Leeds United's 100 Greatest Players #1: Billy 'The Complete Midfielder' Bremner

It started as an idea, a labour of love, and morphed into a book that stole my life for a long time. Here's to Bremner, the player whose name was first on the team sheet...
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It started as an idea, a labour of love, and morphed into a book that stole my life for a long time. Here's to Bremner, the player whose name was first on the team sheet...

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Leeds United's 100 Greatest Players #1: Billy 'The Complete Midfielder' Bremner

How do you sum up Billy Bremner? Any of the countless photos of him will do because it was all there on display; the passion, the desire, the energy. He wore his heart on his sleeve and lead by example. If Billy Bremner was on your side; you had a chance.

The best captain Leeds United have ever had? Not only that, he was also the best captain the game of football has ever seen. The dictionary definition of the word ‘captain’ should just read ‘see: Billy Bremner’. Some players take being captain as an honour, some just see it as a job or a name. But Bremner understood it implicitly and took it as a personal duty to carry out the role in every moment of his waking life, on and off the pitch, in the first minute and the last. Bremner demanded the same levels of effort from every team-mate, and he was never anything less than a true inspiration.

Allan Clarke on Billy Bremner’s death "The biggest compliment I can pay Billy is to say he was one of the all-time greats. Billy enjoyed life to the full. The news of his death knocked me for six. I used to speak to him nearly every day. He was not just a team mate to me, he was like a brother. His wife Vicky told me he had gone into hospital and I said I wanted to see him, but he sent a message back saying he didn't want me or any of the lads to see him like he was."

Revie would have been lost without him wouldn’t he? Well he never dropped him. Let’s be honest, every player has off days technically, and Bremner was no different, but his sheer presence was so stimulating to his colleagues that from his debut in 1960 to when he left the club for Hull in 1976, barring severe injury and suspension, Bremner was the first name on the team sheet. Basically, if he could walk he was playing. Revie once said: “It is one thing in football to have that star quality which makes you stand out from the crowd. It is quite another thing to have star personal quality and leadership qualities so strong you would follow him to the ends of the earth. But that is Billy Bremner. No manager could wish for a greater leader or a greater player. If I was in the trenches at the front line, the man I would want on my right side is Billy Bremner”. The two of them were like father and son, and the coherence and instinctive understanding they shared was the rock upon which Leeds United’s success was built. When Revie left to manage England in 1974 Bremner wanted the job himself, but his loyalty to Revie was displayed by his frank refusal to accept Brian Clough, who had continually criticized Revie’s methods, as the new manager.

Underneath all the eulogy though, what was he like as a player? In short, the complete midfielder. People often see Giles as the skillful partner to Bremner’s fight and aggression, but he was so much more than that. He could pass, he had quick feet, he was a strong runner, he had stamina that allowed him to chase around every blade of grass for the full ninety minutes, and he had an eye for goal that saw him to a total of 115, fifth in the all-time list of goal-scorers. True, he is better known for his attitude than his abilities, but look at the number of crucial goals he scored for Leeds? Amongst many others, there were four winners in major semi-finals. He acted out on the pitch everything he expected from others, but at only 5’ 5”, his heart and colossal stature dwarfed his diminutive physique.

Bremner

Any stand-out performances? Obviously he was so consistent over 772 games that it’s difficult to pick out one, but Revie himself cites a UEFA Cup tie at Hibernian in 1973. Leeds were forced to field a severely weakened team and after a goalless first leg, few gave them hope. However, Bremner took it as a personal challenge and, in front of a partisan crowd, made up for the loss of some vital colleagues by playing the part of five or six men, controlling the game with supreme, physical assurance, and Leeds scraped through.

Leeds were lucky to have him then? Very lucky. If he had been slightly taller he wouldn’t have been rejected by Arsenal and Chelsea before Leeds signed him in 1959. If Bobby Collins hadn’t got injured against Torino in 1965 Bremner may never have become captain, and if Revie hadn’t seen such qualities in Bremner at a young age and taken him under his wing, the homesick youngster may have gone back to Scotland.

He saw it all didn’t he? To captain a club for an unbroken spell of 11 years is an astonishing achievement, and while Bremner hated losing with a passion, whether it was football or carpet bowls, the near-misses that Leeds endured in this period were savage blows to a man who had the name ‘Leeds United’ running through him. The pain and anguish can be seen on Bremner’s face in famous photos from the defeat to Liverpool in the 1965 FA Cup Final and from the European Cup Final debacle ten years later. His indestructible manner was borne from a stubborn refusal to accept the torment of defeat. Years later when manager of the club he was famously quoted as saying “every goal Leeds concede is like a bullet to my heart”. It’s the spirit every fan has, and yearns for in players; Billy Bremner had it.

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Manager’ you say? Yes, he returned in 1985 to take over from Eddie Gray. He steered us to dramatic FA Cup Semi-Final and Play Off Final defeats in 1986/87, but he revived the spirit of the club. He awoke the sleeping giant and Howard Wilkinson took it from there. Bremner was responsible for players like Ian Snodin, John Sheridan and David Batty. They looked up to him and performed for him; he demanded it.

What if he had never signed for Leeds? The names ‘Leeds United’ and ‘Billy Bremner’ are so irrevocably entwined that so much of what is good about the club would be non-existent without Bremner’s indelible mark. Bremner sums up what Leeds United is all about, he did between 1960 and 1976, and he still does today. If you understand Billy Bremner, you understand Leeds United.

In a nutshell: There’s only one Billy Bremner.

Stats

Date of birth: 09/12/42

Birthplace for: Stirling

Signed from: Apprentice

Leeds United Debut: Chelsea (A) 23/01/60

Left Leeds for: Hull City

Leeds United appearances and goals

Season Apps Goals

1959-60 11 2

1960-61 34 10

1961-62 45 12

1962-63 24 10

1963-64 43 3

1964-65 49 8

1965-66 54 11

1966-67 56 (1) 3

1967-68 58 4

1968-69 54 7

1969-70 55 8

1970-71 39 7

1971-72 54 5

1972-73 57 5

1973-74 52 11

1974-75 44 4

1975-76 38 5

1976-77 5 0

TOTAL 772 (1) 115

*Substitute appearances in brackets

Honours with Leeds United

1963-64 Second Division Champions

1967-68 League Cup

Inter-Cities Fairs Cup

1968-69 First Division Champions

1969-70 Charity Shield

1969-70 Named FWA Footballer of the Year

1970-71 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup

1971-72 FA Cup

1973-74 First Division Champions

1973-74 Named in the First Division Team of the Year

International Career

Scotland Caps 54

Scotland Goals 0

Strange but true

Only one of Billy's 773 appearances was as a substitute, and that came on May 15th 1967 in a 1-0 home win versus Sheffield Wednesday when he replaced Eddie Gray.

Click here to buy a copy of All White: Leeds United's 100 Greatest Players