Billy Bremner: a Hero or a Villain?

“Controversial, brute, no-nonsense”– These are some of the words that describe the former Leeds United captain Billy Bremner. Often criticized for his rash tackles and crazy challenges, Bremner was the face of a Leeds United team that was known for its brutality, thereby earning the name “Dirty Leeds”.

Born in Stirling to James and Bridget Bremner, he started playing football at a young age for St. Modan’s High School and Gowanhill Juniors. He was rejected by both Arsenal and Chelsea because he was “too small”. He was eventually convinced by Bill Lambton to join Leeds United in December 1959.

He was handed his first-team debut by manager Don Revie against Chelsea a year later and Leeds won 3-1. He first was played at a wide position- as an outside right-winger, but he struggled a lot in that position mainly due to his diminutive size. Therefore, Revie repurposed Bremner as a central midfielder, to play alongside Bobby Collins. This partnership worked wonders for Revie and Leeds United. Together, they started a revolution at Leeds United that would see them getting promoted from the Second Division to winning the First Division title and the European Cup, in addition to the Inter-City Fairs Cup, the FA Cup, the League Cup, and the FA Charity Shield.

But what sets this Leeds United team apart from the other great teams of the previous century, is the way they played. The fighting mentality and a “win-at-all-costs” spirit made them play rough and have an uncompromising style of play. They often relied on organization, set plays, and closing down space, utilizing their superior fitness to combat the opposition. And Billy Bremner was at the forefront of the moniker that Leeds United earned at the time – “Dirty Leeds”.

Sunday Times (Via Leeds Live) headline dubbed him “ten stones of barbed wire” due to his tenacity and rough style of play. I think its fair to say that Bremner was one of the first footballers who helped create a generation of no-nonsense, hard-tackling ball-winners like Roy Keane, Gennaro Gattuso, and Patrick Vieira.

When Don Revie took over Alf Ramsey as England manager, Billy Bremner put his name in for the vacant job at Leeds United. But the board appointed Brian Clough, who went on a horrible 44-day spell as manager of Leeds. A lengthy spell on the sidelines due to injury led him to leave the club and sign for Hull City in 1976.

Billy Bremner eventually retired two years later in 1978 and later joined Doncaster Rovers as manager. He had to occasionally lace up his boots and play, as Doncaster were going through an injury crisis at the time and had a pretty thin squad. He had a fairly successful time at Doncaster, helping them win promotion to the Third Division by finishing second behind York City.

After 6 years of managing Doncaster Rovers, he joined Leeds United as a manager, having impressed the board with his performance at Doncaster. He inherited a team which fell back to the vices of the pre-Revie era. The club had to sell Elland Road to the city council to raise money, and a hooligan culture bringing disrepute to the fanbase.

Bremner immediately brought back the principles and methods Revie used, brought in senior players as Leeds tried to get back to the First Division. Unfortunately, that was not to be. He was eventually sacked in 1988 and was replaced by Howard Wilkinson, who helped Leeds win promotion in 1990. He returned to Doncaster as manager and went through a fairly underwhelming spell and finally retired from management in 1991.

Pele described him as the “best player he saw” at the 1974 World Cup. He won 54 caps for Scotland and was very impressive at the 1974 World Cup. His performance against Brazil earned him praise from Pele himself. His miss against the same team resulted in Scotland getting knocked out in the group stage itself. He was made a scapegoat by the media at the time, but it was rather an unlucky miss as the rebounded ball bounced off him, catching him completely unaware. Overall, he played 772 matches, scored 115 goals, and is Leeds’ fifth highest goal scorer of all time.

Billy Bremner passed away in 1997 due to a heart attack at the age of 55. A statue of him stands outside Elland Road. He was inducted in both the English and Scottish Football Halls of Fame. He has been voted Leeds’ greatest player of all time. He is, in all essence, a legend of the game.

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