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Bremner, William John [Billy]free

(1942–1997)
  • Dave Russell

William John Bremner (1942–1997)

by unknown photographer, 1965

Bremner, William John [Billy] (1942–1997), footballer and football manager, was born in Stirling on 9 December 1942, and was adopted by James Lobban Bremner, a coalman, and his wife, Bridget Bessie Newlands, on 18 February 1943. He was educated locally at Catholic schools: St Mary's primary and St Modan's secondary. His selection as a Scottish schoolboy international footballer attracted the attention of leading Scottish and English clubs, but he signed for the then struggling English first division club Leeds United in 1958. Despite making his first team début at seventeen in January 1960, he was at first extremely homesick, and the Leeds manager, Don Revie, eventually drove to Stirling to involve Bremner's girlfriend Helen McKay Vick (Vicky; b. 1942/3) in his efforts to hold the player. Gradually Bremner settled in Yorkshire, aided by his increasing success on the field and his marriage to Vicky on 14 November 1962.

Originally an outside right, Bremner became the fulcrum of the Leeds United midfield in the 1960s. Only 5 feet 5½ inches tall and weighing less than 10 stone, Bremner was nevertheless an extremely fierce tackler, highly energetic, and had a natural flair for organization and leadership. However, although he enjoyed much success, captaining Leeds to the league championship in 1969 and 1974, the FA cup in 1972, and the League cup and the Inter City Fairs cup in 1968, the club frequently failed to win major honours. Bremner's receipt of the footballer of the year award in 1970 was scant compensation for a season that saw Leeds win no trophy after being poised to win three. His autobiography, You Get Nowt for Being Second (1969), was perhaps titled more presciently than he realized.

Bremner made his début for Scotland's under-23 side in February 1964 and won his first full cap the following May. He captained Scotland in the world cup finals of 1974 and eventually won fifty-four caps, the last against Denmark in 1975. The total would have been more but for an incident over a Copenhagen nightclub bill which resulted in Bremner and four others being banned for life from the national side. Bremner's punishment (generally regarded as harsh) was only one of the more extreme among the controversies that punctuated his career. Revie's Leeds side took to new levels the gamesmanship that had become a marked feature of English football from the later 1950s, and Bremner's aggressive, hard-tackling style and willingness to harangue and dispute with referees to some degree typified the club's approach. Moreover, as journalists short of inspiration never tired of claiming, his temperament matched his red hair. Under Revie's influence Bremner became more self-disciplined, but he could never quite turn the other cheek. This was most famously displayed in the Charity Shield match in August 1974 when he and Liverpool's Kevin Keegan were the first British players sent off at Wembley stadium. A brawl, which Bremner did not start, followed by a lengthy argument with the referee, earned them their dismissals, at which point they pulled off their shirts and threw them on the pitch. It is unfortunate that football folklore often focuses on the more distasteful aspects of Bremner's game. His passing ability was exceptional and he was especially adept at the disguised pass, drawing players onto him before dispatching the ball at the last moment and not always to the most likely places. He was also a useful goal scorer, scoring ninety football league goals in 586 games for Leeds.

Bremner left Leeds for Hull City in 1976, and played there for two seasons until a series of injuries effectively forced his retirement. In November 1978 he moved into football management, enjoying two spells with fourth division Doncaster Rovers between 1978 and 1985 (he played occasionally during this period) and from 1989 to 1991. He also managed Leeds from 1985 to 1988. Like many former players, his record off the pitch was far more modest than on it, though he piloted Doncaster to promotion from the fourth division in 1981 and again in 1984. His spell at Leeds coincided with a difficult period in the club's history and he was not alone in failing to reinvigorate it. After his resignation from Doncaster in November 1991 he spent the rest of his life as a media pundit and highly successful after-dinner speaker.

Bremner is remembered by many as easy-going and humorous. He and Vicky had a son, Billy junior, and two daughters, Donna and Amanda, and the couple remained happily together until his death at the Montagu Hospital, Mexborough, on 7 December 1997 from a heart attack following pneumonia. His funeral, prior to cremation at the Rose Hill crematorium in Cantley, was held at St Mary's Church, Edlington, near Doncaster, four days later. An iconic figure among Leeds fans, who admired not only his footballing skills but also his transparent affection for the club, he was subsequently memorialized by a statue erected outside Leeds's Elland Road ground.

Sources

  • B. Bale, Bremner! the legend of Billy Bremner (1998)
  • B. Bremner, You get nowt for being second (1969)
  • The Times (8 Dec 1997)
  • The Independent (8 Dec 1997)
  • The Scotsman (8 Dec 1997)
  • adopted children register, General Register Office for Scotland, Edinburgh
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.
  • The Guardian (8 Dec 1997)
  • Daily Telegraph (8 Dec 1997)

Likenesses

  • photographs, 1960–1975, Hult. Arch. [see illus.]
  • F. Siegelman, statue, 1999, Elland Road football ground, Leeds
  • portraits, repro. in Bale, Bremner!
  • portraits, repro. in Bremner, You get nowt

Wealth at Death

under £180,000: probate, 1998, CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1998)