Book Review: The Boy Who Saved Billy Bremner by Nicholas Dean

The successful Don Revie era at Leeds United has been the subject of many books down the years, with the debut novel from Nicholas Dean, The Boy Who Saved Billy Bremner, a new addition to the list.

In this offering the actual events of the 1973/74 First Division season and the Elland Road clubs tilt at the title provide a backdrop and one of the storylines within the book. And whilst the incredible run of 29 games unbeaten at the start of that campaign for Leeds is factually followed within the plot, the other football narrative, the engagement of central character, 14 year old Phillip Knott, with letters to real-life Leeds United captain Billy Bremner, is fictional.

With football very much a backdrop, readers are taken back to 1973 with the focus on the Knott family and their life in Coventry on a rundown housing estate. For people of a certain age, the descriptions of life and attitudes of the early 1970s will be a real trip down memory lane and Dean provides a convincing setting for his characters to inhabit.

Phillip is the central character, and has two siblings, an older sister and a younger brother, all with their own struggles in what is for the most part a challenging home environment. Their mother suffers from depression, which is not helped by her husband whose drinking bouts and violence are a constant dark threat waiting to explode at any moment. However, that is not to say that the book is all doom and gloom and there are moments for humour as well as tenderness and closeness within the Knott family and Phillip’s circle of friends.

The trials and tribulations of the family and Phillip himself, find their way into the letters to the Leeds skipper. And it is an interesting device used by Dean as it allows reflection on events both within the fictional life of the fanatical Leeds fan Phillip and that of Bremner and his Leeds United teammates as they embark on their unbeaten run.

With Leeds first defeat coming in their thirtieth league fixture at Stoke City, and their undefeated record gone, so the book similarly ends. There is a some resolution in the final pages but it left this reader wondering what comes next for Phillip and his family. Indeed is there a second helping continuing the story to come? However, this may be difficult given the struggles Dean had in getting this book to market.

The author was open in his interview with FBR about the struggles of getting his book published and feeling that there was no other option but to go down the independent route. As a result he was honest in accepting that this has resulted in the book, “lacking a professional touch and (containing) a few errors.” Unfortunately one of the curses of self-publication.

This book at 532 pages is a mammoth tome and but for a smaller font would undoubtedly have been pushing possibly 650 pages. The reality is that for all the wonderful detail and description contained within its pages, the professional services of a proof-reader and editor would clearly have benefited the text, especially in the reduction in the overuse of similes. However, this isn’t a criticism of the book but is a further example that independent writers can be victims of their own circumstances when not supported by a publisher and the services they commsnd.

Despite all this, there is much to admire about The Boy Who Saved Billy Bremner, and for this reader Dean has achieved what he set out to do in , “people liking the book”.

(Publisher: Independently published. July 2022. Paperback: 532 pages)


Buy the book here: The Boy Who Saved Billy Bremner

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Coventry. 1973. The first day of the school summer holidays. Phillip Knott is 14, a superb natural swimmer and a die-hard Leeds United fan. Phillip has entered a competition in his favourite comic which, incredibly, leads to him receiving a short letter from his all-time favourite footballer and Leeds legend, Billy Bremner. After he is dumped by his girlfriend in favour of an older boy, Phillip writes back to Billy for advice, and gradually an unlikely pen pal friendship develops between the pair, which helps Phillip navigate his difficult home life on a neglected council estate on the outskirts of the city.

Phillip’s dad is a lorry driver, involved in some shady deals and frequently unable to control his temper at home, while his mum is losing her battles with him and with her depression. Philip does his best to protect his younger brother from the arguments and violence and to keep his older sister from shopping his dad and walking out.

The only things that keep Phillip going are his swimming and his letters from Billy, and as Leeds United stretch their unbeaten run from the start of the season to twenty nine games, and Phillip gets to try out for the best swimming team in the city, the pressure on both boy and footballer mounts. But in their unlikely friendship they both find unexpected support and wisdom.

If you loved Spangles but hated your paper round then this is the novel for you. A funny, kind and moving novel which evokes its setting and era with detail and warmth.


(Publisher: Independently published. July 2022. Paperback: 532 pages)


Buy the book here:The Boy Who Saved Billy Bremner

Book Review: Billy Bremner – Fifty Defining Fixtures by Dave Tomlinson

Never judge a book by its title?

If we tackle this question first, we can then move on to what Billy Bremner – Fifty Defining Fixtures is really about and we will find a pretty enjoyable book on the Leeds United era of ‘King Billy’ who was voted the best player ever at Leeds United and the greatest captain in the Football League’s history.

First things first, though; To judge or not to judge? that is the question. Another work by author, Dave Tomlinson, which has been reviewed on this site,  Leeds United – a History is claimed in the publishers’ press release to be a ‘definitive’ history of the club. But they don’t seem able to define ‘definitive’. This is hardly surprising since the publisher and author don’t even agree on where Dave actually resides. Amberley think he lives in Leeds, whilst his own website thinks he lives in Birmingham.

We have a similar problem with this book’s title. Amberley also struggle to define ‘defining’. And is it likely there are exactly 50 ‘defining fixtures’ for him? Of course not. Does that matter? Of course not. It is a celebration of a genuinely inspirational footballer who was loved by Leeds fans and hated by almost all opposition ones who would, still, have loved him to play for them.

We have to wait till Fixture 14 when Bobby Collins suffered a terrible leg break away to Torino to find something really interesting about Bremner. It is unsurprising, given how the book is constructed, that information comes via a quote from Billy himself. Describing his feelings towards the perpetrator of the top-of-the-thigh-when-the-ball-was-ten-yards-away horror tackle, he admits to murderous intent, such was his extreme loyalty to any and every team mate.

As someone who saw him play in his prime, I am confident that he deserved the highest praise and I enjoyed reading about a defining (yes!) period in the club’s history. And yet, Dave Tomlinson struggles to capture the essence of Billy Bremner’s qualities because so much of the author’s work is cobbling together match reports. In fact, Billy seems to be barely mentioned in so many of the matches described. And the selection of 50 does miss some really important ones, like when he scored the only goal of the game in the second replay of the 1970 FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United and sent us Leeds fans at Burnden Park wild with delight. And Billy tells us himself about a match that really should be in the 50. In Fixture 20, he reflects (in You Get Nowt For Being Second) that it was the recent Fulham match which earned him a lengthy ban and forced him to finally change and calm down – a bit. It was the defining moment of his career.

The best illustration of what Bremner was truly about has to wait till Fixture 42, a match of relatively low importance against Hibernian. But, finally, Tomlinson begins to focus on Billy’s leadership qualities. And, a little earlier in sequence, the report on Fixture 36 totally fails because it, absurdly claims to be objective about allegations of match-fixing against Wolves in 1972. Bremner won substantial damages and you are not being objective by once more airing the allegations, even if Mike O’Grady did later admit to having been a go-between. Perhaps ‘objective’ need defining?

As we draw to the eventual conclusion, we are surprised to find so much of the wonderful victory in the European Cup semi-final against Cruyff’s Barcelona is diverted to the conflict between Bremner and Giles over who should manage Leeds, presumably because the author felt it should be squeezed in somewhere.

The photographs are a little puzzling. Why does the cover (at least in one edition) have Bremner in Scotland kit when the vast bulk of the ‘Fixtures’ are Leeds matches? Who is the target audience? And it is amusing to see a caption alongside the photograph of Mike England, clearly trying to restrain an angry Billy, which describes them as ‘fighting’. Those who wish to know more about Billy actually fighting on a football field might be advised to check with Kevin Keegan about that.

For all his greatness as a player, he was certainly not the best manager in the history of Leeds United. Yet he was the one who cared most passionately about the club. His famous quote amply illustrates this, “Every time Leeds concede a goal, I feel like I’ve been stabbed in the heart.” If Dave Tomlinson decides to write another book on Bremner, I hope this is the ‘King Billy’ he writes about, the player the fans loved.

(Amberley Publishing 2017 160pp)


Review by Graeme Garvey


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