Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Bremner, a diminuitive but hard 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 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 teamsheet 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. But he could play too - he had a stamina to work from one end of the pitch to the other and could pass with precision and timing. He also weighed in with his share of goals.
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 missed out on both.
Manchester United won the League on goal difference and so Leeds 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 fiery No.4 acting as leader and mentor on the pitch, Leeds entered their halcyon period at the end of the 1960s, winning the League Cup and Fairs Cup in 1968 and the League championship in 1969.
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 it turned into a tragic season for Bremner and his team-mates when 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.
Beyond their achievement and brilliance, two further things stand out when analysing the Leeds side of the late 1960s and early 1970s under Revie. Firstly, they were as dirty as they were skilful, with Bremner at the forefront alongside equally uncompromising players such as Norman Hunter. The 1970 FA Cup final replay against Chelsea was a case in point - after an enjoyable 2-2 draw in the initial game at Wembley, the replay at Old Trafford was an exercise in tolerance and bravery as it was in footballing excellence. Late tackles and off-the-ball incidents were at their most prevalent, with Bremner himself launching into a late tackle on fellow Scotsman Charlie Cooke which prompted an infamous retaliation with upper body and knee from Chelsea striker Ian Hutchinson which left Bremner flat on the turf.
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 with a petrified look on his face after Tottenham Hotspur's bulky midfield player Dave Mackay grabbed him by the shirt and hauled him up following a late tackle by Bremner. Mackay was just back from a second broken leg. The snap was taken in 1965.
Secondly, for all their honours, comparitively 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 and, as a last hurrah, before the team aged and broke up, a European Cup final but lost both.
The 1970s were a decade which saw Leeds dominate but lose as much as they won. In 1971, Bremner lifted the Fairs Cup but Leeds were the victims of one of the FA Cup's biggest shocks when they lost a fifth round tie at lowly Colchester United. They then watched helplessly as Arsenal swiped the League championship from them with a 1-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur (prior to winning the FA Cup to complete the second "double" of the 20th century). Had the game ended in a score draw or an Arsenal defeat, the League would have gone to Leeds.
In 1972, Leeds again chased the League and FA Cup but again were left both elated and disappointed. A 1-0 victory over holders Arsenal in the FA Cup final earned Leeds their first and only success in the competition (and completed Bremner's domestic medal set) but three days later, with a victory required to seal the "double", Leeds lost their last League game to Wolves and the title went to Derby County. In 1973 Leeds were only chasing the FA Cup and success in Europe - Liverpool were too strong in the League - but were beaten by AC Milan in the Cup Winners Cup final in Salonika, Greece (though they rightly complained bitterly about some appalingly one-sided refereeing decisions which led to the Greek referee receiving a lifetime ban) and then lost the FA Cup final to second division Sunderland. Bremner picked up more runners-up medals.
Bremner played magnificently as Leeds finally put the near-misses aside over the previous six seasons and won the 1974 League championship at a canter, setting a record of 29 unbeaten games to start the season which was only beaten by Arsenal in 2004. As champions, Leeds contested the 1974 Charity Shield curtain raiser game against FA Cup winners Liverpool at Wembley - and Bremner was sent off for a clash with Kevin Keegan, which also saw the Liverpool striker dismissed. Both players removed their shirts on departure to express their shame.
The following year, Leeds were not in contention for domestic honours but reached the European Cup final, which they lost in more controversial circumstances to Bayern Munich. Leeds were denied a certain penalty, had a goal disallowed (after the referee decided that Bremner was offside) and Bremner suffered his own personal nightmare when he missed an open goal from just six yards.
Revie had quit Leeds a year earlier to take over the England job from Alf Ramsey and the team started to break up over the next few years. Bremner finally left Leeds United in the summer of 1976 to join Hull City. He had played 772 games for Leeds, putting him second behind Jack Charlton in the club's all-time list.
Though winding down his career, Bremner was a success at Hull for two years before he joined Doncaster Rovers, managing an admirable four seasons there before retiring at the age of 39.
As an international, Bremner was at the forefront of Scottish football's rise in the 1970s after years in the wilderness and the shadow of England. He made his Scotland debut in 1965 against Spain, played in the famous 3-2 victory against world champions England at Wembley in 1967 and captained his country at the World Cup in West Germany in 1974. His last cap came against Denmark in 1975 - an incident in Copenhagen after the game led to a lifetime ban from international football. He won 54 caps in total, scoring three goals, and is in the Scotland hall of fame.
Bremner's life after playing was mainly notable for his topsy-turvy spell as manager of Leeds, following in the footsteps of old team-mates Allan Clarke and Eddie Gray to try to restore happier days to the club after their relegation in 1982. They never regained promotion under Bremner but came close, losing a play-off final to Charlton Athletic in 1987 and reaching the FA Cup semi-finals in the same season, losing to eventual winners Coventry City.
Bremner was sacked in September 1988 to make way for Howard Wilkinson who would within four years not just achieve promotion but also the League championship again. Bremner then went back to Doncaster as manager, but was fired after two years.
Bremner settled into the columnist and after-dinner circuit adorned by many high-profile ex-footballers in the last years of his life. At the beginning of December 1997, he suffered a heart attack at his Doncaster home and was rushed to hospital, but died three days before his 55th birthday. Just about every major figure from Scottish football, past and present, attended his funeral and there was citywide mourning in Leeds.
A statue of Bremner in celebratory pose was erected outside Elland Road as a tribute to the club's greatest captain and, according to an official poll of supporters via the club website, the club's greatest ever player.
The Leeds United club song, Glory Glory Leeds United, contained the following verse which summed up Bremner's role at the club:
Little Billy Bremner is the captain of the crew
For the sake of Leeds United he would break himself in two
His hair is red and fuzzy and his body's black and blue
As Leeds go marching on.
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