Scottish international midfielder Billy Bremner was one of the most recognisable figures in 1970s football when he joined Hull City in September 1976, leaving Leeds United to see out his playing days and transition into club management – though it didn’t quite plan out as Bremner planned. Billy was given his debut in early October against Brian Clough’s high flying Nottingham Forest and he responded in typical style by scoring a deflected free kick winner in a 1-0 victory for the Tigers. While he scored only once more that season, in a late April 1-1 draw against Orient, Bremner’s influence on John Kaye’s City team was considerable as he marshalled on the field the young talents that Kaye had assembled from the manager’s office. The truth was though, that the players available to City weren’t quite up to the rigours of an arduous Second Division campaign.
Bremner missed the closing weeks of the 1976/77 season due to an injury as the Tigers finished in mid-table, when he returned to the first team City failed to build on a fine opening day win over Sunderland and by early October a winless run had led to Kaye’s dismissal. Bremner applied for the manager’s post and it appears that the succession set up a year earlier would come to pass – but instead the City board decided to go with his former Leeds United team-mate Bobby Collins, who had spent several years in Australia and briefly managed Huddersfield Town three years earlier. Collins’ tenure was a disaster and lasted only four months – while Bremner continued to serve the first team in his typically gritty manner, he was also sufficiently dissatisfied to announce his retirement as a player come the end of the season. Billy scored two goals in four days in late October against Burnley and Oldham, then scored a rare winner against Crystal Palace in January 1978 during the dying embers of Collins’ tenure. In February 1978 City legend Ken Houghton was appointed manager and Bremner continued to serve the new boss, scoring his final two goals for City in two Easter period fixtures against Notts County and Oldham. Houghton’s side was unable to arrest the sharp decline in results experienced earlier in the season and City were relegated to the Third Division. Bremner left the club in the 1978 close season.
William John Bremner was born during World War Two in Stirling and quickly came to prominence as a footballer in his schooldays. Bremner had offers from many high profile clubs in England and Scotland but as he turned 17 he chose to join Leeds United, a team competing in the lower reaches of the First Division. Leeds was managed by former Hull City full-back Jack Taylor who had won a Third Division North title with Raich Carter’s Tigers in 1949. Jack quickly spotted the talent that Bremner possessed and gave him his first team debut in January 1960 against Chelsea, playing at outside right. He ended the 1959/60 season as a first team regular, scoring his first Leeds goal in a 3-3 draw against Birmingham, but come he end of Billy’s first season the club was relegated to the Second Division. Taylor initially used Bremner sparingly at the start of the 1960/61 season as Leeds again struggled, but he became a regular from late October onwards – starting a constant presence in the Leeds United starting XI that Bremner maintained for the next 15 years. In March 1961 Taylor resigned and was replaced by another Ex-Tiger, Middlesbrough-born striker Don Revie – this signalled the beginning of a immensely successful and often controversial time for the club, the manager and for Billy Bremner.
In the 1961/62 season Bremner continued to play in the forward line for Revie’s Leeds and netted 12 times as a further relegation was narrowly avoided. Leeds narrowly missed out on promotion the next season as Bremner missed three months of the season to injury, then in 1963/64 Revie moved Billy into what was then called a half back role but was developing into a box-to-box central midfield positon in Revie’s emerging new formation. Paired with new signing Johnny Giles and aggressive tackler Bobby Collins, Bremner starred as Leeds won the Second Division title, losing only three league games all season. This momentum continued into the 1964/65 season as Leeds, who were by now notorious for their no-nonsense and occasional downright violent approach to the game, finished second in the First Division. Leeds also reached the FA Cup Final, only to lose 2-1 in extra time to Liverpool – Bremner scored Leeds’ goal in the 100th minute, adding to the winner he scored against Manchester United in the semi-final replay.
For the next nine years Leeds became one of the dominant forces in League football, on both the domestic and European stages. Bremner was at the heart of that success with his tireless running and considerable goal tally. He also became notorious for his use of the dark arts of football – a game in November 1964 against Everton had to be stopped for ten minutes to allow the players to calm down, while Billy’s aggressive approach elicited a famous lapel-grabbing response from Tottenham’s Dave Mackay in 1966 – various other flashpoints followed Bremner around for many years.
By now the club captain, Bremner helmed Leeds to the later stages of the Inter Cities Fairs Cup three years in a row – semi-finals in 1966, losing finalists to Dinamo Zagreb in 1967 and winners against Ferencvaros in 1968. Domestically Leeds consistently finished in the top four and eventually lifted the title in 1969 after winning the League Cup the previous season. This First Division title was followed by three consecutive runners-up finishes and in 1970 Leeds were losing finalists to Chelsea in the FA Cup. They were also knocked out by Celtic in the 1969/70 European Cup semi-final – Bremner scored in Celtic’s home leg at Hampden Park in front of over 135,000 fans that Leeds eventually lost 1-2. After lifting the Fairs Cup a second time in 1971 when Juventus were beaten on away goals, Leeds finally rediscovered the winning way domestically as they lifted the FA Cup in 1972 by beating Arsenal 1-0 at Wembley, then claimed a second First Division title in 1974. With the exception of the 1970/71 season when injury meant he missed three months of football, Bremner was a near ever-present throughout that period of sustained success – though he was often absent for the odd game here and there as he served numerous bans for his on-field misdemeanours.
In 1974 Revie left Leeds to manage in the Middle East and named Johnny Giles as his preferred successor ahead of Bremner. In the end neither men were appointed and after the notoriously short tenure of Brian Clough made famous in books, documentaries and films, the club was helmed by milder-mannered Lancastrian Jimmy Armfield. Although Armfield steered Leeds to the European Cup Final in 1975, a match lost to Bayern Munich amid some questionable refereeing, the heydays of the Whites were behind them and Bremner himself was starting to see his powers wane as he entered his thirties. It was therefore seen as a stepping stone to management when Bremner joined the Tigers in September 1976, having scored 115 goals in 772 senior appearances for the club over a seventeen year period.
In November 1978, six months after leaving the Tigers, Bremner was appointed player-manager at Doncaster Rovers – though in seven years he made only five playing appearances, three of which were from the bench. Rovers were in the Fourth Division when Bremner took over and with few resources at his disposal he achieved promotion in his third season in charge. After two years of struggle in the Third Division Doncaster were relegated at the end of the 1982/83 season, only to bounce straight back up in 1983/84 after finishing second. With Doncaster now consolidated in mid-table of the Third Division, Bremner left the club in October 1985 and ten days later was appointed manager of Leeds United. This was not the Leeds United of the late 1960s and 1970s that Bremner knew, the Whites were now a mid-table Second Division side with a strong fanbase but few resources to build a promotion charge. Bremner guided Leeds to the inaugural Second Division end-of-season play-offs in 1986/87 but his side lost to Charlton in the final that went to a replay after the tie was all square after two legs. Unable to build on that top four finish, Bremner was sacked in September 1988. After a 10 month rest from the game he was reappointed Doncaster Rovers’ manager in July 1989 but his second tenure at Belle Vue was not a success as the club drifted around the lower reaches of the Fourth Division for two years until he resigned his post for the final time in November 1991 with the club bottom of the League.
Billy retired to his Doncaster home and in December 1997 he was hospitalised with pneumonia, then suffered a heart attack and died two days short of his 55th birthday. Bremner is commonly regarded as Leeds United’ finest ever player and in 1999 the approach to the Elland Road stadium was adorned with a statue of Billy in an arms-raised pose first captured in a photograph after the 1972 FA Cup final victory.
Bremner was an international footballer from a young age, winning four schoolboy international caps for Scotland in the late 1950s. He played four times for Scotland’s under-23s in 1964 and 1965, then won his first senior cap in May 1965 against Spain. He went on to captain the Scotland side for many years, including the 1974 World Cup Finals in Germany. He won his final Scotland cap in September 1975, his 54th international start during which he scored three goals against Austria in 1968, Wales in 1969 and Spain in 1974.
Date/Place of Birth: 9 December 1942, Stirling
Hull City First Game: 2 October 1976, Nottingham Forest H (Division Two), 33 years, 298 days old
Hull City Final Game: 15 April 1978, Fulham H (Division Two), 35 years, 127 days old
Leeds United (1959-1976), Hull City (1976-1978), Doncaster Rovers (1978-1982)
Hull City Record
Career: 68 apps, 7 goalsBilly Bremner
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