it’s fair to say Norman Hunter never exactly hid his defensive iron fist beneath a velvet glove.
Yet appearances can sometimes be a little misleading and when the Professional Football Association’s Player of the Year award was inaugurated in 1973-74, the very notion that the maiden accolade would go to a snarling hatchet man was far-fetched in the extreme. Beauty generally wins over beast in any pageant, after all.
For a defender handed the famous “Bites Yer Legs” moniker, skill was never the most obvious part of Hunter’s footballing make-up with many rival supporters treating him as the proverbial pantomine villain. But his playing peers saw subtlety and masterly defensive class behind the strongarm image, with the respect in him winning the award more than 37 years ago total.
Yes Hunter, who joined United’s groundstaff in November 1960 and became a club institution, could look after himself and dish it out, if need be. But he could also play, as you had to in that once-in-a-lifetime line-up, with rivals such as Kevin Keegan among a host of leading players who voted for him in 1973-74.
Keegan famously said: “He did not get enough credit for his skill. He could flight the ball beautifully with his left foot. A great player.”
That said, it didn’t stop the feisty Liverpool forward being handed a special welcome by Hunter at his testimonial, with the lad from Doncaster adding: “I drove 100 miles and the first thing he did was chop me down!” Some things just come naturally, after all.
Dream Team member Hunter, part of the most decorated central-defensive axis in United’s history alongside Jack Charlton, said: “It’s a good Trivial Pursuit question and nobody ever knows ‘Who was the first-ever PFA Player of the Year?’. And that was me...
“I must have been thought a bit of and it was a big moment for me.
“You don’t end up playing with the players I did for all those years without being able to play a little bit!
“But my job, as Don Revie used to say to me, was ‘win the ball and give it to those who could really play!’. Alright, it didn’t do your confidence any good because everyone thinks they can play...But he was right.
“The people I was giving the ball to could have played in any team in Europe, without a doubt.
“When I had the ball, I could always hit the front guys and dink it over midfield. But I didn’t do it that often for the simple fact there was always Johnny (Giles) and Billy (Bremner) waiting or Eddie (Gray) or TC (Terry Cooper).
“But as a defender, you had to have a bit of skill. The pitches now are brilliant, but we had everything to contend with; the ball could stick in the mud and do anything.”
On his legendary partnership with Charlton, he added: “You look at most teams and they seemed to have a good pairing. Things seemed to come in pairs, you had two good central-defenders, centre-midfielders and strikers.
“Big Jack looked after me and I learnt a lot from him. I could defend but also – people don’t realise – sometimes, as a defender, coming back towards your own goal under pressure, your touch has to be good.
“Me and Jack were good together, but don’t forget we also had Terry Cooper and Paul Reaney and initially Willie Bell. We played so long together, we knew exactly where each other was and you don’t have to think about doing something; if I went in a certain position, I knew Jack Charlton was behind me.”
Hunter was at the core of that great side who dominated the footballing landscape for the best part of a decade, without turning their successful silverware sorties into the laden trail it could and should have been between 1965 and 1975, although the “bridesmaids” tag was a tad unfair.
But the specialness of those halcyon days are still absolute for Hunter, also able to look back with pride at 28 England caps and sampling two of the most iconic World Cups ever in 1966 and 1970 at a time when England were blessed with central-defensive options.
Not forgetting a golden swansong and cult hero status during a rare top-flight joyride at Bristol City to sit alongside his revered time as part of the Leeds family and countless accolades.
Hunter, who turns 68 in October, said: “Alright, we missed out on a lot of things. But by gum, anyone would have given their right arm to play in that team and the overall experience of playing for Leeds United, being managed by Don Revie and being among the players going into training day in, day out was something I couldn’t wait for every day.
“I always got on well with the Leeds fans. I spent 16 years at the club and played a lot of games and it’s nice to be in the Dream Team.
“I had a similar feeling with supporters at Bristol City. Fans always like to see players giving whatever they have got and I tried to do that and that’s why I got on so well.
“In terms of what I achieved, I can’t complain. Some have said I could have won more England caps but, for me, I was fortunate and unfortunate to be around at the same time as Bobby Moore. I was fortunate to sit and watch him as the better the opposition, the better he played. But 28 caps and two World Cups, I’m quite happy with that.”
HOW YOU VOTED:
Lucas Radebe 41%
Norman Hunter 28%
Jack Charlton 23%
Jonathan Woodgate 4%
Chris Fairclough 1%
Gordon McQueen 1%
Rio Ferdinand 1%
Chris Whyte 0%