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Happy To Be Blue! MCFC Player Profile: Colin Bell

Players Profile

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Colin Bell
England D.O.B:26/02/46
Written by Monksie

Ask most fans who the greatest City player of all time was and it is a sure bet that - provided the fan in question is 65 or under - the almost instantaneous response will be "Colin Bell". A powerful athlete with no little skill, a vicious shot and an excellent "football" brain, Bell remains not just an all-time great but the epitome of everything good about the game. It is safe to say that, along with Francis Lee and Mike Summerbee, Bell symbolises the club's most successful period.

City's assistant manager Malcolm Allison spotted Bell while playing for Bury in the mid-1960s. To this day Allison loves to tell of the time he took manager Joe Mercer to watch Bell play against City in a reserve match during which Mercer criticised the player's every touch; having recognised a few scouts and coaches from rival clubs at the game, Allison joined in, utilising his talent for delivering cutting remarks in his usual flamboyant style to influence his rivals’ judgment, but it was obvious that City’s adept talent-spotter would not settle for anything less than the young Geordie’s signature on a contract at Maine Road. Bell actually scored for the Shakers in a 1-1 draw at Maine Road but signed for City a short time afterward and became the rock around the greatest team in the club’s history would be built…

City won the 1965-66 Second Division Championship under Mercer and Allison, promotion being confirmed by Bell's headed winner at Rotherham United along the way. The Blues consolidated their position in the top flight the next season and bettered that by coming from a long way behind to win the League Championship in 1967-68. By now the five-man City midfield and attacking line-up of Mike Summerbee, Bell, Neil Young, Francis Lee and Tony Coleman was in place and unleashing a brand of fluent, passing football which was the equal of everything else in England and admired by many neutrals. Bell himself not only weighed in with plenty of goals from midfield, but was often the ringmaster running the show as City often stormed to victories against even the best opposition. Even today, one of the most talked-about City performances ever came in early December 1967 as Tottenham Hotspur took an early lead in Arctic conditions at Maine Road only for City to utterly rout them 4-1, including a Bell goal (of course) in a match immortalised forever as the “Ballet on Ice”. Such was City’s dominance that after the game Spurs’ goalscorer Jimmy Greaves paid tribute to “the way the City lads had “moved so gracefully in those conditions, while we were falling about like clowns at the circus”. The final assault on the title was launched on a memorable March evening at Old Trafford. George Best opened the scoring in the first minute for the League champions but after that it was virtually all City as Bell pulled all the strings in midfield, scoring one of City’s three goals to brush United aside on their own ground and send a fearsome warning that anyone with designs on the championship would have to get past Manchester City beforehand. Even then on the final day of the season, City won 4-3 away to Newcastle United to seal the title triumph.

Today, most central midfields field two players, one who can tackle and gain possession and another who can receive a pass from the "general" and feed the wingers and forwards, drive on for goal himself or just retain possession to stifle the opposition's creativity. In Colin Bell City had both types of player in one man and it was also noted that he seemed to find the physical demands of playing top-class professional football quite easily. Francis Lee once said that after playing games his shirt would probably with up to half of it weight again after being drenched in sweat but he would look across at Bell after the final whistle and notice that his team-mate’s shirt was ridiculously dry; even during winter matches and training sessions it was noticeable that Bell produced less breath condensation when slowing down after exercising and it dawned on the Blues’ coaching staff that Bell was, to all intents and purposes, virtually tireless when it came to ninety minutes of professional football. Bell’s physical performance during games was analysed under the orders of Malcolm Allison and a series of tests was conducted at UMIST's sports facility in Manchester whereupon it was established that Bell's body could replenish stamina faster than most Olympic athletes were able to. This explained why the tall midfielder was the club’s unofficial sprint champion when Allison took the team to Wythenshawe Park for speed and endurance training directed by the British Olympic team coach Derek Ibbotson. These training sessions produced not just a team but also an entire squad of footballers whose physical conditioning was far superior to most of their opponents, and contributed in no small measure to City's success in the late 1960's.

As champions City staged the 1968 F.A Charity Shield match at Maine Road (a neutral ground was not used in those days) and welcomed the F.A. Cup winners West Bromwich Albion. On a warm August afternoon City annihilated their guests with a 6-1 mauling which suggested that the new champions would not give up their title easily. However, the young Blues side found opponents coming at them harder during games simply because every opponent likes to take the champions on and raise their game to do so. The still relatively inexperienced City side won only three of their first thirteen League games and even went out of the League Cup in the third round at Blackpool. When the title had been secured Allison had boasted that City would "scare Europe to death" but their only foray into the European Cup ended in a first-round 2-1 aggregate defeat to Turkish champions Fenerbache. By Christmas all realistic hope of retaining the championship had also gone, leaving the F.A. Cup as the only remaining target. City required only one replay, in the fourth round at Maine Road against Newcastle, to reach the final where they beat Leicester City 2-1 and return to Europe, this time in the European Cup-Winners' Cup. Strangely, Bell failed to score at all in the competition, but naturally played his usual part in the team's success.

By now Bell, Lee and Summerbee had received international recognition for England although none was a regular in the national team. As holders England had already qualified for the next World Cup in Mexico and there was a growing clamour for the City contingent to be named in the squad. All would depend on how they fared during the coming season. Again, the championship eluded the Blues and they failed to defend the F.A. Cup (losing 3-0 at Old Trafford) but it was a different story in the League Cup and Europe, which City won after several trials. Revenge for the F.A. Cup exit was sweetly gained over United in a 2-2 draw at Old Trafford to seal a 4-3 aggregate win in the semi-final. An injury-plagued City beat West Brom 2-1 in the final after extra time, using Glyn Pardoe as a makeshift striker and he duly notched the winner. The Wembley pitch, it has to be said, was in arguably its worst-ever condition as the Horse Of The Year Show had been staged on it the previous week and two days of snowfall had threatened to turn it into a quagmire. And all this after a flight back from Portugal only forty-eight hours before following a goalless first leg European tie against Academica Coimbra! City eventually beat Polish side Gornik Zabrze 2-1 in Vienna's rain-soaked Prater Stadium to take the trophy, becoming the very first English club to win a domestic and European trophy in the same season in the process. It appeared that under Mercer and Allison City could now gather silverware at will. Lee and Bell topped the season off by going to Mexico with the England World Cup squad but, while Lee was a regular starter, Bell was often left on the bench and made only one substitute appearance, replacing Alan Mullery as England led West Germany 2-0 at half-time in the quarter-final at Léon. It was not the City midfielder’s fault that the Germans stormed back to win 3-2 in extra-time; in fact, the opposite was true as Bell proved to have the perfect physique and stamina to resist the sapping Mexican heat and high altitude while his exhausted team-mates struggled to contain the resurgent Germans.

The next few seasons however saw the Blues go empty-handed as the Mercer-Allison partnership folded when both parties found themselves involved with opposing sides in a boardroom takeover battle triggered by the resignation of chairman Eric Alexander. The team started to change too, with goalkeepers Ken Mulhearn and Harry Dowd moving on, Tony Coleman suffering relegation as part of a Sheffield Wednesday side sent down by his former City team-mates and - worst of all - Neil Young inexplicably being transferred to Preston for a pittance. Bell however continued to perform to his usual high standards and for time served as City's captain after Tony Book's retirement. By the mid-1970s he and Lee were regulars for England and contributed England’s consolation goal in a 3-1 home European Championship quarter-final defeat by West Germany in April 1972. Furthermore, Bell became a part of the so-called "C"-squad of Martin Chivers, Tony Currie, Allan Clarke and (Colin) Bell which just failed to qualify for the 1974 World Cup in West Germany.

By 1975 Tony Book was now City's manager, Bell had figured in a City side which had relegated United on their own ground but further changes to the Blues' line-up saw the departures of Francis Lee to Derby County and Mike Summerbee to Burnley. In the 1975-76 season City once again flattered to deceive in the League with a mid-table finish and early exit in the F.A. Cup but success followed in the League Cup once more as City stormed to the final, eventually beating Newcastle 2-1 at Wembley. Tragically however, Bell was to miss the rest of the season following a serious knee injury during the fourth round 4-0 thrashing of Manchester United at Maine Road. At the time, the injury didn't appear too serious but doubts grew as to whether Bell would first of all be available for the Christmas programme, the semi-final against Middlesbrough or the final itself. Although most knee ligament injuries today do not necessarily threaten a player's career, thirty years ago it was a different story and Colin Bell embarked on a tireless campaign of intensive and gruelling rehabilitation in an effort to resume his career. He was included in the club's official team photographs but missed the entire 1976-77 season and seemed to be struggling to achieve match fitness even for reserve matches as the 1977-78 season unfolded. Nevertheless Bell became a regular in reserve matches for a side which eventually won the Central League title, but by November the fans began to seriously doubt whether they would ever see their hero play for City (or anyone else for that matter) again.

Then, on Christmas Eve, the newspapers ran a story that manger Book was seriously considering selecting Bell either as a sub or starter for the Boxing Day visit of Newcastle United; the Christmas present ever City fan surely wanted. As things turned out, Bell made the bench for the game as City struggled to overpower the relegation-haunted Geordies during a drab and goalless first half. Just before the teams returned for the second half, a roar gathered momentum from the Kippax Street terraces as the fans with the best view of the early return of the players deep in the tunnel could see a familiar figure emerge, taking the filed on his own. It is said that grown men aged 50 and above wept as, over two years since his last first-team appearance, Colin Bell returned to the Manchester City first team. The crowd naturally responded by reviving all the terrace anthems of the Mercer-Allison era and the team, inspired by the much-improved atmosphere and talismanic return of a true City Legend in their midst, demolished Newcastle 4-0 with Dennis Tueart scoring his third hat-trick of the season in his last home appearance for the club. Bell started the next day's visit to Middlesbrough as the Blues won again and continued a run of seven straight League wins at home and away, Bell even scoring in a 2-1 win over Q.P.R. at a snowbound Maine Road. He also scored in City’s 1-1 draw at Wolves as the Blues qualified for the UEFA Cup by finishing in fourth place.

The 1978-79 season was one of domestic disappointment and upheaval for City as they briefly flirted with relegation and suffered an embarrassing 2-0 defeat to lowly Shrewsbury Town in the fourth round of the F.A. Cup. They did progress in the League Cup before losing at Southampton. Bell by now was by no means a regular in the side but he did help to inspire a tremendous run in the UEFA Cup, scoring in a 3-2 home win over FC Twente Enschede in the first round, his only goal of the season. He was an unused sub in both legs of the fourth round aggregate defeat by Borussia Mönchengladbach. All had noted that Bell had less mobility in his previously injured knee and his effectiveness was therefore severely restricted, so unsurprisingly doubts grew as to whether he could continue his playing career. Bell himself ended all speculation in the opening weeks of the 1979-80 season by announcing his retirement. The club rewarded him with a testimonial match at Maine Road, where a combined Manchester Select XI comprising City and United players beat a Merseyside equivalent from Everton and Liverpool. Bell retired to concentrate on the restaurant business near Bury he had been running for a few years with ex-England under-23 team-mate and one-time United player Colin Waldron. He returned to Maine Road as a youth team coach and scout in the mid-1990s and then as an ambassador for the club, greeting corporate guests at matches and other official club functions, a role which he continues to perform to the present day. When the club moved to its new City of Manchester Stadium in 2003 an online poll was conducted for fans to vote for a City personality after whom its East Stand would be named. Colin Bell was the winner, eclipsing his mentors Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison in the process.

During the 1977-78 season City had allowed BBC TV's Nationwide programme full to present a weekly series following the fortunes of a top-flight club Reporter Kevin Cosgrove and his crew were given full access to the club at all levels in order to portray a realistic warts-and-all season-long diary of the clubs progress throughout a full season. One episode concentrated on Colin Bell's fitness fight and was shown before his return to the first team. During the programme Peter Swales was asked about the consequences of Bell failing to return to the team and to estimate his transfer value immediately prior to the injury. Swales replied that Bell was an incredibly dedicated professional who would spend hours running along the Rusholme and Moss Side pavements adjacent to City's ground in a relentless search for the fitness he needed to resume his career, and summed up his value to the club by describing him as irreplaceable. During his career he gained the respect of opponents far and wide, not only for his incredible footballing ability and athleticism but also for his sportsmanship at all times. Bell picked up several bookings during his City career but rarely - if ever - for dissent and certainly not for violent conduct. He was more renowned for his ability to run more or less continually for the duration of a match, his talent for winning possession and playing an incisive pass to a team-mate, and of course his often blistering volleys with which he scored so many goals at club and international level, although it has to be said that he of course wasn't averse t the occasional scuffed shot or simple tap-in! In these days of outlandish goal celebrations and war dances, it should be remembered that Bell seldom acknowledged any of the goals he scored for Bury, City and England, maybe raising an arm for a second or two to identify himself to the crowd as the goalscorer. He once said that he felt more at ease as a goal provider since it gave him more pleasure being part of a team function as opposed to hogging the limelight for finishing a move off and he always preferred to create the initial move resulting in a goal or a great save or piece of defending by the opposition. He was however usually the first to react to a team-mate's goal, but even then only by gently patting the scorer on the other side of the face. He never blamed United captain Martin Buchan for the tackle which ultimately curtailed his illustrious playing career and again marked his own high standards of professionalism when warmly hugging the Reds' centre-half whilst being introduced to the teams before his testimonial game. In an age when City have just received a club record £21 million for their latest midfield prodigy, the mind surely boggles at what a fully-fit Colin Bell would fetch in today's alarmingly hyper-inflated transfer market.