Johnny Giles gives the lowdown on his midfield ‘partner in crime’ and captain Billy Bremner. Phil Hay reports.
“There’s a motto in the Leeds United dressing room,” Billy Bremner once said. “It reads ‘Keep Fighting!’ It hangs above my peg for I’m the skipper and I’m supposed to set an example. Every player on the staff knows that motto.”
That was Bremner; 10 stone of barbed wire as The Guardian’s John Arlott brilliantly described him. People would “follow him to the ends of the earth”, according to Don Revie, and Leeds United did for more than 10 years. They follow his example still.
Bremner, who died in 1997 two days before his 55th birthday, was named this morning as the Football League’s greatest captain after winning a poll conducted by Prostate Cancer UK. Other notable names ranked highly behind his – Ipswich Town’s Mick Mills and Bolton Wanderers’ Nat Lofthouse – but Bremner carried almost 50 per cent of the vote; this the man who in 1969 published an autobiography called ‘You Get Nowt For Being Second’.
Johnny Giles, his midfield partner in crime at Leeds, held the same attitude. So did Revie and most of the players he coached. Giles recognised the strength of Bremner’s leadership but was more impressed by the standard of Bremner’s football. “You can’t be a great captain without first being a great player,” Giles told the YEP. “That’s my view. I think of Billy as a great player.”
Some of the members of Revie’s old squad will tell you that Giles was a better footballer than Bremner but they talk about tiny fractions, a marginal difference between the pair. It is generally agreed that Revie was fortunate to possess two of the finest midfielders in that era of English football or any since.
Giles remembers his relationship with Bremner as telepathic; a natural understanding which clicked after Revie moved Giles in from the right wing and used him to replace a badly-injured Bobby Collins. The Irishman saw Bremner at close-quarters for more than a decade and would fight his corner in any debate.
“Captains are important but being a captain off the field is no substitute for setting the example on the pitch,” Giles said. “You won’t get many better captains than Billy but that’s because you won’t get many better players than Billy.
“He’d fight, he’d scrap, he’d create goals and he’d score goals. That was a typical Saturday afternoon for him. The great Leeds United team was so good that it didn’t need a lot of urging – we were committed to a man, I’m telling you – but you always need the sort of dynamic qualities you got from a guy like Billy. That’s what I think of as proper leadership.
“I’ve never heard of a great captain who wasn’t a great player in his own right. The two go hand-in-hand. And Billy was special. Really special.”
There was a degree of fate about Bremner’s impact at Elland Road. He was rejected first by Arsenal and Chelsea on the grounds that he was too small at 5’ 5” and 10 stone in weight. No-one in London could see the barbed wire.
Collins’ injury in 1965 – a horribly broken thigh bone – was as much an opportunity for Bremner as it was for Giles, passing the armband from one Scottish warhorse to another. By then, Bremner had overcome the home sickness which constantly tempted him to move home to Stirling. Slowly and surely it all came together.
He and Giles – a steal of a signing from Manchester United at £33,000 – dovetailed beautifully. “Billy and I had a natural understanding,” Giles said. “It’s something you can’t teach or coach.
“Rarely – very rarely – you get a situation where you know instinctively what someone’s going to do. I had that with Billy. If I picked up the ball in the centre circle, I knew where he’d be waiting to receive it. He was a joy to play with but easy to play with too. For a while at Leeds I played wide right because Bobby Collins was in the centre of midfield. When he suffered his injury I moved into a more natural position – my best position as far as I was concerned – and Billy and I hit it off straight away. It was a partnership.”
Eddie Gray, another of Revie’s disciples, was asked recently to pick between his two former team-mates. “I’m splitting hairs,” Gray said, “but if you pressed me I’d have to go for Johnny. He was a great dictator. But that’s not criticism of wee Billy. He was top draw and he was our captain, the leader. He was an inspiration.”
When the battle lines were drawn, Bremner was never far away. He made headlines in the Charity Shield match in 1974 – Brian Clough’s inglorious bow as United manager – by scrapping with Kevin Keegan on the Wembley turf. He was the recipient of the kung-fu kick by Chelsea’s Eddie McCreadie in the 1970 FA Cup final, a violent but compelling episode. But his class as a footballer drew nationwide respect, grudging and ungrudging. He was the player who pulled rabbits from the hat when Leeds most needed them.
Bremner’s death came as a shock to those who knew him. Unlike Revie who suffered from a lengthy illness, Bremner was struck suddenly by pneumonia and then a heart attack. The great and good of British football packed out his funeral and Leeds soon began commissioning a statue in his memory. It has stood on the south-east corner of Elland Road since 1999 and was joined 100 metres down Lowfields Road by a statue of Revie last year.
United treasure that era and revive it when they can. Before the club’s 1-0 defeat to Queens Park Rangers on August 31, manager Brian McDermott instigated the return of the ‘Elland Road wave’, a pre-match ritual which began under Revie and involved the players waving to all four sides of the stadium. “I respect the tradition of this club,” McDermott said.
Giles has long taken issue with criticism of the methods and tactics of Revie’s team. “They said we were dirty, that we didn’t play fair,” Giles said. “Some people still say that now. It’s a perception they have but it doesn’t do justice to the great players who were in that team.
“I played alongside them for years and they way that team played, the things we achieved, did us all great credit.
“That’s why it’s nice to see Billy recognised like this.
“You’ll say I’m biased but I think of that team as one of the best sides we’ve ever seen in English football.
“And if you know your football you’ll agree with me.”