Never could I have imagined I’d find myself sitting in his back garden talking football, lawns and roses. But that’s where I was on several occasions back in the 1980’s. Me and Norman Hunter, having a cup of tea and a laugh. I remember calling my late father to tell him that one of his favourite Leeds United players was such a nice man. I’m not quite sure my dad believed that I was on friendly terms with the likes of Norman and my childhood favourite, Eddie Gray. But I was, writes Vernon Grant.
The death of Norman Hunter from Covid-19 has been announced. He was 76 years of age. I am very saddened at this news. A big man brought down by a virus that takes no prisoners.
Joining Yorkshire Television as a sports researcher in January of 1980 saw this London boy mixing with many of the by then retired Leeds squad of the Don Revie era. Not every encounter was as enjoyable as those at the homes of Hunter and Gray.
Billy Bremner threatened to break my legs in half should he ever seen me again (he didn’t, thankfully). Bobby Collins treated a YTV ‘All Stars’ versus Leeds United old boys charity football match as though it were a must win FA Cup final. Collins didn’t take kindly to my pushing him in the back at a corner kick. I didn’t see the forearm smash coming. I just remember being picked up off the floor and Collins saying: “Son. You’ll not be doing that to me again.”
Norman Hunter never bit my legs. Never used a cross word in my presence. Was as patient as he could be with autograph hunters. I always felt that, as with almost all his Leeds colleagues from that time, he didn’t suffer fools gladly. Yet we got on really well. It helped, I guess, that first with Martin Tyler and latterly and especially John Helm alongside me, he knew he was in the company of people he could trust. John Helm had and still has a reputation among ex footballers as the sole of discretion. If they told John a secret, footballers knew it would go no further.
Norman Hunter, a Geordie by birth, was player-manager of Barnsley when I first met him. I enjoyed going to Oakwell. The club was run by a friendly and honest group of people so it was fitting than Norman was in charge of team affairs between 1980 and 1984. He took over from another Leeds legend Allan Clarke, who went off to try his luck managing at Elland Road. Norman was much the easier to get to know of the two. He was more trusting.
In my experience Norman had to know you well enough for you to get away with a cheeky comment or a sprinkling of sarcasm. Those who worked with him would knew if they had overstepped the mark. Whereas Bobby Collins would use his elbow to remind you of your place, Norman would just give you a certain look. That was enough.
The news that he has been struck down with the dreaded Covid-19 virus saddens me. Coronavirus does not discriminate between honest and dishonest people, the good guys and the self serving types, as evidenced by it attacking both Norman and the Prime Minister.
Norman Hunter had a footballing reputation as a hard man and he could certainly put in a crunching tackle when playing for a Leeds United team that won plenty of honours by fair means or foul. He only made 28 appearances in an England shirt and it’s always been a shame that people highlight that mistimed challenge of his on the halfway line in the game against Poland that saw England not qualify for the 1974 World Cup finals. Norman trod on the ball, lost possession and Poland went away to score. But what is too often overlooked is how Peter Shilton really should have saved that shot and how many chances England spurned when trying to win that game.
Considering I grew up shouting ‘Dirty Leeds’ at the television while my dad was claiming that every Johnny Giles tackle was a fair one, it was for me amazing that I would spend a decade playing football against, drinking with, laughing with and being welcomed in the homes of some of those Leeds United players.
At one charity game another ex Leeds player who became a good and much admired friend, the legend John Charles, was overheard saying: “Vernon has a deft left foot.”
Post match we gathered in the bar. I was on cloud nine at being praised by Charles, the Gentle Giant. He admired my left foot. Up popped Norman Hunter: “He said daft, Vernon. Daft, not deft!