City 4 Newcastle United 0
26th December 1977
City Team: Corrigan, Clements, Donachie, Booth, Watson, Power (Bell), Barnes, Owen, Kidd, Hartford, Tueart
This match has entered Manchester folklore as one of those games you just had to experience to fully appreciate. All of those present that night from players, to fans, club officials to newspaper reporters, talk of this night as one of football’s most emotional nights.
The story of Colin Bell and his injury had become one of football’s most discussed issues. The teatime BBC television news show Nationwide had profiled Colin’s tragic story and as a result the player received thousands of good luck messages from neutrals and ordinary non-footballing members of the public. They had been touched by his long, hard training schedules; his lonely runs through the streets of Moss Side and Rusholme; and by his absolute determination to return to full fitness. To them Colin’s story was incredible, to City and England supporters it was a deeply disappointing and tragic story.
Colin’s gruelling training regime ensured he forced his way into manager Tony Book’s thinking by December 1977, and on Boxing Day he was named as substitute for the visit of Newcastle. Anticipation was high as supporters believed this would be the day they would see their hero return to action.
Chairman Peter Swales rated Colin highly and shortly before his death in 1996 the former Chairman explained: “The supporters loved him. You can never kid supporters. They know great players. It’s no good a manager saying, ‘this is the best player we’ve ever had’. The supporters will know after a few weeks whether he really is the best. Bell was the best. No question.”
On the night itself Tony Book had planned to send Colin on as substitute for the final twenty minutes, but an injury to Paul Power meant the manager had to take decisive action. The supporters didn’t realise, but as the players were making their way into the dressing room for the interval, it was decided that Colin would play the second half. During the interval fans started to speculate as to when they would see their hero, with the majority believing he would come on for the final flourish, but then as the players came back out on to the pitch it was clear that Paul Power was missing and that Colin was coming on.
The stadium erupted and the fans on the Kippax terracing began to chant his name. It was a truly marvellous sight and the tremendous feeling of anticipation and excitement had never been felt midway through a match for any player before. It was the most amazing individual moment witnessed at the old ground. Dennis Tueart, a player on that day, remembers: “He came on at half time, and it was like World War Three. I’ve never known a noise like it in all my life! The crowd gave him a standing ovation and he hadn’t even touched the ball. I’ve never seen a guy work as hard to get back. The hours and hours he put in. The pain he went through… it was a phenomenal amount of work and he definitely deserved that ovation.”
For the player himself the day remained one of the most significant memories of his life when I interviewed him in 2005. “As I came down the tunnel I could hear a whisper go right round the ground. I knew that reception was for me alone. I was never an emotional player but that afternoon I got a big lump in my throat. I’ve been lucky to win cups and medals and play internationals, but of all my great football memories, that is the one that sticks in my mind.”
“The City crowd and I had this mutual respect really, and that standing ovation from over 40,000 people brought a lump to my throat for the only time in my career.”
The substitution totally transformed the atmosphere and the result. The game had been goalless, but the Blues tore into Newcastle as if they were playing in the most important game of all time. Dennis Tueart played superbly and scored a hat-trick, with Brian Kidd also scoring, to make it a convincing 4-0 win for the Blues. At one point Colin had a header which just sneaked over the bar, but the fairytale goal on his return did not arrive.
When I interviewed him years later a modest Colin felt he didn’t contribute a great deal: “I don’t think I touched the ball. It was ten men versus eleven, but the atmosphere got to our team and we ran away with it.”