It is with immense sadness that the news has been released of Colin Bell’s death. He was 74 and, according to reports, he passed away after a short, non-covid related illness. My thoughts are wife his wife Marie, son Jon & daughter Dawn, and his grandchildren.
For decades Colin was regarded as the greatest Manchester City player of all time and, in truth, thousands who saw him play still believe him to be the greatest.
I would like to place on record my thanks to Colin and his family for the support given to me over the years. Colin, quite a shy man in truth, rarely gave interviews and so every time I met him I was absolutely delighted to have the opportunity to chat.
It is a mark of the esteem in which all City fans and the club hold him in that Colin is the only person to have a stand named after him at the Etihad (indeed no other stand at any of City’s grounds has ever been named after another person). It is worth highlighting that he was the first footballer to ever have a stand named after him at either of Manchester’s clubs.
Colin is a player remembered for many superb performances and also for his remarkable stamina and determination. For decades he was City’s most capped international player (and he should have had more had injury not limited his opportunities from 1975!).
The following sections provide an overview of Colin’s footballing life, including where appropriate words from the interviews I have done with Colin over the years:
Colin was born in Hesleden, a small mining village in Durham, in 1946 and like many footballers from working class backgrounds his early life was difficult. His, however, also started with tragedy: “My mother died when I was born and, because my dad was a miner working shifts, my sister had to look after me.”
In those days there were few nurseries and child minding services were non-existent, so Colin’s sister had to spend most of her time thinking of ways to keep him occupied while she was at school. In the end she had no option but to take him to school and as a two year old Colin used to keep himself occupied by playing football in the school yard: “I used to play in the yard while my sister had lessons. She says that half the pupils would be looking out of the window watching me with the ball!”
Football seemed to be one of the family’s main preoccupation. Colin’s father was a noted local player who attracted attention from Nottingham Forest, while his mother had played for a pioneering ladies’ side in the north-east, as did his sister.
As Colin grew his interest in the sport increased and he inevitably moved up the grades. He played for East Durham Boys and for the Horden Colliery Welfare junior side. League sides started to show interest, especially the local giants Newcastle United: “I had a trial at Newcastle when I was about 15 or 16 but they weren’t interested, so I then had a trial with Arsenal.”
The Arsenal opportunity fizzled out but two other sides, Huddersfield and Bury, were very keen to sign the youngster. Colin’s father suggested time should be spent at both clubs so that they could gauge properly which would be in Colin’s best interests. They also agreed that the final decision would not be made until the two men were back home in the north-east. After two reserve games for Bury a couple of Bury directors tried to get Colin to sign immediately, but wisely the player chose to hold off until he had spent a similar time at Huddersfield. In the end both sides were desperate to sign him and both offered a wage of £12 a week.
Colin knew he wanted to sign for Bury – they appeared a much more homely and friendly club – but before he agreed terms Newcastle renewed their interest. At the time Newcastle, Bury and Huddersfield were all Division Two sides, but clearly Newcastle were significantly larger than either of the others. Nevertheless, the young Colin told them he was not interested in any offer. They’d had their chance and missed it!
In July 1963 Colin became a Bury man and then in February 1964 he made his League debut against Manchester City. It was a rather unusual match and came at a time when City were at an extremely low point in their history. A pitiful Maine Road crowd of 14,698 watched the game, but on the pitch Colin made it a memorable debut by scoring: “I side-footed the ball in from six yards while City were appealing for offside. All I could think about were the headlines I would get in the next day’s ‘papers. The City ‘keeper Harry Dowd got injured – these were the days before substitutes – so Harry went up front with his arm in a sling and he was City’s most dangerous attacker! The inevitable happened and Harry scored the equaliser, which ruined my debut a bit.”
Despite the headlines going elsewhere, Colin’s Bury career was off to a great start and by the time he left in March 1966 he had scored 25 goals in 82 League matches and had become team captain. He had also become noticed by a great number of clubs, in particular City and Blackpool. City were struggling financially and, although new manager Joe Mercer and assistant Malcolm Allison, had already started to turn things around at Maine Road, City could not afford to embark on an auction. Allison decided on a plan: “I knew everybody was interested and I remember sitting in the Directors’ Box at Gigg Lane. They all seemed to know I’d come to watch Colin, but City were so strapped for cash that we couldn’t really make a move until they’d raised enough. When the match started I kept saying that Colin was out of position… that he couldn’t pass… he couldn’t kick… couldn’t head the ball… he couldn’t do anything right. They all started to agree with me! I said I’d wasted my time and they agreed!”
“Behind the scenes the directors were getting the money together and on the eve of the transfer deadline we got him for about £45,000.”
Arriving in Manchester
Blackpool had been very interested, despite Allison’s best efforts, and the transfer almost didn’t make it in time. According to journalist Len Noad writing in 1966: “City paid £45,000 last night for Bury’s Colin Bell. But the next biggest deal since City paid Huddersfield £53,000 for Denis Law, had to wait for a pit shift to finish at Hesleden in Durham before it was completed. City manager Joe Mercer and Chairman Albert Alexander arrived at Gigg Lane at lunchtime and put their offer to Bell. The young player, who had already been approached by Blackpool, asked for time to think things over and to talk to his coalminer father when he came off his shift at 5pm.”
Once Colin did sign for City Joe Mercer told reporters: “It’s the biggest fee I’ve ever paid, but I think he’ll prove to be worth every penny of it.” The youngster immediately started to prove it was money well spent with a goal on his debut. The Blues beat Derby 2-1, and Colin’s goal had proved vital, but it was a rather unusual first goal according to the Manchester Evening Chronicle: “Bell received the ball from the brilliant Summerbee, and drove it towards the goal. Saxton cleared rather vaguely and the ball bounced back into the net off Bell. An odd but acceptable way of celebrating a first appearance with a new club. To show that he was capable of better things Bell developed the best shot of the game just before half time. Matthews did well to tip it over the bar.”
Approximately six weeks later Colin netted the goal that brought City promotion at Rotherham. Journalist Alec Johnson wrote at the time: “City’s fair-haired inside-right, Colin Bell, rose high into the air in the 47th minute to head the ball into the back of the Rotherham net and send City back into the First Division after a three year absence. It was a golden goal – one that means a big cash bonus for the City players and the chance of really big time soccer at Maine Road next season. The legion of City supporters roared ceaselessly in the last 15 minutes, ‘We’re back in Division One’, and Bell was cheered off the field.” Immediately after the game Colin told reporters: “This is the most exciting goal I’ve ever scored.”
That goal ensured Colin would be remembered for a long time at City, but the events of the next few years helped to create a special relationship with City fans that survives to this day. Once promotion had been achieved the Blues developed and Colin started to become recognised across the country as a major talent, although he is the first to admit he was still learning: “We beat Liverpool at the start of 1966-67 at Maine Road and Tommy Smith crocked me on the half way line. As a youngster I didn’t know what it was all about, though in later years you learned not to get too close to certain players if you could help it!”
In 1967-68 City won the League Championship with Colin contributing 14 goals in 35 appearances, and then success followed in the FA Cup (1969), the League Cup (1970) and the European Cup Winners’ Cup (1970). He was now regarded as one of England’s greatest talents and played in the 1970 World Cup finals in Mexico.
Colin’s England career commenced with an appearance in the May 1968 friendly with Sweden, and by the time of the 1970 World Cup he had appeared in eleven internationals and scored two goals, although Colin believes those first few years of his international career were tough: “It was hard getting my international career off the ground. I seemed to be injured whenever I was called up in the early days. After playing in the First Division, playing for my country had always been my greatest dream. No matter how many times I played, I still got a lump in my throat every time the letter with the FA stamp dropped through the letter box.”
The last England appearance made by Colin came on 30th October 1975 in the 2-1 defeat by Czechoslovakia in Bratislava. Colin was a regular selection at this point and would have gone on to be a fixture in the England side for many years, however a devastating injury was to prevent any future appearance.
Before the injury, however, Colin’s City career continued to bring much praise his way. Johnny Hart, City’s manager for a spell during 1973 and a member of City’s great 1950s side, felt Colin was one of the best players he had ever worked with or seen. Talking in the early 70s Hart told Peter Gardner of the Manchester Evening News: “Bell is an example of the complete professional footballer. City are indeed lucky to have a fella like this on their staff. His stamina is fantastic and his ball control is a delight to watch. He also sees situations like lightning and there are many opponents who have felt the full fury of his scoring potential. Bell is a midfield dynamo, but he can also be a marksman supreme given half the chance. He has an explosive shot and he is, too, a brilliant header of the ball making him extremely dangerous anywhere within sight of goal. He is in fact a modern Peter Doherty.”
In 1974 Colin scored City’s only goal of the League Cup final meeting with Wolves. Sadly, Wolves won, but many felt City had been the dominant side. Colin: “In my career I’ve played in two games of this kind. One was when England drew with Poland at Wembley and missed qualifying for the ’74 World Cup, and Wolves was the other. If either of those games had been boxing matches the opposition would have thrown the towel in! We were 1-0 down to Wolves at half time but I always felt if we pulled one back we would win. I got the equaliser and we were never out of their half after that. Then, late on, a ball was played across our area, Rodney Marsh just got a toe to it and helped it in the direction of John Richards who scored the Wolves’ winner.”
The disappointment hung over City for a while and, in truth, that League Cup final saw the end of the great Bell-Lee-Summerbee combination as over the following months first Lee, then Summerbee were to move on. Of the 1968 Championship side only Colin, Mike Doyle, and Alan Oakes were still regulars by the start of the 1975-6 season, but the mid-seventies side was also a team packed with internationals and top quality players. The side had finished 8th in 1975 and as the new season opened there was great optimism around the side. Everything seemed perfect and when the Blues drew recently promoted Manchester United in the fourth round of the League Cup (November 1975) City couldn’t wait for the opportunity to prove which side were the dominant force. Colin, who felt he had struggled at times during the previous year, was feeling very positive about the future: “Two or three games before we played United I suddenly felt everything had come right. I couldn’t do a thing wrong. I thought, ‘terrific’.”
The League Cup tie in November 1975 proved to be one of City’s most mesmerising performances, but it also contained the saddest moment of the decade as far as many fans were concerned. The game opened brightly with Dennis Tueart scoring after only 35 seconds. United struggled to match the Blues and resorted to a physical approach. After only five minutes tragedy struck when Colin Bell remained on the ground after a tackle by Martin Buchan. Colin: “I remember Dennis Tueart knocking me through on the inside right position, and I had three options. The first – I was going to have a shot if the ball would sit right, from about 25 to 30 yards out. Or, I could even quicken up and go for goal first thing. The third option was to drag the ball inside a defender – and it was Martin Buchan as it happens. I was weight bearing on my right leg as I dragged the ball to let him go past at speed, and he caught my knee… bent the knee backwards, burst a couple of blood vessels, did the ligaments, did the cartilage, and off I went. That was the beginning of the end of my career.”
Although Colin does not blame Martin Buchan, the supporters did – and still do. On the night they chanted ‘Animal’ at Buchan as Colin was stretchered from the field. City went on to win the match 4-0 as they swept United aside, and eventually the Blues were victorious at Wembley in the 1976 League Cup final, but the meeting with United damaged not only Colin’s career but also City’s chance of major success in the League. Dennis Tueart believes the side was disrupted too much by the injury: “It left a major hole in our side – a major hole! He would have been a major loss to any side, but ours in particular because we had such a balanced side. Such a settled team. Although we went on to win the League Cup that was the biggest setback, and I don’t think we were ever really as good after Colin’s injury.”
Over the following seasons Colin tried hard to resurrect his career. He did return briefly at the end of the 1975-6 season but it was clear he was far from fully fit and, potentially, the early return caused more damage. Eventually, he returned to action on Boxing Day 1977 and went on to make a further 27 League appearances before finally calling it a day in 1979. During his recovery period he had been a key member of the City reserve side which won the Central League in 1978 – a triumph he felt immensely proud of.
The previous season a Colin-less City side had missed the League Championship by a point and many believe a fit Colin would have made the difference.
In retirement Colin concentrated on his restaurant business opened midway through his City career, and then in 1990 he returned to Maine Road to assist with reserve and youth team coaching. Seven years later that City career ended, but in the years that followed Colin was a member of City’s matchday corporate hospitality team. In 2004 he received the honour of having the West Stand – basically City’s main stand – named after him at the Etihad Stadium. It was a major honour and recognised the achievements of an incredible talent and a tremendously popular City player.
Manchester City, Bury and England have lost one of their greatest ever players. A true legend of the game in his lifetime and one whose name will forever be remembered.
My thoughts are with Colin’s family, friends and former colleagues.
I’ve posted the In Search Of The Blues interview I did with Colin in 2005 for the Manchester City match programme here:
Also, here’s the story of the Boxing Day 1977 game v Newcastle which saw an emotional return to first team action by Colin: