THE door burst open in the old, rickety press box at Millmoor.
Norman Hunter, the manager of Rotherham United, was standing there spoiling for a fight.
“Is Paul Davis in here?” he bellowed. “I want a word with him.”
At least I’m told that’s what happened on an early-autumn Tuesday night 90 minutes before a Third Division match in 1987. Fortunately for me, I was in another part of the ground and not directly in seething Hunter’s firing line.
My handling of a story about full-back Martin Scott had sparked the boss’s ire. After a series of impressive performances, Scott was a wanted man, with Glasgow Rangers and a clutch of English clubs showing interest in the youngster.
Hunter, hoping for a bidding war, quite rightly refused to tell me how much he thought the defender was worth, but I was just out of my teens and still wet enough behind the ears to decide to come up with my own estimate.
It turned out that the £150,000 valuation I put on Scott in print was a long way short of what the boss was thinking.
Hunter died, aged 76, last month after contracting coronavirus. A Leeds United legend and a former England centre-half, he was a giant of the game who spent two seasons in the Millers hot-seat more than 30 years ago.
Back then, I spoke to him virtually daily. There were no pre-match or post-match press conferences in those days, no mobile phones. Every weekday, you rang the manager on a landline at the club in the morning before training and a receptionist put you through to his office.
After games, it was just a free-for-all. Nowadays, the boss is obliged to speak to the media and a player is nearly always made available for interview but in the 80s you just loitered as close to the dressing room as you dared and grabbed whoever you could as they came out.
Hunter always took my call. He wasn’t a great talker yet was decent and accommodating, tolerating my naive enthusiasm when it sometimes spilled into questions I shouldn’t really have been asking and ones he had no intention of answering.
“So, Norman, can you give me a run-down of all your transfer targets this summer?”
He arrived at Millmoor in 1985 after four seasons as manager of Barnsley, having taken the Reds up from the old Third Division (now League One) early in his Oakwell reign before eventually being sacked.
A managerial appointment was worthy of an official press conference and I covered it for the Advertiser because sports editor Les Payne was on holiday.
Hunter in his Leeds playing days
“The new man answered questions while sipping white wine and displaying a nice line in dry humour,” wrote John Piper in the Star the next day, coming up with a line better than any of mine.
Hunter’s Millers spell contained none of the glory of his playing career at Leeds where he won 28 England caps, two league titles, the FA Cup, the League Cup and the Fairs Cup and racked up enough appearances, 726, to be fourth on the West Yorkshire outfit’s all-time list behind Jack Charlton, Billy Bremner and Paul Reaney.
Rotherham, beset with financial concerns, finished 14th in the Third Division in both of his full seasons in charge and he lost his job in December of the 1987/88 campaign after one of the darkest afternoons in the club’s history, a 4-0 FA Cup defeat at non-league Macclesfield Town.
He was in his early 40s when he was handed the hot-seat and still cut an impressive physical figure, retaining the cold-eyed menace and long-limbed litheness of his playing days. Any abuse from Millers fans and he’d turn on the touchline and fix the Main Stand with a mean, unblinking stare.
Hunter was hard, as hard as any of the many hard men from that hard Leeds side. Great Leeds. Dirty Leeds.
That’s why I was glad I was nowhere to be seen when he climbed the worn steps to the wooden press box that perched on stilts, like a pigeon coop, in the Millmoor air. I can’t remember who Rotherham were playing that night but I vividly recollect being worried by the prospect of a confrontation with a man whose tackling in a previous life had earned him one of football’s most famous nicknames. No way did I want to be bitten by ‘Bites Yer Legs’.
By then I’d left the Advertiser and the tutelage of Les Payne and was working for the Star. My friend and mentor as I’d cut my teeth as a cub reporter on the weekly paper marked my card.
“Norman’s gunning for you big time,” Les warned me. “It might be to your advantage if you happened not to bump into him after the match.”
The plan worked. At the final whistle I made myself more scarce than a spare seat in that old, cramped press coop and the next time I spoke to the manager he never mentioned Scott or £150,000.
Because of bad luck with injuries, Scott stayed at Millmoor for another three years and was sold in 1990 for £200,000 to Bristol City. I felt somewhat vindicated in my pricing … until the player moved to Sunderland in 1994 in a deal worth £750,000.
Hunter had been brought in by Syd Wood and was retained by new chairman Ken Booth when the scrap-dealer rescued Rotherham from administration in May 1987.
Along the way the manager made some good signings — most notably, midfielders Tony Grealish, Dean Emerson, who was later sold on for significant money to Coventry City, and Andy Williams — but his Millers marriage was never truly a happy one. In his subsequent autobiography, Biting Talk, he described his time with Rotherham as his least enjoyable in the sport.
Paul Davis in his early days at the Advertiser before age ravaged him
His players really warmed to him, although there was a feeling around the club that — strangely for a character who had been so uncompromising as a competitor — he maybe wasn’t tough enough on his squad. There were lots of five-a-side matches in training and the boss would remove his false teeth and take a full part in them.
More than anything, he loved playing.
May 1987 brought huge uncertainty and the very real possibility that the Millers could go out of business. On D-Day, when the suits gathered at Millmoor to negotiate the club’s future one way or the other, Hunter, powerless in the decision-making process, found comfort in doing what he did best.
He’d been chatting to members of the media who’d assembled at the ground to wait for the verdict, when, wearing jacket and tie himself, he took to the pitch. I was charged with firing in devastating low balls from the touchline and Les was in the net. Time and again, Les’s hands, hair, beard and moustache were left flapping as one 25-yard chip after another from the 1966 World-Cup-winner’s unerring left foot found the net.
The sun was shining that day as Booth’s intervention saved the club — unlike the cold winter Sunday six months later when the Macclesfield humiliation signalled Hunter’s end.
Martin Scott eventually played for Sunderland
He’d sensed it coming and, a few weeks earlier, after a 2-1 win at York City, he’d been uncharacteristically open about his prospects in an off-the-record chat with me and two other media men in the Bootham Crescent car-park. Dave Cusack and then McEwan proceeded him in a campaign that would end in relegation.
We didn’t keep in touch but, three decades on, came an unexpected reunion.
A few years ago, the Millers were playing at Leeds and I nipped to the plush loos closest to the Elland Road media suite as kick-off approached.
Standing at the urinal next to me was an ageing but athletic figure and we exchanged ‘hellos’, as men tend to do when they’re emptying their bladders within a couple of feet of strangers.
It was Hunter, who was at the game as a co-commentator for a Leeds radio station. There was a flicker of recognition across his face but I could tell he couldn’t quite place me.
I hoped I knew how to jog his memory and was rewarded with a lovely, spontaneous burst of laughter and a twinkle in his eye that definitely wasn’t there at the top of the press-box steps in 1987.
“Rotherham United,” I proffered. “Martin Scott. 150 grand.”
“150 grand,” he grinned, shaking his head. “How are you doing? I’m still angry about that.”