Billy Bremner was the powerhouse that drove Don Revie’s Leeds United side. Bremner was a great player and an inspirational captain. His Leeds playing career spanned 16 years from the Second Division days right through to the European Cup Final. In that time he led Leeds to two League titles, the League and FA Cup and two victories in the Inter-City Fairs Cup. In 1970 he was voted Footballer of the Year and he won a total of 54 caps for Scotland.
Billy Bremner was rejected by Arsenal and Chelsea for being too small, but his will to win and skill on the ball, more than made up for any lack of stature. Don Revie, the Leeds United manager recognised Bremner’s value and made him an integral part of his United side. However he had a fiery temperament which did result in a number of clashes with the football authorities and other players, most notably Dave MacKay of Spurs. He was also sent off for clashing with Kevin Keegan in the 1974 Charity Shield at Wembley.
Bremner, a diminutive but hard working midfield player, was scouted by Leeds while playing schoolboy football in Scotland and signed for the Elland Road club in 1959, the day after his 17th birthday. He was brought up in the Raploch area of Stirling where he attended the Catholic junior school, St. Mary’s. He had previously been rejected by Arsenal and Chelsea for being too small.
He made his first-team debut in 1960 and was a permanent fixture on manager Don Revie’s team sheet for more than 15 years thereafter unless injured or suspended. Bremner quickly established himself as an uncompromising player, tough in the tackle and often going beyond the rules to get the better of a skilled opponent – he was dubbed “10st of barbed wire.” But he could play too – he had the stamina to work from one end of the pitch to the other and could pass with precision and timing. He also scored his share of goals, and had an extraordinary ability to score crucial goals in the biggest games, including winners in four major semi-finals.
As Leeds United began their revival in the early 1960s, Bremner was at the heart of it. In 1964 they won the Second Division title and then the following year came tantalisingly close to a “double” of League championship and FA Cup. They lost the league title to Manchester United on goal average, and needed to win at Wembley to earn a trophy for the season. The match against Liverpool was exciting and action-packed but also goalless, with extra-time being necessary. Liverpool eventually won 2-1 but Bremner got his moment, scoring the equaliser with a crisp half volley which left opposing goalkeeper Tommy Lawrence stranded.
In 1966, Leeds skipper Bobby Collins was injured in a Fairs Cup game against Torino and Revie gave the captaincy to Bremner – Collins never got it back. With their Bremner acting as leader and mentor on the pitch, Leeds entered their most successful period at the end of the 1960s, winning the League Cup and Fairs Cup in 1968 and the League championship in 1969. That season Leeds lost only two of 42 league games.
In 1970, Leeds chased the historic “treble” of League championship, FA Cup and European Cup, which had not been achieved before in the English game – indeed, this was the first season when any team had come close. However, Leeds ended up with nothing – losing the League title to Everton, the FA Cup final after a particularly violent replay against Chelsea, and the European Cup semi-final to Celtic.
During this period, Leeds had a reputation amongst the press for being as dirty as they were skilful, with Bremner at the forefront alongside other uncompromising players such as Norman Hunter. As if to emphasise the style of play for which Bremner was known, one of football’s most famous photographs shows a young Bremner pleading his innocence after Tottenham Hotspur’s bulky Scottish midfield player Dave Mackay grabbed him by the shirt and hauled him up following a late tackle by Bremner. Mackay had just came back from a second broken leg.
For all their honours, comparatively Leeds were huge underachievers. They won two League titles – in 1969 and 1974 – but missed out on further championships in dramatic last-game climaxes in at least three other years. Bremner played in four FA Cup finals, but only won one. They reached a European Cup Winners Cup final in 1973 but were undone by a referee who had allegedly been bribed by A.C. Milan. As a last hurrah, before the team aged and broke up, it reached a European Cup final two years later but lost controversially to Bayern Munich – with United having a goal disallowed and Bremner ruled offside wrongly.
Bremner finally left Leeds United in the late summer of 1976 to join Hull City. He had played a total of 772 games for Leeds, putting him second behind Jack Charlton in the club’s all-time list. Bremner’s arrival at Hull was big news locally and he scored on his debut for the club. Though winding down his career, Bremner emerged as a big success at Hull over two years before he joined Doncaster Rovers, managing an admirable four seasons there before retiring at the age of 39.
In February 1982 Bremner won £100,000 libel damages, along with legal costs, after he sued a Sunday Newspaper for publishing an article that alleged he tried to fix football matches, including the May 1972 game at Wolves, which was two days after Leeds United had won the FA Cup. Leeds lost the game 2-1 and Derby County became champions for the first time in their history.
Bremner was at the forefront of Scottish Football;s rise in the 1970s after years in the shadows. He made his debut in 1965 against Spain, he played in the famous 3-2 victory against then World Champions England at Wembley in 1967 and he captained his country at the World Cup in West Germany in 1974. His last cap came against Denmark in September 1975, however an incident in Copenhagen after the game led to a lifetime ban from international football along with four other players – Willie Young, Joe Harper, Joe McClusky and Arthur Graham. The five were allegedly ejected from a nightclub for rowdy behaviour – this was after breaking a 1am curfew to indulge in some heavy drinking. The ban was lifted in 1976, but Bremner never played for Scotland again. He won a total of 54 caps, scoring three goals and has been inducteed into the Scottish Football Hall of Fame.
Name: William John Bremner
Born: 9th December 1942
Place: Stirling, Scotland
Death: 7th December 1997 [Aged 52]
Clubs: Leeds United [771 games & 115 goals], Hull City [61 games & 6 goals], Doncaster Rovers [5 games – no goals].
Internationals: Scotland – 54 caps and 3 goals.
Managed: Doncaster Rovers [1978-85], Leeds United [1985-88] and Doncaster Rovers [1989-91].