In the days before his death Billy Bremner refused hospital visits from all but his immediate family. The unbreakable footballer who became an icon and captain of Leeds United was not about to be seen in his weakest state. He died suddenly and at a relatively young age, without much time for goodbyes.
Allan Clarke, one of his closest friends, was the third eldest of seven children. Bremner, he says, became “the equivalent of another brother” before and after their careers at Leeds drew to a close. The Clarkes holidayed with Bremner and his wife Vicky every year, often in Portugal. “I’d to speak to Billy most days,” Clarke says. “We’d been in the Algarve that September and there was no warning of anything. Hearing the news that he’d passed away knocked me for six.”
Bremner died 20 years ago today, on December 7, 1997. He was two days short of his 55th birthday. Mick Jones, another of the Scot’s Elland Road team-mates, remembers the funeral in Edlington near Doncaster “packed to the rafters with everyone there.” Don Revie’s widow Elsie attended. Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, flew home in haste from a Champions League game against Juventus to be present at the service.
“It told you everything about how well respected Billy was,” Jones says. “Okay, he had that aggressive side to his game but he was a skilful footballer. He was as good a footballer as you’d seen. I always put it this way – if you had 11 Billy Bremners in your team you’d win the World Cup every time.”
Jones and Bremner changed next to each other for years in Revie’s dressing room. Jones, who joined Leeds from Sheffield United in 1967, felt Bremner sizing him up at first but gradually developed a friendship and soon became a butt of Bremner’s jokes.
“Changing at the side of him was a nightmare,” Jones jokes. “All the mickey-taking and the pranks. Every day, without fail, and we sat next to each other for years but it was all good fun. I stopped wearing decent clothes because I knew what might happen to them.
“To begin with he was wary of me. I think that was in his nature. He wanted to know who you were and I guess he wanted to know how good you were too before. You had to gain his trust and respect. I just tried to be myself. We roomed together once, straight after I signed. I liked a chat so I talked him senseless all evening. He probably thought ‘no more of this please!’”
Clarke and Jones were later arrivals under Revie but both had played against Bremner at club level and internationally, Jones for Sheffield United and in an Under-23 game between Scotland and England in Aberdeen. Clarke says his strong friendship with Bremner was almost contrary to their personalities. “We both had short tempers and we were both sticklers for winning,” he says. “You’d think that could cause a clash but we became friends for life.
“When I was at Leicester and Fulham I was labelled a ‘loner’ by the press. They felt I was different to the other players and in some ways I was. At Leicester and Fulham the lads would sit in the bath and have laugh after a defeat. I couldn’t go along with that. Nobody ever laughed after defeats at Leeds, especially not Billy. The attitude at Leeds was my attitude and that’s why we were such a great team. I was in football to win trophies and medals. Simple, really.”
Revie’s squad won a hatful, the legacy of talent from front to back. Bremner spent 16 years at Elland Road and finished with two Division One titles, a Division Two title and winners’ medals in the FA Cup, League Cup and Inter-Cities Fairs Cup. Two highly-dubious refereeing performances contributed to defeats in the finals of the European Cup and the European Cup Winners’ Cup. Bremner made his debut aged 17 years and 47 days. His last appearance for the club was his 772nd.
His competitive streak generated a certain a reputation – Dave Mackay once described Bremner as a “brilliant little player but a dirty little b*****d” – but he was acknowledged as the Football Writers Association’s Footballer of the Year in 1970. Did his aggression ever cross the line? “I thought he got it spot on,” Clarke says. “It was part of what made him the club’s greatest player. Football as it was back then isn’t like football today. You needed skill but in his position you needed aggression too.”
Jones agrees, saying Bremner was “made for the times”. “You wouldn’t get away with a lot of what went on back then but times have changed. There were plenty of others with the same approach as him.
“Alan Ball comes to mind – aggressive and hot-tempered. That’s why him and Billy ended up clashing in the 1972 cup final. Football was like that but the point with Billy was that the hard tackles and all that other stuff was never more important than his ability, of which he had masses.”
Clarke became Bremner’s regular room-mate after Jack Charlton retired in 1973 (one of the most iconic Leeds photos is of Bremner and Charlton lying in bed on the morning after their 1972 FA Cup triumph). Clarke recalls the endless games of cards, a pastime which Revie’s squad were almost addicted to.
“We’d play all the time, in the evenings, on the coach on the way to games. Any chance you got, we’d have a hand.” The late journalist, John Wray, once wrote about Bremner’s deadly-serious approach to card schools.
“Oh, Billy hated losing,” Clarke says, “but then we all did. We played cards like we played football. It was fun if you won.”
As the Revie era ended and players went their separate ways – Bremner and Clarke into management eventually and Jones into a life away from football – the majority stayed in touch. Clarke and Bremner remained particularly close and Jones, who began running a sports shop in Maltby, agreed to help out while Bremner was in one of two stints as manager of Doncaster Rovers.
“He called me one day to ask if the shop I had would supply some equipment,” Jones says. “I assumed that Doncaster were short of money but I was happy to do my bit. He came down with his coaching staff and we had a good catch-up. We never lost touch.”
Bremner was one of several Revie boys who tried their hand at managing Leeds. His tenure was the most successful of the lot but peaked with a defining period in 1987 when Leeds were beaten in the last four of the FA Cup and pipped by Charlton Athletic to promotion from Division Two after a breathless run through the play-offs.
“A few of the lads had a go but managing Leeds is a different ball game,” Jones says. “It was never for me. Management is ruthless. How good Billy could have been I don’t know but I always remember Allan (Clarke) saying one day ‘I’ve had enough of it’.”
At the time of his death, Bremner had been out of management for six years, working instead as a radio summariser and an after-dinner speaker. He died of a heart attack after a bout of pneumonia. Tributes covered the gates at Elland Road.
“It was a huge shock and in some ways it still is,” Clarke says. “Fifty-five is a young age and we all felt the loss. I can honestly say there’s not a day that goes by when I don’t think about him. It’ll be like that until the day I die.”
n For more ‘King Billy’ memories turn to pages 4-5.