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When Leeds United did panto: Bremner as Buttons, Hunter as Prince Charming...

Leeds United pantomime 1974

When Jimmy Armfield took over an ailing Leeds side, only one thing could get them back on track: a pantomime...

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The disciplinary panel didn’t see the first punch. Neither did Francis Lee. A thudding right hook delivered by Leeds United’s Norman Hunter, it knocked the Derby County forward to his knees, splitting his lip so badly that he could poke his tongue through the gash.

Lee, who had enraged the opposition by tumbling over a barely outstretched leg to win a penalty and make it 2-1 in this fierce First Division battle a few days before Bonfire Night in 1975, clambered to his feet, ready to fight back. Team-mate Charlie George, together with David Harvey and Trevor Cherry, got in his way as Billy Bremner tried to stop Derby’s Kevin Hector’s unwise lunge towards Hunter. Referee Derek Nippard stepped in and sent the combatants off. Which meant that, when they met at Lancaster Gate three weeks later, stitches out and bruises healed, the FA could only deal with what happened next.

And it looks to me as if it’s broken out again! It’s broken out again, and this time, a complete free-for-all

- John Motson, MOTD

Since the film the panel watched was silent, they missed out on the increasingly frenetic Match of the Day commentary, too. “A fight’s going on off the ball between Hunter and Lee,” began John Motson. “Fists were flying and that’s been brewing for some time... I’m wondering if he’s sent them off, because they’re wandering away to the far side. And it looks to me as if it’s broken out again! It’s broken out again, and this time, a complete free-for-all. And I’m sure they must have been sent off this time. And the referee’s trying to sort it all out. If they weren’t sent off the first time, they certainly were the second.”

The panel only saw the ‘afters’: Lee swinging wildly, knocking Hunter to the ground with the last of four blows before team-mates, coaches and managers jump in – in a couple of cases, literally – to restore order.

So while Lee received a four-match ban and a £250 fine for disrepute (“It’s the worst thing that’s happened to me in 10 years of league football,” he said), Hunter came away smiling. Dressed in suit and tie, he climbed into a car with manager Jimmy Armfield and headed back to Leeds to take part in that night’s fixture.

Oh yes he is

With The Beatles having split, the England team in disgrace and Manchester United recently exiled to the Second Division, this was arguably the most famous collective of individuals in Britain

A few hours later, the archetypal hard man emerged from the dressing room to a familiar roar and gazed out at his public. Not tonight, though, the faithful of the Lowfields and the Scratching Shed at Elland Road. Instead, Hunter looked out on an audience of mums and dads and lads and lasses at the City Varieties Music Hall, all gathered to watch Leeds United – that wonderful, cynical, glamorous, brutal, thrilling 1970s force – stage a pantomime.

“Here’s Baron Diver, back from London,” declared Armfield, clad in velvet, as Hunter walked towards the front of the stage and delivered a passable version of the nation’s current favourite catchphrase. In a northern approximation of Bruce Forsyth’s voice, and with a wink, he asked the audience: “Didn’t we do well?”

If any team of the time were going to savour the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd, it had to be Leeds.

With The Beatles having split, the England team in disgrace and Manchester United recently exiled to the Second Division, this was arguably the most famous collective of individuals in Britain.

Leeds | FA Cup

The Whites celebrate FA Cup success in 1972

They had international stars like Billy Bremner, Terry Yorath, Johnny Giles and Eddie Gray. They had players with nicknames – ‘Bite Yer Legs’ Hunter, ‘Sniffer’ Clarke, ‘Hot-Shot’ Lorimer. They wore numbered sock tags and had recently replaced their staid peacock motif with the famous ‘smiley badge’.

They had even recorded a top 10 single, Glory Glory Leeds United, featuring the memorable verse: “Little Billy Bremner is the captain of the crew/For the sake of Leeds United he would tear himself in two/His hair is red and fuzzy but his body’s black and blue.”

Says journalist John Wray, then covering the club for the Bradford Telegraph & Argus: “They were the best team in the country, they were the most talked-about team in the country and they were the most fashionable team in the country. When you covered them, you felt like the whole world was looking in. It felt like you were at the centre of something exceptional.”

Forty-four days

They were the best team in the country, they were the most talked about team in the country and they were the most fashionable team in the country. When you covered them, you felt like the whole world was looking in

- John Wray, Bradford Telegraph & Argus

Yet by October 1974 the only thing exceptional about Leeds United was the speed with which they had lately fallen from grace. With Revie gone to replace Sir Alf Ramsey as England manager following Hunter’s disastrous gaffe against Poland in the final World Cup qualifier, Leeds had recruited Brighton’s Brian Clough as The Don’s replacement, against his wishes.

The next 44 days, which were memorably re-imagined by writer David Peace in his remarkable novel The Damned United, were stranger than fiction. Players were told to hand in the medals accumulated under Revie as they’d been won by cheating. New signings John McGovern and John O’Hare were shunned because Clough had managed them at Derby. Another new capture, Nottingham Forest’s Duncan McKenzie, was derided as surplus to requirements in a team bursting with attacking threat.

When Bremner and Kevin Keegan were dismissed for swapping punches in the Charity Shield, United fell into national disgrace. After the season began, the league champions slumped into the drop zone and stayed there until a players’ deputation to the boardroom forced the interloper out.

Bremner | Keegan

Referee Reg Matthewson sends Bremner and Keegan on their way

Into this poisonous atmosphere arrived Jimmy Armfield. Once captain of Blackpool and England, he had prepared for a second career in journalism before taking up an offer to manage Bolton, where he met with modest success. Then again, much about the avuncular Armfield was modest. “He was almost too nice to be a manager,” says McKenzie. “Jimmy was like the nice neighbour that everyone wants next door.”

Yet this neighbour had 61 England caps’ worth of cunning. “I needed to get rid of the sour feeling, the sour taste,” Armfield says. “I wanted to get the team back on its feet and I thought we needed a bonding exercise. So I phoned Barney Colehan and said, ‘I’ve got this idea...’”