atmosphere and noise never equalled.
    Billy was a world class footballer.

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  4. I was priveliged to meet Billy on several occasions. On one of them, Billy was requested to make a surprise appearance at a friends 40th birthday party, in what is now Howards Bar. He ascertained through his agent, my friends credentials as a lifelong Leeds fan. Once established, Billy wouldn’t hear of taking a fee and duly turned up on a Friday night, (apparently he regularly drove from Edlington on a Friday night to see Lorimer in his pub in Holbeck). Unbelievably, he sat with us for about 2 hours, politely answering our questions and doling out his fags. He was already a playing idol from my childhood and teen years for all of the reasons you describe in your article, but my memory of him is embellished as a softly spoken, unassuming gentleman. A truly world class player and a top bloke. Sadly missed but NEVER FORGOTTEN!!
    MOT!

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  5. Paul Newall

    Thanks Rob that was brilliant, just brilliant. I was born in 1959 so I had the privilege of seeing King Billy play many many times including the Barcelona night you allude to. I never Billy but he was the epitome of our greatest side and my only regret sometimes is that I was too young to appreciate what we had at that time – youth truly wasted on the young!
    I ain’t too young now though! Season ticket holder & I still bend my neck every time the side walks out, just praying that Billy could just once more lead us out. We wouldn’t fucking lose that day…..

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  6. walt kelly

    my brother and l saw billy play in the late 60s and early 70,s we remember his scrapes with crazy horse hughsy and who will ever forget him and franny lee also we were there when the 9 goals went in when crystal palace came to the slaughter we were at elland road for the yoevil game and had our pictures taken beside the 2 great men of leeds united we both live kielder forrest now a good way from elland road but we will always support our mighty leeds and never forget billy hunter clark charlton grey giles madley reiney sprake i couldgo on for ever RIP billy, don,and speedy.

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  7. god help us when we lose you then eh rob, the self acclaimed mr leeds united gob shite, but frankly i can’t wait for the day we do

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  8. Imagine facing King Billy with Johnny Giles next to him knowing that if you do get by them,Norman and Jack are waiting. I was lucky enough to see Billy play and he always had time to sign a programme for us kids. I’ve still got my Mettoy Wembley Superstars figurine taking pride of place next to my tv. Great footballer undoubtedly, but what a great man too.

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  9. RIP KING BILLY ,, just wish he’d been given the ultimate honour of leading his beloved Leeds united out at wembley in 87 as manager ,, that would have been the icing on the cake for this Leeds legend

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  10. I liked him better in blue

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  11. Only Gordon Strachan came close Rob.

    Bremner will never be forgotten.Spend many a night showing my 3 young boys YouTube of Billly.

    That is the standard Cellino needs to inspire in our team. first picture on the dressing room wall .

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  12. Hi Rob – I was a little earlier into the cauldron than you were. For a few years I went to ER and took it for granted as Billy and his team put them all to the sword. I noticed his class after he was gone. My resounding memory is of a Testimonial game – I don’t remember whose, but I remember the opponents utterly outclassed the kids we had out – on paper. But we had Billy. He utterly ran the show, It was truly obvious and I will always remember him pointing where he wanted Carl Harris to go. Carl went and the ball followed.

    A class man on and off the pitch. I will never forget his deeds

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    • I think we’re all immensely proud that he was Leeds through and through.

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      • Leftsider

        I was there that Barcelona day. I’m not doing the achievement down. We were, without doubt, the best team on the planet. I was 9 years old and way to used to hearing it. What has happened since has made me a Leeds supporter. It is what drives us, and it is what Billy and Don created. We have to have a care that “Keep Fighting” is not forgotten. This is why other clubs envy us, and this is why we have the following we do. Not because of Billy Bremner alone, but he has a massive responsibility for the current generation. My only hope is that we see his like again.

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  13. I bet they took their own butties to work back then too rob

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  14. ilkleywhite

    I had the pleasure of meeting him on several occasions and he was a friend of my dads, he used to go in the Woodman Pub on Selby Road Halton, he was just one of the lads, and people used to just look at him with their mouths wide open, he got me and my brother tickets for many games, and was always available for an autograph, I had a Swedish pen friends who supported Leeds, we met them in Leeds, and I said I knew where Billy lived and we could get an autograph, we knocked on Billys door and Billys wife answered it we asked if Mr Bremner was in, and he came to the door, and signed their autograph books, he wrote a personal note in each of them, so Ralf and Jan if your reading this after all these years, I am sure you remember that day, and I too remember Billy goal against Barcelona with my dad shouting not from there Billy, and my dad saying that’s why he plays for Leeds.

    RIP Billy fantastic player, great person…

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  15. Rob, Nothing more to say. Thank you.

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    • You’re welcome – it’s a piece I’ve run a few times now, in some or other form – it brought some fantastic memories back in the writing of it.

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  16. I have a seven year old grandson, while everyone is talking about Neymiar and Ronaldo he is listening to leeds songs about Billy Bremner and when having a kick about he is Billy . I met John and Nobby Stiles a couple of years ago I asked John what was it like having Billy as a Boss he said that he was inspirational,the down side was that he was the best player on training ground. He also never . Understood why a footballer needed someone to motivate him before a game., he said all he had to do was pull the shirt on and walk onto the pitch. I cannot believe that he is not with us anymore. We will never see the likes again. RIP BILLY.

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  17. Bill Watmough

    Great piece Rob. Followed Leeds United since 1968 (showing my age) and I too was there for the Barcelona game, on crutches with a broken foot. Watched from Lowfields instead of the Kop for obvious reasons but the atmosphere was still amazing in there.

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  18. The reason this Norfolk born lad has supported Leeds all my life was seeing Billy score in 65 cup final ( I always thought 30 yds ,but realised later it was much closer! they lost but I was hooked) you are right Rob, Bremner AND Giles weren’t sitting or play makers or pressing players or hatchet men they were all of them roled into one ,every game and only 5’4 &5’5″

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  19. The heart and soul of Leeds United – never, never forgotten

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  20. In words often over used ” TRULY GREAT” but in his case fully justified.

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  21. im sat in tears , long live the king, long live the king, long live the king, long live the king, he was leeds utd,

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  22. Growing up in Canada, I only saw him play in person once – just a bit far for an away game… There will never be anyone else like him.

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  23. A moving tribute to who most consider Leeds’ most influential player. Too young to see him play but sounds like a class act and a gentleman. I, like my late father, despite being Newcastle fans, used to love watching wee Gordon Strachan play. The influence he had on the team of the late 80’s early 90’s was key to the teams success. If he’s been a better player than Gordon he must have been been some player. They sound very very similar not only in apperance, but style as well. R I P. Billy Bremner.

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  24. Went to my first game around 1965, saw the wee man warming up, and as I stood on a beer crate so I could see over the lowfields wall, I carefully turned round to my old feller (bless him) and said something like “He in’t right big his he dad ?” my dad smiled, tapped his chest and said “Big’s in here lad ”
    Never were truer words spoken of a sportsman, I feel privileged to have seen him play, and represent my club like he did . Oh and Rob, all differences apart, any friend of Flashman is ok in my book, Huzzah for Flashy !!!

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  25. Pingback: Leeds Legend Alfi Haaland Trolls Beardy Coward Keane – by Rob Atkinson | Life, Leeds United, the Universe & Everything

  26. I can’t really add to what I said in June.
    Thanks Rob.
    The best tribute to the great man.
    I feel I can touch the memories and the sadness when he passed away
    When we get back to the highest level it will be the tribute he deserves

    MOT

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    • It’s an article that’s had a few airings – I like to run it whenever I get depressed about the lack of Bremner types in the game today – and the surplus of average players who are over-hyped but are not fit to lace King Billy’s boots. It seemed appropriate to run it today as well, the anniversary of his passing. I can’t believe it’s 17 years already.

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  27. Cracking read Rob, I did my own earlier today.

    I was in a very privileged position to know Billy personally. He was a family friend during his time at Doncaster. He would quite happily sit with the lads in the local, have a drink and a game of dominoes. He took me training on a few occasions and even though he knew me, he was hard. No slacking, he hated seeing people sitting down or having their hands on their hips. I was the recipient of a number of extra laps around the pitch after being caught out.

    What people never gave him or the Leeds side of the 60’s and 70’s was just how skilful he was. In training, he could do things with the football that had us open mouthed. I think when we was taking the mickey out of Southampton along with Giles that epitomised how good he was with the ball. The modern day commentators would be talking about it for months.

    I would often talk to him about Leeds and he loved talking about playing for Scotland. I was once going to Wembley for a schoolboy international, England v Scotland. He spoke for ages about when he played for the schoolboys and especially his games against England with a lot of his pals from Leeds in opposition.

    We made a bet the day I went to Wembley. I was only about 12 and If England won, I was to be his guest at a training session from his time with Doncaster Rovers. It was a time when he had taken a few of his ex-Leeds teammates to Belle Vue and both Terry Cooper and Mick Bates were in the squad at the time. I asked, ‘what if Scotland win?’ – His answer was to just say, ‘Get your dad to get me a whisky’ Sadly the game finished 0-0.

    I wasn’t old enough to remember his playing career at Leeds but I was so happy when he returned as the manager and how close he came to leading us to promotion and an FA Cup final.

    We probably wouldn’t have gone on to achieve what we did under Wilko had we got promotion and I often wonder how Billy would have done had he got the backing from the club financially what Wilko did.

    I remember the day he died like yesterday. It was a Sunday and I heard the news around lunchtime. I was straight on the phone to my old man and we both couldn’t believe it could happen to Billy so young. He was our leader, the strength in the side, he would go through walls for Leeds United, how could he die so young?

    How we could do with a few Billy Bremner’s now.

    KEEP FIGHTING

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  28. Noel Corcoran

    Thanks Rob for the great memories when Leeds ruled the world. Never had the privledge of seeing my hero as I lived over in rural Ireland. But Billy was the King in every respect. There never will be another Billy !!

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  29. Billy must have had a heart as big as Phar Lap’s, and a set of lungs to match. For a heavy smoker to run so hard for the full 90 minutes, for 700+ Leeds games at the very highest level is incredible. What a motor!
    As you point out Rob, Billy was the complete package. Probably the greatest “box-to-box” midfielder ever? If there’s been one better, he must have been bloody good!

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  30. As I mentioned in June, my grandson is a big Billy Bremner fan. So I decided to show him the Bremner back header . If I remember rightly he scored against Manchester United. There is a void left now where King Billy used to be. My thoughts are with his family. Thanks again Rob for the heart felt tribute to the man we could do with right now.MOT

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  31. The best player I ever saw, but there’s some myth in there – he started out as a right winger, failed to really claim a place and almost left. Revie’s arrival fixed that, though he played on the wing for a while before moving inside. Says this in Giles’ book and a couple of others.

    I actually came here in search of your statement on our financial situation. I look forward to that…

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  32. patrick hogan

    Billy used to room with Jack Charlton (both were heavy smokers). I remember reading an article about him years ago in which he said that he never worried if an opposing player went past him: if so, he would hear a cracking sound, which would be that of Norman’s left leg cranking up.

    Oh, and off subject I know, but which jornnalist wrote in opposition to all the Keegan hype at the time, that Keegan wasn’t fit to lace George Best’s drinks?

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  33. The whole football world mourned Billy’s passing (and incidentally he was the first British player to make the reverse pass a regular component of his considerable repertoire of skills). Often forgotten is the fact that he was chosen for the Team of the First Round in the 1974 World Cup. He was the most influential British club player of his era.

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  34. Noel Corcoran

    Rob I never get tired reading that piece. Brings tears to my eyes. He was such a wonderful player, captain and the heart and soul of a brilliant team that ruled the world ⚽. We all miss him so much. If we only had a few like him now but please God these young lads like Taylor, Mowatt, Cook and Byram can bring back the glory days. 👍

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    • That’s handsome, Noel. Thank you so much. I hope you’re right about our current crop of youth, but it’s a different era now and I fear most if not all will find success elsewhere – unless the club can get its act together.

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