Leeds United Change
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Leeds United Julie Welch

After a particularly grisly challenge, Norman Hunter will extricate himself with a fast backward foxtrot, hands raised as though about to be frisked and bestowing on all and sundry a grin that’s a mixture of the rueful and conciliatory. He’s like that when you meet him off the pitch. You’d think he wouldn’t hurt a fly.

Mention to him his form as a hard man, and his eyes take on the glazed look of a breakfast kipper. Everyone, he says, asks him about that. ‘It doesn’t mean anything to me. My job is to win the ball and give it to a better player. I don’t sit and plot about it. It’s just something I accept.

‘You see a player with the ball, and you think, well… You go hard for it, and if you come out with it, you come out with it. If you thought about it, you’d never do it, would you?

‘I don’t mind my image. Now Leeds are starting to get recognised, and the collective hard tag will die gradually. But I’ve still got to play the same way. It takes all types to make a team. If I don’t win the ball, I’m not doing my job. If I started knocking it down, putting it around the box pretending I’m a good player – well, we’d get into trouble.

‘It would only hurt me if anyone down here criticised me. Outside people don’t worry me. Coming back from an away trip, the lads sit and talk, and sometimes I get teased. Phew, bad player you are, they say. I used to get upset, but now I laugh about it.’

The flintier aspects of Hunter’s game are legend. Faced with an oncoming forward, he bristles with the delighted indignation of a dog sighting a postman. His utter enjoyment of a game, his rejection of possible defeat and non-stop energy are vital to Leeds United and now promise to wake the England team out of its somnambulance.

Against Austria at Wembley, a few playful butts from behind were all that was required from his defensive repertoire. Freed from being a one-man ambush, his attacking qualities were obvious. He was instrumental in the two best England goals, combining hearteningly with Tony Currie.

‘I like to come forward. You get a little bit bored of defending. At Wembley we had an awful lot of room; no pressure. If it’s 0-0 and someone’s harassing you, it’s harder. I found it very easy to play with Roy McFarland. I don’t know why, but I can talk to him. You’ve got to chat to each other, you see.

‘But I’ve no illusions about my game. I’m fortunate – I’ve played in a good team. You’re bound to get better. I do. I always improve. I’m not basically fast, not fast enough. I haven’t got natural speed, not like Madeley or Reaney. Or McQueen – he’s 6ft 3in and he can fly.’

For a man who sometimes does not tackle opponents so much as break them down for resale as scrap, Hunter is an astonishly amiable man. Speak of him in Leeds, and you’re showered with anecdotes about his friendliness, his generosity, his involvement with charity work.

He trains as willingly and as fiercely as he plays; afterwards, relaxing, he pads around in socks clutching a huge tin of baby powder. That seems to sum him up.

‘I’m two different people on and off. I don’t know why it should be. You’ve got to win, you see – that’s what keeps you going. You’ve got to. You can’t say, well, we won that last year, we’ll take it easy this.

‘I’m fairly quick tempered, but it’s up and down and gone. No grudges. Just for two seconds I really go. The silliest thing I ever did was go after that fella Riviera in the Cup Winners’ Cup at Salonika.

‘He kicked me and I went after him. If he’d been closer, I’d have hit him, but he walked away. By the time I’d trudged all that distance, my temper had gone down again and I didn’t want to do anything, I just laid my hands on him and I got sent off.

‘It was a bit emotional, walking down the tunnel. We’d lost to Sunderland in the FA Cup, we were trying to win something back, we’d played so well and then I had to get sent off. It was a long tunnel. I’d only got halfway when the final whistle went. We deserved to hammer them, and it was all over and I was in that tunnel, and we’d lost.

‘When I lose I’ve got to talk about it. Some keep it inside them. I go home and relive it with the wife. She just nods and says yes or no.

‘Sometimes I’m close to tears. I’m emotional, you see. Football makes me emotional. Not many people can explain what it’s like when you play all season and you get to Wembley or somewhere, and at the end you and the lads walk down the tunnel while the other lot are doing the lap of honour.’

Julie Welch

From The Observer, 1973

Follow on Twitter @DameJulieWelch

Julie debuted in 1973 as Fleet Street's first female football reporter, she has written many screenplays and television scripts. Julie also co-authored 'The Ghost' with Rob White - read a memory of Dave Mackay from the book here: here: http://football.sportingmemories.org/memory/1444-rob-white/

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