Norman Hunter, the defender who won the World Cup with England and was instrumental in Leeds becoming champions of England twice during a 14-year spell at the club, has died from COVID-19 at the age of 76.
Issuing a statement confirming Hunter’s death on Friday morning, the club said his passing would leave a “huge hole” at Elland Road, where the former England regular had a lounge named after him and was a familiar presence, attending the Championship clash with Huddersfield last month.
Hunter was declared “severely ill” when he was admitted to hospital last week after being diagnosed with COVID-19 but had been described as “fighting incredibly hard” against the virus.
He made the first of 762 appearances in a long and glorious career with the Whites in 1962, helping legendary coach Don Revie to oversee a victory that would be one of many for Hunter, who earned the nickname ‘Bites yer Legs’.
The Durham-born stalwart was part of Leeds’ rise from the Second Division to league champions, winning five other trophies – including the 1972 FA Cup – before departing in 1976.
His crowning international glory came at Wembley in 1966, when he was part of an immortalized England side that won the World Cup on home soil.
Hunter won 28 caps for his country and was the first winner of the PFA Players’ Player of the Year in 1974. He later played for Bristol City and Barnsley, who he managed for four years before also leading Bradford and Rotherham.
“His legacy will never be forgotten,” said the announcement, describing the “Leeds family” as “devastated”. “Our thoughts are with Norman’s family and friends at this very difficult time.”
Tributes poured in for the tough-tackling centre-half, with the official England account announcing: “We’re extremely saddened to learn of the passing of Norman Hunter.”
Former England goalkeeper Peter Shilton wrote: “Very shocked and deeply saddened at the loss of Norman Hunter. I played with him for England and continued to meet him at various football events over the years.
“It was always great to catch up with a wonderful man. Condolences to the family – such a terrible loss.”
Former England striker Gary Lineker wrote: “Grew up watching that great Leeds side of which he was a huge part. This awful virus was one crunching tackle too far but he’ll be biting yer legs somewhere. RIP Norman.”
Brian Deane, who played more than 100 times for Leeds, fondly recalled Hunter’s regular appearances as a radio commentator on the club’s matches following his retirement.
“When I first joined the club, it’s no secret I struggled to settle in,” remembered Deane, who scored the first-ever goal in the Premier League during a previous spell with Yorkshire rivals Sheffield United.
“My mum used to listen to the games on the radio and she used to say, ‘Brian, you’ve got a friend in Norman Hunter.’ Thank you Norman, you wonderful man.”
Many fans observed the cruel nature of Hunter’s premature death during a month in which he would have been likely to have seen Leeds win promotion to the Premier League.
Hunter had watched on as a pundit and fan during a campaign that saw Leeds reach the top of the Championship table and establish a comfortable gap above the playoff places before English football was suspended as a result of the pandemic.
“It was a privilege to watch you in the greatest ever Leeds team of my generation,” wrote one supporter. “You will never be forgotten.”