David Parkin cheers a true legend, finds too many cooks and faces the bald facts

YOU only have to have made a few appearances in professional sport these days before they dub you a “legend”.

The term is chucked around like confetti.

But surely it should really be reserved for those who have consistently performed at the highest level for many years?

That’s why there is no disputing the description when talking about former Leeds United player Norman Hunter.

Norman died last week from the invidious, invasive and invisible coronavirus that has affected all our lives.

He spent a week in hospital before he passed away aged just 76.

Tributes were many for a passionate and proud man.

They all agreed that Norman’s hard as nails reputation and ‘Bites Yer Legs’ monicker belied a very skilful footballer.

He might not have got away with some of his tackles in the Premier League today but his dribbles out of defence, sharp passing and howitzer shots from outside the box would have been prized by many a manager.

The stats don’t lie.

He made his debut in 1962, establishing a formidable central defensive partnership with Jack Charlton and going on to play 726 games in 15 years at Leeds United. Only three men played more matches for Leeds United – Charlton, Billy Bremner and Paul Reaney.

Norman was a key component of Don Revie’s side that won the First Division title in 1968-69 and 1973-74, the FA Cup in 1972, the League Cup in 1968 and the Inter Cities Fairs Cup (the forerunner of the Uefa Cup) in 1968 and 1971.

He might have been a formidable opponent on the pitch, but he was also highly respected by his peers and named the first winner of the Professional Footballers’ Association Player of the Year award in 1974.

The current absence of professional sport being played meant that at least the tributes to Norman in newspapers, on radio and on television had more space than they might have done in more normal times.

Back page and front page photographs of him in his footballing prime and inside lengthy tributes from writers and former players.

He deserved nothing less.

Off the pitch he was cheerful, charming, almost self-effacing, not like all the legends you meet.

Four years ago last November Norman Hunter was the guest at one of the first events my then new business, COPA, organised.

I knew that the market for sporting lunches and dinners was crowded so a different approach was needed.

In the back of my mind, filed away in a corner under a sign marked: ‘Not relevant but might come in useful sometime’ were images of Norman’s infamous Baseball Ground battle with Derby County’s Franny Lee.

The film of the incident, accompanied by John Motson’s incredulous commentary of the unfolding events on Match of the Day, still makes compelling viewing.

Forget the “handbags” slappy-slappy squabbles between footballers that we see today – this was the real deal, proper punches which drew blood.

Today footballers fall over without being touched. Norman hit the Baseball Ground turf only when Franny landed a vicious right cross.

But he got up and landed a few of his own on the stocky, straw-haired raging bullock of a man for whom the red mist had definitely descended.

Realising that we were approaching the 40th anniversary of the incident, my idea was to bring Norman and Francis together to mark the anniversary and hear their memories of something which has entered football folklore.

But it was scuppered by the fact Franny wasn’t up for it.

Through an accountant that knew the former Manchester City player and chairman, we made an approach but Franny said he now had grandchildren and didn’t want them to remember him for the wrong reasons.

I think another reason was that whatever fee we were able to offer him was of no interest given he had become a millionaire from running a successful toilet roll making business after he retired from football.

Norman on the other hand was happy to do it for 500 quid in a brown envelope and so we persisted and went ahead with a lunch at the former Foundry restaurant in Leeds with Norman as the guest in November 2015.

I got a bit carried away and got a film made for the event which we played just before I introduced Norman to the audience.

It featured footage of Muhammad Ali’s famous fight against Joe Frazier in October 1975 for the World Heavyweight Championship dubbed the “Thrilla in Manila”.

It was one of the most brutal, compelling boxing matches ever seen and took so much out of the two combatants that neither Ali or Frazier were ever quite the same in a boxing ring again.

After brief highlights of the fight a caption popped up saying that exactly one month in 1975 later another great fight took place.

Cue a clip of boxing announcer Michael Buffer (another of my inspirational ideas) giving his trade mark: “Let’s get ready to rumble” line.

Then into the Match of the Day footage of Hunter v Lee, or “the pitbull savaging the rottweiler” as The Observer once described the clash.

Other than introducing him and asking him some questions,  I didn’t actually spend much time with Norman at the event as I was dashing about making sure the guests were happy.

So I sat him on a table with a few people I knew would be relaxing and good company during lunch.

My pal Simon Hare, a BBC journalist and fellow Derby County fan came along and produced a lovely short film of the occasion which you can watch below.

Also on the table were Ian Beaumont, the KPMG partner and Jonathan Sands of creative design business Elmwood, another Rams fan who has ended up in Leeds – his company is based next to the Foundry.

When the awful news of Norman’s passing was announced last week, Jonathan posted this memory on social media:

“Very sad to wake up this morning to hear that ‘Bite your legs’ Norman Hunter has succumbed to Covid 19. Part of the 1966 World Cup England Squad and a Leeds Utd legend. Thanks to David Parkin I got to sit next to him at a lunch at The Foundry next to our studio a few years back. Thanks David a great memory of a lovely man and a sad loss. RIP.”

Alongside the other guests on the table was Leeds lawyer Rodney Dalton, a fan of Leeds United since PDR (pre-Don Revie).

Rodney asked Norman if some of the stories about him from his playing days were apochryphal, it turns out most were true.

Rodney was also able to recount a few of his own career sporting highlights including being the first person to perform the skillful footballing trick which became known as the ‘Cruyff turn’, but which Rodders perfected many years before the Dutch master tried it.

Unfortunately it was in the playground at Roundhay School rather than in front of an enraptured 78,000 crowd in the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro.

Just like in his playing days, as a speaker Norman was reliable, consistent and with a little bit of flair as well.

He made the audience laugh, he made them smile, he made them think, he had them nodding in agreement and shaking their heads with amazement.

You can’t ask any more of a speaker at an event.

What I do remember is that while Norman had a reputation as a player for being as hard as nails, as a man he was charming and humble and who told our audience that he isn’t proud to view the dramatic footage of his Baseball Ground battle with Franny.

He said that the Leeds manager at the time, Jimmy Armfield, was attempting to clean up the club’s image and so had instructed him to keep it as clean as possible on the pitch.

But that was before his fiery team mate Billy Bremner started whispering in his ear, winding up Norman that the “fat, little ****” Lee had got the better of him.

My ambition after the lunch was to recreate it in Derby with Norman Hunter alongside former Derby County great Roy McFarland.

It was Roy who Rams manager Dave Mackay instructed to shepherd Franny Lee down the Baseball Ground tunnel after his sending off.

And Roy was Norman’s room-mate on England duty.

Apparently Norman used to make him a cup of tea first thing in the morning.

But that idea of another event with Norman Hunter won’t now take place.

But as my friend Simon reflected this week, if we had held it in Derby, in front of a room full of Rams fans, then Norman would have been “panto-booed at the beginning and cheered at the end”.

He was a great player and a lovely fella who left us all cheering.

Include Parky’s video clip of the week


What I’m looking forward to this week

IT is probably more like what I’m not looking forward to this week – but the beauty of television is that you can turn it off.

I’ll take great pleasure in turning off The One Show featuring those towering personalities Alex Jones and Alex Scott who bring so much false bonhomie and so little charisma to a TV studio.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, over on the other side you’ve got the ego-fest which is Gordon, Gino and Fred: American Road Trip.

All three are equally annoying in their own right, but put them together and you’ve got a show that is even more annoying than the sum of the parts.

Sadly, the lockdown will probably ensure this show gets big ratings and they’ll commission another series.

What do they say about too many cooks?


Reasons to be cheerful

Like most people losing their hair, I choose to keep it clipped short and pay a visit to the barbers every couple of weeks

But during the lockdown I’ve not yet opted for a DIY haircut meaning that for the first time in years I can comb my hair.

Admittedly I can only achieve that luxury on the sides and at the back currently but I live in hope.

I console myself with the words of Seinfeld writer and Curb Your Enthusiasm star Larry David:

“Anyone can be confident with a full head of hair. But a confident bald man – there’s your diamond in the rough.”

So it’ll be back to the close-cropped look soon for me.

But actually I can see my hair starting to curl up at the back of my neck.

I think I’ll wait a bit longer for a haircut.

In three week I reckon I could have a mullet.


Have a great weekend.

1 thought on “David Parkin cheers a true legend, finds too many cooks and faces the bald facts”

  1. David – Brilliant tribute to Norman Hunter who I met a couple of times myself and was indeed the loveliest and most humble of men. RIP Norman. But I can’t agree with you about Gordon Gino and Fred – I loved it – clearly hamming it up for TV and the BBQ’d bed brisket looked superb!

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