Blood, sweat and cheers: 'Bite yer legs' banner couldn't define Hunter

Blood, sweat and cheers: Norman Hunter couldn’t be defined by ‘bites yer legs’ banner at 1972 FA Cup final

  • At the 1972 FA Cup final, Leeds fans unfurled a ‘Normal Bites Yer Legs’ banner
  • The phrase stuck to Norman Hunter, who had earned a reputation for his tackles
  • His defending would make modern fans wince, but it made him a Leeds icon

The banner was a home-made affair, just a strip of canvas strung between a pair of wooden poles. It was unfurled by a couple of Leeds United fans at the FA Cup final in 1972. And it bore the daft little message: ‘Norman Bites Yer Legs.’

Almost half a century has passed since that Wembley afternoon, yet scarcely a day went by without somebody mentioning that slogan to Norman Hunter. Usually, he managed a little smile. Sometimes he tried to explain.

‘It’s light-hearted. It’s not serious, so it’s a good thing. See, when we played, you were never booked for your first tackle, so you went in a little bit harder than you should. That’s all. I’m not saying it was right. Nowadays, you wouldn’t get away with it.’

Norman Hunter has passed away at the age of 76 after suffering from the coronavirus 

He starred in the 1972 FA Cup final, where the ‘Norman Bites Yer Legs’ banned was unfurled

Indeed you wouldn’t. And a show-reel of Hunter’s most celebrated tackles would only underline the point. Leg-lunging, stud-thrusting affairs they were; the kind of assaults which would make a modern referee shudder as he pulled out his red card.

Many old-timers tell us that the game’s gone soft; that modern players couldn’t deal with the intimidation of the likes of Hunter, Tommy Smith and Ron Harris. 

Others would insist that football has become more civilised; that the modern game has embraced intelligent creation and rejected the kind of licensed brutality which Don Revie’s Leeds too often embodied.

Hunter never seemed terribly bothered by the fierce divisions which his club provoked. His philosophy was that you played to the whistle. If the referee found no problem with your methods, then that was fine. If he objected, then you modified your tactics. 

In today’s game fans would wince at Hunter’s tackles, but the game is hardly recognisable now

Simple as that. In any event, he always believed that his football ability had been obscured by the publicity surrounding his tackling. And he had a point.

‘The thing is,’ he said, ‘I could play an’ all, largely because of the people I played with. When you’re playing with people like Billy Bremner, Johnny Giles and Bobby Collins, if you don’t improve as a footballer, then there’s got to be something wrong with you.’

And, as his record suggests, he really could play. Between 1962 and 1976, he made 540 appearances for Leeds and won 28 caps for England. With England, he made two World Cup finals squads. 

With Leeds, he won two League championships, plus the old Second Division title, the Football League Cup, the Inter Cities Fairs Cup (twice) and the FA Cup, beating Arsenal on that famous day in 1972. He was also the first winner of the Players’ Player of the Year title, in 1974.

Hunter was central to a side who earned a fierce reputation for perceived dirty play 

It is a genuinely formidable record, far beyond the dreams of a mere clogger. Yet Hunter performed at the heart of that Leeds side whose remarkable achievements left them strangely unloved outside their own northern fortress. 

Outsiders saw a team built in the image of its manager, Don Revie: dour; suspicious; shamelessly cynical and utterly ruthless. ‘They’d kick their Grannies,’ Arsenal’s Frank McLintock once observed. Yet Hunter recalled his years at Elland Road as the best of his life.

‘I had an absolutely wonderful time,’ he said. ‘Every day, I used to wake up and look forward to going to the ground and seeing the lads at training. I loved it! I don’t miss the actual playing so much, but I miss the dressing-room and I miss the banter. 

‘The craic was absolutely brilliant. People used to say to me, “But what did you laugh about?”. And you can’t tell ’em. It was spontaneous, it just happened. It was brilliant.’

Despite what clubs of other fans may have thought of the side, Hunter is remembered an icon

When Brian Clough took over from Revie in that ill-judged experiment in 1974, Hunter was in the dressing-room as the new man arrived. Clough called the players together and announced that they were ‘a bloody disgrace’; that the Leeds players ought to throw all their medals into the bin, since they’d won them by cheating.

Giles described the scene: ‘Clough looked around at the faces and said: “Norman Hunter, you’re a dirty bastard. But everybody likes to be liked, and I think you’d like to be liked too, wouldn’t you?” And Norman said, “I couldn’t give a f***”.’

The Clough experiment lasted for just seven matches, but Hunter remained at Leeds for another two years, performing alongside Jack Charlton in central defence.

It was during that final two-year period that Hunter became involved in the most dramatic collision of his eventful career.

The occasion was a match with Derby at the old Baseball Ground. Now even on dry days, the Derby pitch seemed to be ankle-deep in mud but on November 1, 1975, it was drenched with days of rain. 

Hunter’s glittering career saw him make two World Cup finals squad selections for England

The Press box was like nowhere else in the old First Division, being situated perhaps five yards from the touchline and some 15 feet above the ground. We scribblers could hear every collision and every curse and when Hunter and Derby’s Frannie Lee collided, the box offered a ringside seat.

The fracas arose out of nothing. Then punches flew, insults were screeched and with play some 50 yards away, things became serious. Then Hunter swung a right hand at Lee’s face, splitting his lip. Lee, the smaller man, lost his head completely, hurling a windmill of schoolyard blows at Hunter, who briefly slipped to the mud. 

Players from both teams then joined in, while the referee, Derek Nippard, tried to restore order. Eventually, the fighters were separated. Nippard took them aside, produced a notebook and, inevitably ordered them off: first Lee, then Hunter. 

Just as he reached the touchline, close by the Press box, Lee touched his lip and saw the blood. Nursing his grievance, he waited for Hunter then flung himself at him once more.

Long minutes of chaos followed before order was finally restored and Nippard was hard-pressed to play the match to its conclusion.

Hunter left Derby’s Frannie Lee with a bloody lip after taking a swing at him during a match

Now for journalists required to phone post-match copy, there was just one feasible train back to London in those days. Along with a colleague, I had ordered a taxi to the station. 

As we climbed into the cab, we spotted Nippard, searching for his own taxi. We offered him a lift, which he accepted. In the taxi, he declined to talk about the ugly scenes. ‘You’ll have to wait for my official report,’ he said. 

Avoiding the Leeds and Derby fans, we boarded the train and invited Nippard — who by now was ‘Derek’ to us — into our compartment. 

‘Impossible,’ he said. ‘Referees only get a second-class ticket.’ We assured him that all would be well. After half an hour, the ticket collector came in and threatened to charge Derek an excess fee plus a mandatory fine. 

We explained that we had brought him in to protect him from the hooligans down the train, and the collector nodded knowingly. ‘You stay where you are, sir,’ he said. ‘Nobody’s going to bother you.’

The Leeds star made 540 appearances for the club, winning two league championships 

Derek’s kind heart melted with gratitude. ‘Well, maybe I could say one or two things for tomorrow’s paper,’ he said. And he provided us with a rare, exclusive story. We left him at King’s Cross, and I always remembered his final words. ‘That Norman Hunter,’ he smiled. ‘He’s a lad, isn’t he?’

Norman was indeed ‘a lad’, but he was also pragmatic. He recognised that a football team is comprised of piano players and piano shifters. He knew that Giles, Bremner and Eddie Gray provided the vision and imagination which delivered the dreams. 

But he also knew that without sweat and graft and, occasionally, intimidation the artists would flounder. It was Hunter’s task to supply the sweat and if he could also add a few flourishes, then so much the better. His record reveals how well he carried out his role.

When, eventually, he wrenched himself away from Leeds, he moved to Bristol City for three years, then on to Barnsley, where he became player-manager, and eventually to Rotherham, where he finished in management in the late Eighties. He later worked as a summariser on BBC Radio Leeds and on the after-dinner speaking circuit.

Hunter admits that if he’d played today he’d not have been able to play at central defence 

For one who had achieved so much, he was admirably realistic about his abilities. ‘If I’d played in the modern game, I’m not sure I’d have been quick enough to play in that central position,’ he said. ‘You’re very exposed and you get a lot of one-against-ones. I think I could have sat in front of the back four, where you just win it and give it to other people.

‘The truth is, I don’t envy the players now. When I hear what they’re earning, I just think, “Good luck to you. I wouldn’t swap anybody’s lifestyle for what I had; the club I played for and the people I played with. I was fortunate. I played all those games for England, went to a couple of World Cups. I wouldn’t swap all that.’ 

He paused for a moment, then admitted: ‘But I think a lot of players from our era, for what they put into the game, could have done with being a bit more financially sound.’ It was a telling piece of understatement.

The ‘Norman Bites Yer Legs’ phrase has stuck to the defender, but it never stopped him

Meanwhile, an image of that old canvas banner with its celebrated slogan is now used on coffee mugs, greetings cards, mouse mats. You can even buy a 400-piece ‘Norman Bites Yer Legs’ jigsaw puzzle for £27.99. Some might have been offended by the branding, but Norman Hunter seemed rather proud of being remembered in that way.

Yet the tribute he prized most of all arrived inside an ominous buff envelope. ‘Do you know,’ he recalled, ‘I once got an income tax return, and there was a little note inside. It just said: “Norman … keep biting!”’

He threw back his head and chuckled at the memory. And if you listened carefully, you could hear the whole of West Yorkshire joining in the merry moment.

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