First Touch

Jack Charlton & Norman Hunter Tribute

As if things haven’t been dark enough these past few months – many of us having to deal with personal tragedies of various kinds and scales while in the background, the world unravels in the news bulletins – we’ve had to become used to losing some of the great names from the footballing world too. The announcement today that Jack Charlton has passed is given added poignancy by the fact that only a couple of months earlier, his Leeds and England colleague, Norman Hunter, also left the dressing room for the final time.

High Noon – Jack Charlton & Norman Hunter Remembered

By Dave Bowler

I don’t think that there has ever been a more feared defensive combination in the game than big Jack, with his little black book, full of the names of forwards who had trespassed against him and would not be delivered from evil next time, and Norman “bite yer legs” Hunter who, if anything, could make Jack look a bit conciliatory at times. Even now, 50 years after they were in their prime, there will be a few old footballers still rubbing lumps, bumps and indelible bruises in memory of those two.

jack charlton
Jack Charlton

The caricature did, as ever, tell only half the story. Of course they were ferocious, aggressive defenders who would do anything they could get away with in order to prevent the other side scoring. They were not alone in that in an era where football was still a physical contact sport and all the better as a spectacle for it.

They were no worse than Tommy Smith, Ron Harris, Ron Yeats, Peter Storey, Nobby Stiles and a hundred others but in combination, they were better than any of them, the absolute bedrock on which Don Revie built a Leeds United side that was as great as any of that golden period in English football between around 1965 and 1975.

Big Jack

Revie’s Leeds were ultra-professional it’s true. They were also ultra-brilliant. John Giles, Billy Bremner, Eddie Gray, Allan Clarke, Terry Cooper, Peter Lorimer, all wonderful footballers whose names will live on, they could take any team apart. But behind them were Hunter and Charlton, all the insurance policy you needed. For a long stretch in the ‘60s, before Revie started to give his team its head in the ‘70s, Leeds would simply suffocate games.

They’d score first and then put up the shutters to keep the clean sheet and win the game. You can only do that if you have supreme confidence in your defenders, especially in the middle. And Hunter and Charlton were simply the best partnership going.

Norman Bites Yer Legs

Norman was the better footballer in the classical sense, in that he could just as easily play in midfield as at the back. He could create as well as destroy, had a lovely left foot and, if the opportunity was there, he would drive forward into space, commit players and then find Gray or Giles with a telling pass. The only thing that stopped Hunter winning another 50 England caps to add to the 28 he got was a chap called Bobby Moore.

Big Jack was, of course, Moore’s partner in England’s greatest day, the World Cup win over West Germany. It was a slightly different set up to playing with Hunter, Moore a gentler figure in the tackle, a timer and reader rather than a clatterer, but there were plenty of similarities, all based around Jack’s temperament. He once asked Alf Ramsey why it was that he was picked so often for England when there were better players available at centre-half.

“Because you won’t trust Bobby Moore” came the answer. And that was Jack’s philosophy. “I’m a defender, I’m here to stop the goals going in. Bob might do something fancy and once in a while, it’ll go wrong, so I’ll be here to stop the bloke coming through.”

England Magic

Paired with Moore, that was a magnificent blend, its importance illustrated as England lost in Poland in ’73 to start tumbling out of World Cup qualification. One down at the start of the second half, Roy McFarland – one of England’s finest centre-halves, a better “footballer” than Charlton by a mile – won a header on halfway and directed it back towards last man, Bobby Moore, with time and space.

Instead of knocking it back to the keeper, Moore looked to take a touch and then to set up an attack. The ball got away from him, Lubanski burst onto it and made it 2-0.

Charlton would never have played the header McFarland played. First, he wouldn’t have been in front of Moore, he’d have been behind him. But seeing Moore was last man, Charlton wouldn’t have trusted him and would have either headed into touch or 30 yards forward, out of harm’s way. Both Moore and McFarland had constructive, footballing instincts. Charlton was only ever interested in the ball not ending up in the back of his net.

Hard Men

The game has chosen to ditch the aggression that Hunter and Charlton showed in their play, but that’s not to say they couldn’t have played today, for they could and would be stars. Hunter would be a ball playing centre-half or a midfield anchor, while Charlton would be winning every header that came into the box, mopping up behind the fancy dan who’d got himself into trouble.

And they would still be masters of that other lost art, the art of digging out your team mates, administering rollockings to those who don’t track back, who are out of position, not doing their job. One of the great eye openers – ear openers – of behind closed doors football has been how quiet players are on the field now. I can promise you, if that Leeds team had been taking on the Liverpool side of the time, they would have had to turn off the pitchside microphones, both because of the volume and the content of the chatter.

Norman and big Jack were competitive to their core, could not bear to lose at anything. They, Don Revie and their team mates created a club out of nothing and it would be wholly appropriate if this month, Leeds lift the League Championship trophy they both won, albeit when it was given a division higher.

Rest easy lads.

soccer bars nycDave Bowler is the author of “The Magic of the Cup 1973/74”, telling the story of Liverpool’s FA Cup win in 1974. Available here: – 

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