Phil Hay looks back on the career of the late, great Billy Bremner.
Nothing says more about Billy Bremner’s reputation than the statue of him at Elland Road, erected in 1999. Twelve years later, a similar acknowledgement of Don Revie is yet to reach the stage of completion.
Revie reigned as the godfather of Elland Road at the height of United’s domestic dominance but Bremner it was who became the icon.
An unlikely one at that. Under-sized, acutely homesick and carrying the lungs of an habitual smoker, his career defied no end of long and unfavourable odds.
He is, without room for debate, the cream of the crop of Leeds United players analysed by John Wray through his years as a journalist.
The contradiction between Bremner’s perceived weaknesses and his stature as a footballer adds to the aura of a player who Wray, a reporter for many years with Bradford’s Telegraph and Argus, remembers as “a genuine household name; not as well-known as David Beckham but not far off either”.
“There were many people who reckoned Billy was too small to be a footballer,” Wray said. “He also suffered from awful homesickness and we heard talk for a while of him going back over the wall. It took all of Revie’s powers of persuasion to convince him to stay.
“Leeds had a huge scouting network in Scotland and they’d done their homework on Billy, but I don’t think the club realised how hard it would be for him to settle in Leeds. He missed Scotland terribly at first.
“But what struck me more than anything was Billy’s chain-smoking. He went through so many packets of fags that you could see the nicotine on his fingernails. It doesn’t tie in with the modern image of professional footballers yet he’d rival anyone for fitness and that includes today’s players. He was such a 100-per-center.”
Bremner’s homesickness came to a head after United’s relegation from the first division in 1960, the year of his professional debut.
The midfielder requested a transfer and, according to reports of the time, attracted an offer of £25,000 from Hibernian in Edinburgh. Leeds were unwilling to negotiate for less than £30,000 and stood their ground. The selection of Revie as player-manager in 1961, beginning a revolution in which Bremner flew the flag, slowly stifled the Scot’s wish to return home.
The irony of his unsettled mindset can be found in the deep roots he later planted in Yorkshire. All but five years of Bremner’s professional career were given to Leeds, and the remainder played out at Hull City and Doncaster Rovers.
His time as a manager was divided between Elland Road and Belle Vue, Doncaster’s former ground. Bremner lived in Temple Newsam and mixed happily with the locals, more content in the company of the general public than he was with the glitterati.
“He was very much a man of the people,” Wray said. “As far as I could tell, in later life he liked nothing more than having a drink with the local miners around Doncaster. They were on his level and he was on theirs. As ridiculous as it sounds, he had no ego at all.
“Part of Revie’s philosophy at Leeds was to treat everyone remotely connected with the club – players’ wives and journalists, for example – as family, and Billy copied him in that respect.
“When he was manager of Leeds, he’d invite me and a few other reporters into his office after every game, open a bottle of whisky and go through the match minute by minute. He never tried to influence what you wrote but those briefings gave you some perspective and allowed you to feel more confident about your own opinions. I always appreciated that. He wasn’t obliged to give us his time.
“But that to me was why he was such a brilliant captain, the best Leeds United have ever had – because he looked out for other people.
“I once had the pleasure of playing alongside him in a charity match. The difference between our ability as footballers was astronomical. But for all the occasions when I lost possession or misplaced a pass, he never turned on me. All you heard was ‘don’t worry about that’ or ‘keep your head up son’. It was a great insight into his talent for leadership.”
Wray could dine out on stories of his involvement in card schools on the Leeds United team coach. Football aside, it was the arena in which Bremner’s competitive instinct shone most brightly.
“To sit in on a card session with the little fellow losing his cash is to experience something akin to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the explosion of an atomic bomb,” Wray once wrote. “He was an extraordinary competitor.”
Bremner’s will to win trick after trick was an extension of a footballer who won trophy after trophy – two first division titles, one FA Cup, one League Cup, one Charity Shield and two Inter Cities Fairs Cups.
Hideous refereeing denied him and his club the most prestigious of European trophies, but Bremner was decorated like no other Leeds player before or since his stellar career.
“He and Johnny Giles were the midfield partnership of their day,” said Wray. “A lot of people rated Johnny as the most talented player in that team but Bremner was almost as good. Billy had everything, a class act in every department.
“He’d play through ridiculous injuries that put other players in the treatment room for a month and it’s easy to forget how many goals he scored, vital goals at that. He’d produce them when the situation looked hopeless, simply because it wasn’t in his nature to give up. There was a man who hated losing.”
The statue of Bremner was installed at Elland Road two years after his death at the age of 54. Tributes to him appeared en masse, and his likeness on the south-east corner of Elland Road has become a magnet for the club’s support, in good times and bad.
“Deep down he’d have been extremely proud to see the club honour him with a statue,” Wray said. “There’s no two ways about that.
“But at the same time, he’d have been a touch embarrassed, if only because it wasn’t his style to promote his own brilliance. Beneath the extraordinary talent he really was an ordinary, humble man.”
HOW YOU VOTED
Billy Bremner 50%
Johnny Giles 24%
David Batty 13%
Gary McAllister 5%
Tony Currie 3%
Olivier Dacourt 3%
John Sheridan 1%
Bobby Collins 1%