“What a life…….what a great time we’ve had.” The wistful words of Norman Hunter as he described his life in football and how he and ex-team-mate and valued friend Eddie Gray often looked back on it. As always, Norman meant what he said and didn’t mince his words. It was an honest and convincing picture he painted, not skewed by bitterness at the riches footballers now earn or the celebrity parapet status they now experience, but an earnest appreciation that he had enjoyed a lifetime of security, love and belonging from being on the Leeds United staff from the age of 15 ½ onwards. And he earned every second of it.
Such a humility and a fundamental human warmth is at odds with Norman’s public profile. To the wider world he was the cold, cynical and calculating face of a football machine that won no friends, but inside that Leeds United bubble there were deep connections; sincerity, comradeship and a commitment to win together, whatever it took. Once you have that, there is no better place to be, and Norman existed in that ring-fenced pocket of cordiality his whole life.
This dichotomy of public perception never left Norman Hunter. Even his name provided a narrative which perfectly described the contrast his existence embodied. ‘Norman’ portrayed a typical Northern conviviality; someone who exuded comfort, tenderness and kind-heartedness. ‘Hunter’ portrayed a scheming predator who prowled the football pitch with menace. So to us he was ‘Norman’ and to the rest of the world he was ‘Hunter’. And once you are within that Leeds United world, it doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks. Norman understood that from an early age and it is an intangible power which helped forge the kind of life he would later describe.
But beneath all the rancour, the mud-caked combat, the sliding tackles and the veil of intimidation, there was a mutual respect between Norman and his opponents; then and now. The tributes that have poured in from opposing clubs, opposing players, celebrity football fans and rank and file supporters demonstrate that the cartoon hard man image was just that; a convenient identity. It may have been something he couldn’t shake off, even if he wanted to, but underneath all that, everyone knew he was a great footballer, with a great attitude, and someone you wanted with you, not against you.
Norman Hunter was the ultimate professional. This schizophrenic mainstream personality is born from the fact that Norman would leave everything on the pitch; not just his blood, sweat and tears and every last sinew of energy, not just a clear conscience that there were ‘no regrets’ in how he had performed, but he would leave his specialist identity too. Off-the-pitch he was Norman, sharing a beer and a laugh with players he was kicking lumps out of half an hour earlier.
That is a fearsome commitment to winning. That’s what builds respect. That’s what wins you the first ever PFA Players’ Player Award in 1973/74. That’s what wins you 28 England caps and a place in two World Cup squads in 1966 and 1970. That was no accident and wasn’t built merely on a one-dimensional devotion to hurting people and winning a psychological war, there is far more to Norman Hunter’s legacy.
From making his debut as a 19-year-old in September 1962 in a famous game versus Swansea Town, Norman was a model of consistency and a manager’s dream. And this was immediate. He made 41 appearances in that same breakthrough season. He didn’t play less than 40 games in a single campaign until 1975, in fact he played over 50 games for nine seasons running. He played every major cup final for Leeds United from 1965 to 1975; the only player from Revie’s great team to do so. Given the fearless and often reckless manner in which Norman approached every minute of every game, it is a testament to his endurance and his iron-will that he never suffered the injuries that befell so many of his comrades.
If a manager knows he is guaranteed that level of service from a player over such a length of time, it is no surprise they become an invaluable commodity. But add to that a fearsome will to win and you have the complete player.
In this era, Leeds United would travel behind the Iron Curtain and embark in backs-to-the-wall hostilities with unknown opponents in unfamiliar lands. Carrying the ‘Leeds United’ name in foreign fields, miles from home and away from the cossetted bosom of Elland Road, you needed people like Norman Hunter.
This made Leeds United feared in Europe, it made Leeds United’s name for the rest of us to take on. And you can’t create that kind of mentality, you are born with it. Norman was a winner and if he didn’t win it hurt him. He wanted to win matches, he wanted to win sprints on Fullerton Park. He wanted to be the first to the café after training for Sausage sandwiches, he wanted to be first to the bar to get a round in, he wanted to win at carpet bowls in the pre-match lounge. Not because it mattered, but because he was a competitor. Norman saw a target and went for it. And he would always get it. And that’s who you want on your side.
Winning was everything, but Norman also valued what being part of ‘Leeds United’ meant. He loved turning up for training with his mates every day and running around in the fresh air, just as much as he loved talking about his playing days to people he’d never met, and kicking every ball on the gantry commentating on or simply watching the Leeds United team of today. That’s a Leeds United life.
Many people have referenced the unbearable sadness of the unique circumstances in which Norman’s passing occurred. But Norman was never alone. He knew his family and friends still surrounded him, and he knew the thousands of Leeds United fans that loved him.
It feels like Norman Hunter has been around forever. It feels like we all knew him, it feels like we were all friends with him. And that’s why this outpouring of emotion is so widespread. If you ever met Norman you will have been left with a warm glow. If you didn’t, it was exactly how you imagined it. So keep on imagining it.
We can still feel that warm glow now, because Norman is still here; indelibly dyed into Leeds United’s fabric. This club will fulfil Norman Hunter’s dream of promotion in his name, because he was a winner and as old friends we owe him that; to celebrate a life well led. And you’re right Norman, what a life it was.