by Peter Lorimer
Any captain worth his salt would give his right arm for Billy Bremner’s attributes. Heart, bravery, passion and inspiration – wee Billy had it all, in spades.
You can imagine kids through the years trying to model themselves on him but Billy wasn’t a replica of other players. He didn’t model himself on anyone. That’s what made him such a fine leader. It all came naturally.
To see him voted as the Football League’s greatest ever captain today is extremely pleasing, though not at all surprising. Billy was a player without many equals and integral to the success we had under Don Revie, the driving force behind Leeds United’s greatest era.
The captaincy at Elland Road was as big a deal in the 1960s and ’70s as it is now, the only difference being that once Billy took hold of it there was never any debate about whether any of us could do a better job.
So what defined him as a inspirational captain? To my mind, it was all about attitude. He set the example. I lost count of the number of times I saw him limping around on a Friday afternoon and thought ‘he’s not playing tomorrow’, only to see him line up as usual and fly into a tackle in the first minute.
His levels of commitment were so high that you had no choice but to follow suit. That was the thing about Billy – if it came down to an argument about who was putting the effort in, you’d never win it with him. He’d shut you up with his performances on the pitch.
I rowed with him from time to time the same as every player at Leeds. Billy was a smashing lad but he had a volatile, aggressive and demanding streak. He’d pull you up for mistakes on the field and he’d tear a strip off you in the dressing room if things were going wrong at half-time.
None of it was done for show and none of it was done for his own ego. All he cared about was the success of the club. We’d argue about something or nothing and then I’d go home and think about what had been said. More often than not you realised he was right. But he never held grudges or dragged things out.
He just said what needed to be said, in his own volcanic way.
Him and Revie would tangle from time to time too and whenever they crossed words – maybe after Billy had been caught having a few pints on a night when he shouldn’t have been out drinking – Billy would say to him ‘you just judge on me on how I play.’ Then he’d have a stormer on the Saturday and Revie would be there with his arm round him at full-time, saying ‘wee man, you were outstanding.’ He never failed to put his money where his mouth was.
The funny thing about Billy is that by and large I’d class him as a fairly poor trainer. He was great in the five-a-sides and so on but when it came to cross-country and weights, that sort of thing, he found it hard to tolerate. I suppose he was an old-fashioned Scotsman. He just wanted to get the ball down and play. He worked as hard as any of us but you knew that he found the other bits tiresome. He’d trail in last during the runs in Roundhay Park and we’d make a bit of fun of him. He’d look back at you all and say ‘aye, but football’s not about ******* cross country. It’s about what you do on a Saturday.’
Having someone like that in the thick of your team was a bit like having an extra player. We were lucky to have two of the best midfielders of our generation at Leeds, Billy and Johnny Giles, and while Johnny was the brains of the operation, Billy was the one who carried you.
We loved him to bits and the respect for him was immeasurable. That’s because he was as good with his feet as he was with his mouth. Too many captains think the armband gives you the right to shout and bawl. It only gives you the right to shout and bawl if you can first look in the mirror and be happy with your own commitment.
To me, he goes down as one of those unique characters who will never be seen again. It’s still strange and extremely sad to think that he’s no longer with us. That in a way was the irony of Billy life: that someone with such an unbelievable engine should die so young.