Friday, December 5, 2008
ESPNsoccernet: December 12, 10:28 AM UK
Billy Bremner, Leeds legend
When Billy Bremner died suddenly on December 9 1997, Leeds United lost their greatest ever player, the man who defined their golden era.
At a time when the club finds itself spending a second successive season in League One and trying their best to shake off the embarrassment of being knocked out of the FA Cup by non-league Histon United, it seems right to remember how strong a force Leeds United once were.
Even in 1997 it was difficult to consider the presence Bremner's team once possessed. Don Revie's team's rise from Second Division strugglers to title-winners and competitors for the biggest prizes in the European game and their subsequent fall from the top table spanned and mirrored the arc of this hard-bitten Scot's career.
Every one of his 772 matches for Leeds was played with unmatched grit and determination. In an era of hard men Bremner may well have been the hardest. A famous 1966 run-in saw him lose out to Dave Mackay and it was perhaps only the Tottenham legend who could match such a marriage of mastery of the game with a taste for the dark side.
A man who sometimes lived as recklessly he played, his Scotland career being ended by a curfew-breaking binge in 1975, Bremner's grimace of sheer determination bestrode the club from his debut at Chelsea in 1960 to his departure from the club in September 1976.
It is said that Bremner would not last five minutes in the modern game. That has nothing to do with footballing ability. His brand of fierce tackling is now outlawed as ruling bodies seek to protect flair players of enormous transfer values. This was a different game, played on pitches that are not even acceptable in modern-day rugby, let alone top-level football. Of course, Bremner was by no means alone in his strong-arm approach to the game.
A 5'5" Bremner only towered over Bobby Collins of his team-mates. Collins, two inches shorter, served as mentor to his fellow Scot, eleven years his junior. Collins had never let size dictate to him and his arrival in 1962 was the catalyst for Leeds' revival. For four years it was Collins who embodied Leeds' team, who pushed for a league and cup double in 1965 but lost out - on goal average to Manchester United and in a Wembley final to Liverpool. When Collins, by then 35, succumbed to a broken leg the following year his galvanising role was passed to Bremner. His apprentice was to hold the captaincy for Leeds' greatest decade.
A footballing captain needs to inspire and be counted at the key moments. Bremner delivered for his team time and again. His respect for Revie, who he had played alongside when he was just 17 and his future boss, an ageing deep-lying centre-forward, was mutual. Once told that Bremner might be sold, Revie issued the board with an ultimatum. "If he goes, I go," said the senior partner.
He also had the ability to deliver goals at vital times. He scored in the 1965 FA Cup Final as Leeds lost out to Liverpool in extra-time but retained an amazing record in semi-finals, scoring the winner in no less than four.
Once Collins had left the club it was with John Giles that Bremner formed one of the best midfield partnerships of the era. The Irishman had been poached amid unhappiness at Manchester United, the only sale of a player that Matt Busby ever expressed regret about. Giles' range of passing and football brain served as counterbalance to Bremner's feral style. Though Giles was not far behind Bremner in his deployment of the game's more cynical tactics.
It was this that made Leeds unpopular. Revie was a man who believed in winning at all costs and if his team could gain an advantage from putting fear into their opponents then so be it. Bremner again embodied that attitude. Though in that respect he was first among equals in a team that included Jack Charlton, Norman Hunter, Peter Lorimer and Mick Jones.
Bremner and Revie's team won their first silverware with the 1968 League Cup and a string of near misses in the league were finally ended when the 1969 First Division title was secured for the first time in the club's history. Leeds played out a typically gritty 0-0 draw with closest rivals Liverpool, winning the admiration of an Anfield Kop which applauded the new champions off the field.
By the following season Leeds were in their pomp and Bremner at the apex of his powers. "Above all Leeds have Bremner, the best footballer in the four countries," the legendary John Arlott wrote in The Guardian in 1970. "If every manager in Britain were given his choice of any one player to add to his team some, no doubt, would toy with the idea of George Best; but the realists, to a man, would have Bremner."
Leeds pushed for an unthinkable treble in 1970 but those dreams were dashed. Everton beat them to a title after a controversial defeat to West Brom forever remembered for Colin Suggett's surely offside winner. Another FA Cup final was lost, this time to Chelsea in a replay at Old Trafford after a first game in which the brutality of the action at Wembley would have seen a raft of sendings-off in modern times. Bremner was in his element during the two games.
The dream of the European Cup was ended at the semi-final stage. In front of a record crowd of 136,505 at Hampden Park, Celtic edged by far the highest stakes game ever played between English and Scottish clubs. Bremner, named Footballer of the Year the previous week, had cancelled out Celtic's first-leg away goal but Leeds, riven by injury after an achingly long season, could not hold off wave after wave of Celtic attack. To lose to the club he had supported as a boy was no consolation for Bremner.
The following year saw Leeds again disappointed despite a second UEFA Fairs Cup, the first coming in that watershed year of 1968. The FA Cup was finally delivered in 1972, an Allan Clarke header winning the trophy in its centenary year. Even then, triumph was tinged with disappointment. Two days later Leeds, again weighed down by participation on too many fronts, surrendered their chance to win the title at Wolves. A well-known picture of the time shows Bremner and Jack Charlton in their hotels beds the day after Wembley, exhausted and refuelling themselves with fried breakfasts and cigarettes while taking in the tabloids.
For the Leeds hater, legion at the time, a propensity to miss out on the biggest of occasions was entertainment. Bremner's era saw Leeds runners-up in the League five times, losing finalists in the FA Cup three times, runners-up in the Fairs Cup once, and losing finalists in the European Cup Winners Cup.
Wembley 1973 was perhaps the best embodiment of this. Somehow Sunderland goalkeeper Jim Montgomery kept the Second Division club in the match and an Ian Portfield goal dashed Leeds hopes. Yet Leeds were to be given a swansong. Revie's last season saw the shackles thrown off as "The Don" allowed his veterans to express themselves. Revie treated his team like a family, and Bremner, the most favoured son who could no wrong in his adopted father's eyes, blossomed again, well into his thirties.
A record-breaking run of 29 unbeaten matches from the start of the season saw Leeds stroll to the title, Bremner lifting the trophy after what had seemed such a long wait. However, Revie's departure to take the England job signalled the beginning of bad times. Replacement Brian Clough lasted 44 days, during which Bremner was banned for 11 matches for brawling with Kevin Keegan at Wembley during the Charity Shield. Bremner and Keegan's battle was an overspill of the Machiavellian cynicism of John Giles, who had thrown the punch that began the bad blood.
When Bremner returned to the Leeds team it was under the pipe-smoking tutelage of Jimmy Armfield. One last push for the old guard saw Leeds reach the European Cup Final. To those in the anti-Leeds camp, the campaign summed up the "dirty" Leeds of the era. A defeat of Johan Cruyff's Barcelona was followed by a final in Paris that collapsed into farce and recrimination. Leeds were denied what looked a legitimate Peter Lorimer goal. Two fortuitous German goals later, the Yorkshire fans rioted, their ire and ransacking continuing into the streets of the French capital. It was an ugly way to signal the end of an era.
Bremner lasted one more season at Elland Road before leaving the club for a dotage at Hull City. He would return, though not in triumph. One of a group of the Revie side to attempt to follow in the great man's footsteps, Bremner followed Eddie Gray and Allan Clarke in managing the club, relegated under Clarke in 1982, surely unthinkable in the Revie era. Sadly, Bremner's efforts bore the hallmarks of a typical Leeds near miss. In 1987, Leeds lost an FA Cup semi-final to Coventry City and lost a promotion/relegation play-off to Charlton Athletic in the extra time period of a replay. Again, tired legs had cost Bremner triumph.
Disappointment followed and Bremner was removed from his post in October 1988, still no less a legend among fans. A couple more years at Doncaster, where Bremner had spent seven years as boss from 1978-85 followed but Bremner's time in the game was done. He entered the after-dinner circuit, penning a column in the Yorkshire press and became a regular on local TV. His memories of his playing days were always tinged with warmth, the disappointments never sullying his career with regret.
Bremner died two days before his 55th birthday after a heart attack. His health had not been its best for some time yet it still came as a shock to Leeds fans and the football family. The old boys of the Revie team headed the guest list at a funeral in his adopted home town of Edlington, South Yorkshire. "The Don" was not present, having died in May 1989, stricken by motor neurone disease.
Leeds fans continue to sing both Revie and Bremner's name to this day. At Elland Road the Gelderd End is now named the Revie Stand while a statue of the man once described as "10 stone of barbed wire" now welcomes fans to the ground.