How the soccer hard man felled by COVID-19 will be remembered warmly in Africa

By Chris Bishop

He was tough world cup winner feared and respected by the finest players on football pitches around the world. Yet COVID-19 felled him in a week.

Norman Hunter, a tough tackling defender for Leeds United and England 1966 World Cup winning squad, died in hospital after testing positive for COVID-19 on April 10.

“He leaves a huge hole in the Leeds United family, his legacy will never be forgotten, and our thoughts are with Norman’s family and friends at this very difficult time,” said Leeds United in a statement.

Hunter was  a tough-tackling centre back nicknamed  “Bite your legs” by the fans – an epithet he didn’t like and certainly didn’t do him justice – feared few in the days when the professional game was full of mud and flying career ending tackles.” He will long be remembered in Africa by fellow 1966 World Cup winner Terry Paine who forged a broadcasting and football management career in his adopted home of Johannesburg, South Africa.

“Apart from being a hard man he also had a great left foot. He was a great footballer and what they would call these days an out- and- out defender,” says Paine a dashing winger who played 713 games for Southampton and made the 1966 World Cup squad even though his club was in the second division.

Paine and Hunter may have been in the England squad in 1966, but not in the eleven that lifted the World Cup. It meant they were not given medals as is common practise these days where even the coaches and physios get a prize. This wrong was righted, 43 years later, when the British Prime Minister presented the rest of the surviving squad with their medals.

Hunter, born on Tyneside near Newcastle, kissed his glittering medal outside Number 10 Downing Street; he was not so gentle with those who opposed him on the pitch.

On a grey afternoon amid the mud of a wet Derby County, in 1975, the referee  sent  Hunter off for a toe-to-toe fist fight with his old friend and England roommate Francis Lee. Hunter threw the first punch, off-the-ball, yet the referee dismissed both. The two threw more punches as they trudged off for an early bath.

“He was a lovely guy, but he could be a Jekyll and Hyde character on the pitch,” laughed Paine who remembered a day of daggers on the pitch during training for the 1966 World Cup at the Football Association headquarters in Lilleshall.

“We were playing 11-a-side and I put the ball through Norman;s legs and ran past him. He turned to me and said: ‘Don’t you ever do that again!’”

Did he, I ask?

“Did I hell!” replied Paine with a laugh that rode a thousand tackles.

But one day at the Dell in Southampton, against Leeds United, Paine found it hard to laugh after jumping for an aerial challenge with the towering Hunter.

“He hit me hard with something and I thought he had knocked all my teeth out; my whole mouth went numb. I think it was his elbow.”

You can be sure that the referee didn’t even caution Norman Hunter in those robust, often brutal, days- a hard man, born of an even harder game, taken from the world by COVID-19.       

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