Joe Mercer OBE

On Thursday a PFA plaque will be unveiled to honour a footballing legend. Joe Mercer was a hugely successful player with Everton, Arsenal and England and a trophy winning manager with Aston Villa and Manchester City. He also managed Sheffield United and Coventry City. He was acclaimed as a man who had put the fun back into English football during a spell as the England boss. He fully deserves this tribute and, if you can make it, please come along to the plaque unveiling. Back in 2004 I wrote the following piece for the Manchester City match programme which, for those Blues wondering why Joe was significant, may help to explain his importance to the club. Enjoy… it starts with the original introduction (and all references to Joe’s family etc, are from 2004 of course).

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In Search of The Blues considers the life and career of a former City great who sadly is no longer with us, Joe Mercer OBE.  The reason we have decided to reflect on Joe’s life today is that last Monday (9th August 2004) marked the 90th anniversary of the birth of the former City & England manager.  Sadly Joe passed away on the same date in 1990 – his 76th birthday. Joe was City’s manager during the Club’s most successful period, and Gary James, author of “Football With A Smile: The Authorised Biography of Joe Mercer, OBE”, provides a commentary on Joe’s lifetime of achievements.

Why is Joe Mercer so important to this Club?

Joe breathed new life into a club that was struggling to survive.  During the early sixties City had reached a critical level – one director actually suggested the Blues should merge with United! – and Joe’s appointment was one which had to succeed.  Joe brought in a highly enthusiastic Malcolm Allison as his number two and between them they transformed City from a struggling sleeping giant into League Champions, FA Cup winners, League Cup victors and European Cup Winners’ Cup winners. 

The Blues became renowned for their positive approach and swashbuckling style and Joe encouraged everyone to enjoy life at Maine Road.

Without Joe’s arrival in July 1965 it’s very difficult to see how City’s fortunes could be resurrected.

How did his partnership with Malcolm Allison work?

There have been many theories over the years of how the two men worked together.  Many people focus on their contrasting styles – Malcolm the flamboyant one; Joe the fatherly figure – but during the 1990s Malcolm answered a similar question by stating:  “we made it work because we told each other the truth, and we never really fell out.  We had a great relationship.  I enjoyed it all and I think, like Joe, those first five years were the best ever for me.  I think that fortune favours the brave, and I think that sometimes you have to be fortunate where you work and who you work with.  I was very lucky when Joe got the City job, and took me there.  And we started right from the grass roots, right from the bottom and took them to the top.  That is real achievement!”

How does Joe compare to football’s other great managers?

In 1990 Bobby Charlton said he was one of football’s most important figures and added:  “Joe was a great, great person and we don’t say that about many people.  They don’t produce people like him very often.  He was a true great, along with the likes of Bill Shankly.”

Joe’s period as City manager coincided with a number of famous managerial careers – Shankly (Liverpool), Busby (United), Revie (Leeds), Nicholson (Spurs), Stein (Celtic) – and so comparisons should be easy, however each Club was at a different phase in development and it would be foolish to directly compare.  However, it is clear however that during 1967-8 City swept aside the great sides created by his contemporaries and that the Mercer-Allison side won many admirers across the Country because of the style of play and positive attitude.  

In addition to Joe’s time at City he did have some success away from Maine Road and, of course, he managed England for a brief but entertaining spell.

Why did Joe Leave?

Initially, because of Joe’s health problems at Villa, he had anticipated being at City for only a few years.  Naturally, Malcolm was keen to manage the Club in his own right but that didn’t seem possible while Joe was still at the Club.  In 1971 Malcolm was given the role of Team Manager but Joe’s position was less clear.  Power struggles in the Boardroom and various other issues placed Joe and Malcolm in different camps and, when an offer from Coventry came in 1972, Joe felt it was time to move on.  

What was Joe’s managerial record away from Maine Road like?

His first League management role was at Sheffield United.  The Blades were struggling when he arrived mid season and were relegated (1956), however during the course of the next couple of seasons he developed a good cup-fighting side and was offered the Arsenal manager’s job at one point. 

In December 1958 he became the Aston Villa manager and again created a good cup fighting side and brought the Villa Park club the Second Division Championship in 1960.  He also guided them to success in the 1961 League Cup and took them to the final again in 1963.

Sadly, problems at Villa during 1964 caused Joe health problems.  He went to see a doctor and according to Joe some years later:  “He told me ‘It’s either polio or a stroke.’ And as I was leaving the room he called me back and said ‘What about the fee?’  I turned and said ‘well, I must be a bloody bad risk then!”

At the time Joe was also managing the England under-23s and had even been tipped as England manager (August 1962) – that proves how highly Joe was thought of as a manager prior to his phenomenal success at City.

After City, Joe won a manager of the month award at Coventry and took on the role as England caretaker manager during 1974 for 7 games.  His first game in charge saw Kevin Keegan and Stan Bowles – a former player under Mercer at City – both score in a victory over Wales.  Joe was offered the job on a permanent basis but turned it down for health reasons:  “I had the most terrible sciatica.  I was almost a cripple with it.  I was offered the job but I didn’t feel fit enough.  It was as simple as that.”

Why did he join City in the first place?

After his health problems at Villa Joe missed the daily involvement with the game.  He started to report on games for newspapers but reporting was a poor substitute for management.  In 1965 when the City approach came it was a major gamble for all concerned.  Joe was not really fit enough to take on the role immediately and the Club had to think carefully about the appointment.  Joe didn’t think about it for long.  He was desperate to get back into the game and was determined to take on the job.  He recognised the potential at the Club – a year earlier he had stressed he wanted only to take on a job at a progressive, positive club.

His family was not as enthusiastic at first but his wife Norah knew he had to take it on:  “I married a footballer.  I realised he had to go back – it would have killed him hot to.”

Who was his first signing at City?

Ralph Brand, a Scottish international who had scored 128 goals in 207 games for Rangers, was the first signing but it was not a success.  Joe’s second signing was considerably more successful however, that was Mike Summerbee.

What did Joe achieve as a player?

As a player he had enormous success.  With his first club Everton he won the League Championship in 1939 – who knows what else Everton and Joe would have won had war not intervened – while his time at Arsenal saw him win two further Championships (one as captain) and the FA Cup.  He also captained the Gunners to the 1952 final where they were reduced to ten men for a significant part of their defeat by a strong Newcastle side. 

In 1986 when Arsenal celebrated their centenary they introduced many significant and famous players from their history on to the pitch.  According to Arsenal author Keith Fisher Joe Mercer received the biggest ovation of them all.

Joe also had a great England career, and captained the international side during crucial wartime morale boosting internationals.

His popularity was so high he even appeared on magazine covers.  

How is Joe remembered outside of Manchester?

Joe is remembered as a truly great player at both Everton and Arsenal.  Both sides recognise that his contribution to their history is immense while at a national level Joe is remembered as one of the Football League’s 100 legends.  

As a manager, Joe’s record at Aston Villa is not perhaps viewed as positively as it should be, however his time at Coventry (1972-1974) is remembered fondly.  As is his period as England manager.

In 1976 he was awarded the OBE for services to football.

Which team did he support as a boy?

As a boy growing up in Ellesmere Port, Joe was an Evertonian.  However he also had a soft spot for Nottingham Forest and, in particular, Tranmere Rovers as his father, Joe Mercer Snr, had played League football for both sides.  Sadly, he passed away while Joe was still a young boy, but Joe always retained a strong feeling for Tranmere.  In later life he became a regular attendee at Prenton Park.

Did he achieve any notable milestones during his playing and managerial career?

At the age of 35 in 1950 he was presented with the Football Writers’ Player of the Year trophy and continued to play top class football until injury forced him to retire at 39.  Naturally, there were all his trophy successes as a player.

By managing City to the FA Cup in 1969 he became the first man to win both the FA Cup and the League as a player and as a manager.  The first man to surpass this achievement was Arsenal’s George Graham who had actually been brought to England by Joe when he was Aston Villa manager.

In 1970, Joe managed City to the League Cup and ECWC double – this is recognised as the first major English/European trophy double although Leeds did win the Fairs Cup and League Cup (but some leading sides still boycotted this competition at the time) in 1968.

Since Joe passed away have his family retained their love of the Blues?

Definitely, Joe’s 84 year old widow Norah is a regular attendee – she came to the Lazio game last week and is determined to be here today.  She loves the Club and is a very popular presence on match day.  She has also been to the stadium for various other activities including last season’s Hall of Fame dinner and the official opening of the Manchester City Experience in April.

Norah has been part of City life since her husband first accepted the City job.  She is also a keen member of the Merseyside CSA.

Finally, how did Joe view the game during his later life?  Did he still love it with the passion he had as a boy?

Joe tried to keep focus on the game rather than activity off it.  During the 1980s, towards the end of his life, he was asked his views on the problems of the ‘modern game’ and gave a comment which is as relevant today as it was then:

“Football is a great game.  It is all about goals, goalmouth incidents, and end-to-end attacking football.  There is nothing wrong with the game; plenty wrong with managers, players, directors, legislators, and the media.  Football has been very kind to me and I really mustn’t complain so can I leave you with this thought – The object of playing any game is for enjoyment.  If you have enjoyed it and done your best you have won no matter what the result!”

The 200th Post – Joe Mercer

I’ve posted 199 separate articles to this website so far and so, for my 200th post, I felt it was about time I paid tribute to the former Manchester City and England manager Joe Mercer for his influence on my writing.

Joe, as most reading this will be aware, was the most successful City manager of all time prior to the recent successes of Pep Guardiola. He remains the only City manager to bring a major European trophy to the club (though hopefully that will change soon!).

When I began writing my first book in 1987 my co-author told me he had been helped during his research into Nottingham Forest by Joe (Joe’s father played for Forest) and he felt that, if the book progressed as planned, Joe would possibly agree to write the foreword to our book. Sadly my co-author Keith Mellor died during the research phase of the book and the entire project looked in jeopardy.

After a while, Keith’s wife contacted me to urge me to continue with the book and she also gave me Joe Mercer’s address, suggesting I should write to him about the book.

I wrote to Joe and told him about the book Keith and I had been compiling (it was a pictorial history of City) and asked if Joe would be interested. I received a phone call from Norah, Joe’s wife, and she invited me over to meet Joe.

At that time I was about 19 and did not have a car and so I asked Norah if I could bring my dad – a passionate City fan.  She of course said yes and we made arrangements.

Unfortunately, on the day of our visit, my dad’s car broke down and, knowing we could not let the Mercers down, we quickly arranged to borrow the only vehicle available to us – a white battered and bruised transit-style van.  We drove to the Wirral and arrived at the Mercers’ street about 45 minutes early, so we parked up around the corner about 100 yards from their home.  We had decided that we could not pull up outside a former England manager’s house in a white works van, and we believed we were hidden.

When we were due to arrive, we climbed out of the van, walked the 100 yards or so and knocked on the door.  Immediately Joe, with that huge great grin of his, was in front of us.  His Cheshire smile welcomed us in.  He did not ask our names, he just asked us in.  Within seconds Norah popped out of the kitchen and said:  ‘You’ve been very naughty, haven’t you?  You’ve been hiding in that van for the last 45 minutes!’  We all laughed and, as we were guided into their house, my dad and I explained about the breakdown and so on.  Joe, being Joe, asked if he could do anything.  Could he arrange a lift for us, or help get the car repaired.  It was immediately clear to me that Joe Mercer was a wonderful man and his wife Norah was a terrific woman.

Can you imagine if we’d have said yes to Joe helping us? What would our neighbours back in Manchester say if we’d have turned up with Joe Mercer in the hope the footballing legend could get dad’s car fixed?

We spent a good couple of hours with Joe and Norah that day and Joe even offered to let us stay to watch the football on television.  We had to return to Manchester, but it had been a wonderful afternoon.

The highlight in many ways was Joe taking us in to a room where he kept his scrapbooks and memorabilia. The ball from the 1950 FAC final was there and he brought it over to show us. It was an incredible experience and Joe was so interested in my book plans. He agreed to write the foreword – an incredible gesture – and his words in my first ever book remain by far the best part of that publication.

I saw Joe several times after that, with perhaps my fondest meeting coming the day after Arsenal had defeated Liverpool in 1989 to win the League title.  The former Arsenal man was particularly lively that day and spent some time talking about the Gunners, George Graham, and even his own time training at Anfield. It was superb and I remember Norah telling us: ‘George has been on the ‘phone.’ It felt like we were part of something special and when Norah talked of George she just assumed we’d know straight away it was the Arsenal manager and not another George from down the road.

It’s worth pointing out here that George Graham had been brought to England by Joe when he was the Aston Villa manager and so that 1989 Arsenal title success meant a great deal to Joe. A success for his former club and by a former pupil of his. Of course, the fact Joe was a proud Evertonian helped too! I was delighted for Joe and, while at this time in my football supporting life I would ordinarily have preferred Liverpool to have beaten Arsenal that all changed that weekend. The joy and excitement the Mercers demonstrated for Arsenal was clear and I realised just how much the Gunners meant to Joe.

After the delays and various other issues, my first book came out in April 1989 (why we didn’t wait until June I don’t know!) and the trip in May to the Mercers had been to give Joe a couple of copies. They offered to pay – I couldn’t believe it.

Foreword to From Maine Men To Banana Citizens (Published April 1989)

By that time I had already started work on my second book and I also knew that I wanted to write something specifically about Joe. I reasoned with myself that Joe’s book would wait until after my second book The Pride of Manchester was complete. The Pride of Manchester was a history of the Manchester derby co-written with Steve Cawley. Steve & I were quite fortunate in that, thanks to the connection with Joe, we also managed to ask Matt Busby to write a foreword too. To have the two men who were, by some way, at that time the two most successful managers of the Manchester clubs write our foreword and introduction was incredible. We were eternally grateful.

Foreword to The Pride Of Manchester (published September 1991)

The Pride of Manchester was due out in August 1990 and then I planned to get working on a book on Joe Mercer’s years at Manchester City. Unfortunately, technical issues meant that the Pride of Manchester was to be delayed by a few months and, as the new football season would mean at least one derby match would be played before the book came out, we decided to delay it a full year and include the 1990-91 season. That would also mean my Joe Mercer idea would have to wait.

Sadly, the last time I last saw Joe was on 31 May 1990 when I went through the wording of his contribution to The Pride Of Manchester.  Joe had been suffering with Alzheimer’s for sometime and by this stage it had clearly developed significantly. I realised that day that Norah must have been under tremendous pressure, yet somehow she got on with looking after Joe.  It must have been extremely difficult for her but, as she had proved throughout her life with Joe, Joe’s happiness was vitally important to her.

On Thursday 9 August 1990 the suffering ended.  Joe was celebrating his seventy-sixth birthday with his family.  He relaxed in his armchair after an enjoyable day and then passed away peacefully.

Over the months and years that followed I continued to visit Norah as often as I could. My idea of writing a book on his time at City still floated around in my head but I was disappointed that I hadn’t managed to publish it before his death. The delay to The Pride Of Manchester really upset me but I knew that it couldn’t have been helped.

When the time was right I visited Norah and mentioned the book idea. Norah, being as wonderful as ever, said: ‘Only do it if you want to. Don’t do it for me or for Joe. Don’t go to all that trouble unless you want to for you.’ She was pleased that I wanted to do it but genuinely did not want me to go to any trouble. I told her it would be a honour and she told me she would help however she could.

Over the next couple of years I spent a lot of time at Norah’s. Often Joe & Norah’s son David would arrive – another wonderful member of the family – and he used to laugh about ‘the old fella’ while Norah would tell me wonderful stories of how she met ‘Cheeky face Mercer!’

It was a wonderful period and Norah used to always bring out the sandwiches or a bowl of Scouse for me and my girlfriend. One day I arrived at her house and she insisted on pouring me a beer. As she brought it in she whispered to my girlfriend ‘watch his reaction’ and then she handed me a silver tankard. I looked at it and it was the 1961 League Cup Final tankard Joe had been given for guiding Villa to success. Inside was my beer! I tried to persuade her to put the beer into a regular glass but she insisted. It was the first (and so far only) time I have drunk from a major footballing award.

Early into my research for the book I realised that a book simply on Joe’s time at City wouldn’t do him justice. No matter how significant that period was for City or in my life as a fan, it was still only a small fraction of what he had achieved in his life. I soon decided that if I was to write a book on Joe it had to be his full biography. My publisher Julian Baskcomb – always keen on creating quality books – encouraged me to write the full story no matter how many words.

In the end the book was published in December 1993 and contained approximately 110,000 words (almost double the standard biography size at that time) and hundred of photographs from every stage of Joe’s life. A few weeks before it was published I gave David Mercer a full copy of the text to read. I’d agreed with him and Norah that they’d see the text shortly before it was published and, if there was anything significant, I’d change it.

David phoned me within 24 hours of receiving the text and had read every word. He phoned me and told me that I had captured his father perfectly. He became somewhat emotional when we discussed the book and, for the first time ever, I felt my writing mattered. I knew that I’d been fortunate in being able to write about a truly wonderful and marvellous man, and that the support of Norah & David had made this a great experience for me.

All these years on Joe Mercer, OBE: Football With A Smile remains the book I am most proud of; the book I enjoyed writing the most; and the book that I always want to aspire to with my new material. I remain ever grateful to Joe, Norah, David and the family for allowing me the opportunity to first meet Joe and then to write the book. I updated it in 2010, adding material from various parts of his life.

The updated book is still available – see:

https://gjfootballarchive.com/shop/

I continued to meet Norah over the years. David would usually pop in while I was there and we’d chat about ordinary things. Occasionally, Norah would say things like: ‘I told Jimmy about the book last week’ and I’d be thinking ‘Jimmy?’ then she’d say something else and it’d be obvious it was Jimmy Hill. Once during my research I arrived at her house and she told me ‘I phoned George and told him he must talk to you about Joe. Here’s his number.’ I was handed a piece of paper with Norah’s writing on reading: ‘George Graham’ and then his direct office number at Highbury. I contacted George and he set up an interview for me in his office.

The week before we launched Joe’s biography I was sat at home one evening when my telephone rang. I answered it. The voice on the other end said: ‘Hello Gary? It’s Bobby Charlton here. I’m sorry I can’t come to the launch. I’ll be in Kuala Lumpur then. I called Norah to tell her but she told me I must call you to apologise, so I’m really sorry I can’t make it. Is that okay?’

Me: ‘Er, yes. Thanks for letting me know.’

I came off the ‘phone and couldn’t get it out of my head that Norah had ‘told’ Bobby Charlton to call me and apologise. Even more impressive is the fact that he did! Norah was brilliant but if she told you to do something you did it, no matter who you were!

Around the time of City’s move to their current stadium I became involved in a few projects at the club on a freelance basis. One was setting up the initial museum and another was the erection of the Mercer mosaics on Joe Mercer Way. I won’t go into all the discussions and stories connected with that here, but one of the areas that I contributed to was the selection of the images for mosaic artist Mark Kennedy to recreate as mosaics. I spoke with Norah about the options and showed her a few I’d shortlisted that I’d used in the book.

We agreed that one had to show Joe lifting a trophy at City – the League Championship was chosen – and the other ended up a view of Joe from the back looking out towards the Kippax from the Maine Road tunnel. Although I loved that photo (it came from Norah’s collection and became a major image in my book) I wasn’t certain Norah would like a back view of Joe. I was wrong. As soon as she saw it she said ‘That’s it! That’s Joe! Look at his bandy legs! There’s no mistaking those legs.’

When we did the reveal Norah and David came of course and Norah thanked Mark Kennedy for capturing Joe so superbly, although she did say to him ‘That one with the trophy is okay; but this one with his bandy legs… that’s Joe!’

Mark Kennedy, Norah & David Mercer with ‘bandy legs’ Mercer mosaic
When everybody else had gone, Norah asked me if she could see the mosaic from a distance, as the fans would on match day walking down Joe Mercer Way

Sadly, in the years that followed first David and then Norah have died. Both were wonderful people who supported my work and trusted me to tell Joe’s story. They demonstrated what a wonderful family they were and – to me this is extremely significant – their warmth matched Joe’s. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that throughout Joe’s time at City and for the following decades City were often described as ‘the friendliest club’. Joe set the tone and direction for the club. He was a great ambassador for Manchester City (and the other clubs he was involved with).

Joe helped establish the Manchester City that many City fans fell in love with.

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Colin Bell 1946-2021

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:

Early Life

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.”

Bury Move

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!”

Champions

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’.”

Injury

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.  

Retirement

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:

https://gjfootballarchive.com/2020/12/28/in-search-of-the-blues-colin-bell-mbe-interviewed-in-january-2005/

Also, here’s the story of the Boxing Day 1977 game v Newcastle which saw an emotional return to first team action by Colin:

https://gjfootballarchive.com/2020/12/29/manchester-city-hall-of-fame-colin-bells-significant-game/