A Manchester City team wearing sky blue shirts, each bearing the number 8, will tonight pay homage to arguably the club’s greatest ever player.
The tribute to Colin Bell – King Colin, as he has been and will always be to City supporters – will take place against Manchester United in a vital League Cup tie at Old Trafford. It’s a tragic irony that City will mark the death of such a wonderful man and supremely skilled footballer, against the same opponent, in the same competition which marked his demise as a world class player 45 years ago.
Colin was at the peak of his powers when City took on United in the fourth round of the cup, as a crowd of 50,182 packed into Maine Road on a cold Wednesday night in November 1975. With barely 30 seconds played City had raced into the lead, courtesy of a Dennis Tueart goal, and were swarming all over United’s defence.
In the fifth minute Tueart passed the ball from the centre circle and Colin was through, clear of the Red’s backline, heading towards the Platt Lane end and an almost certain two goal advantage. What happened next was to prove a football tragedy for player, club and country.
Colin was ‘tackled’ by United’s Martin Buchan, sustaining the horrendous injury that effectively – despite years of dedication and graft to regain fitness – ended Bell’s reign in the top flight. His right knee had been bent backwards, bursting blood vessels in the bottom of his thigh and top of his calf, as well tearing all the ligaments in his knee. The doctors who treated him said the trauma was similar to that suffered by someone in a serious car crash.
City smashed United 4-0 that night with the Manchester Evening News reporting that Colin’s injury would keep him, ‘...out of action for a month.’ If only that had been the case! City went on to win the League Cup in February 1976, but at such a heavy cost.
The following season – deprived of Colin – City finished as runners-up in the old Division One, missing out on being League Champions by a single point to Bob Paisley’s Liverpool. Had Bell been fit there’s no doubt City would have won the title at a canter – ‘Nijinsky’ – would’ve made all the difference.
Colin was the same age (29), as Kevin De Bruyne is now, when his career was wiped out by that one horrific moment. One can only imagine what City could’ve gone onto achieve, had he played at full throttle into his mid-30s. City’s trophy haul would have swelled and the history books would’ve seen a darn sight more blue than red in the late 1970s and early 80s.
Reflecting on his career after his retirement, Colin singled out his comeback game on Boxing Day 1977 – a 4-0 victory over Newcastle United – as his number one memory of playing football, his number one game.
Sadly he was to be but a shadow of the player he’d been, but the sheer emotion as he emerged as a half time substitute – the tumultuous and ongoing standing ovation – seared into his conscience. Similarly, it’s a moment never to be forgotten by the 46,000 people who were present on the day. It may be a cliché, but it’s nonetheless true, that an untold number of grown men shed tears the day The King returned.
There are so many questions about what Colin could have achieved, had it not been for injury, but that cannot overshadow what actually did happen in his 13 years at Maine Road. He made nearly 500 appearances and scored more than 150 goals, gaining 48 England international caps in the process.
He was the pivotal player in City’s glory years under Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison, winning the League Championship in 1968, followed by FA Cup, League Cup and European Cup Winners Cup successes in 1969 and 1970. Yes, there was Lee, Summerbee, Young, Book, Doyle, Oakes, Booth, Coleman, Heslop, Pardoe and others, so many who were integral to those halcyon days, but none more so than Bell.
City fans of different generations – those fortunate enough to have witnessed the Mercer-Allison era, along with the more recent and present day glories under Mancini, Pellegrini and Guardiola – debate who’s the best to wear the City shirt? Was it Colin Bell or David Silva, could it yet be Kevin De Bruyne or Sergio Aguero?
It’s so subjective, but a key differentiator is that Bell played in an era of pitches resembling mud heaps and tackles that would now be reclassified as ‘ABH’ and ‘GBH’.
He was never afforded the luxury of performing on carpet-like surfaces nor given the protection from the football ‘assassins’ of yesteryear.
That said, all four are viewed as consummate professionals, supremely talented, role models, individuals who conduct themselves in an exemplary fashion, both on and off the field.
Colin Bell was special in so many ways. As a player he was peerless. As a husband and father, he was devoted to his family. As a man – regardless of being a football icon – he was self effacing, humble and completely devoid of ego.
I had the privilege of meeting and chatting with him on a handful of occasions – always at the Etihad on match days where he undertook ambassadorial duties. He had to overcome his natural shyness to engage with fans who were eager to meet him, spend time in his company, reminisce about his glory days and heap praise upon their idol.
I inadvertently caused him embarrassment when I first shook his hand and said he was the greatest player I’d ever seen in a City shirt. I wasn’t a starry-eyed kid, I was a ‘fortysomething’ giving a measured opinion to my boyhood hero.
The only problem was, Colin never saw himself in that light. Peter Barnes, City’s ex-winger and a star of the 1970s, was stood with us and Colin sought to deflect from the compliments coming his way, pointing out that ‘Barnesy’ was a terrific player.
Blundering in I acknowledged Peter’s pedigree, but compounded Colin’s modesty saying; “Oh, of course Peter was brilliant...but not a patch on you!” Talk about how to win friends and influence people!
In the early part of 2017 Colin did something which was totally in keeping with the character of the man – an act of kindness which meant the world to a dear friend of mine – Phil Entwistle, who was dying from cancer.
With the help of City’s former kitman – Les Chapman – a tremendous guy himself – Colin and Chappie visited Phil, a lifelong Blue, to boost his spirits. He was thrilled to spend time with City ‘royalty’ – even more so when, what was scheduled to be an hour’s chat, turned into a whole afternoon of sharing precious anecdotes and memories over tea and biscuits.
Unlike these modern days of social media and 24 hours-a-day sports channels capturing every game and goal, so much of Colin’s genius isn’t available at the touch of a screen or the flick of a remote control. Some of his finest moments will forever only be remembered in the eyes of those who attended City games of the past.
Whether you were fortunate enough to see Colin in full flow, a true thoroughbred, making light of cabbage patch pitches and gliding past opponents, or whether you’re reliant on You Tube archive footage of his goals and indefatigable brilliance, each and every City fan can marvel and fully appreciate why he was The King of The Kippax.
Our heartfelt sympathy, empathy and deepest condolences go to Colin’s family and closest friends, but what better way of celebrating the life of ‘The Leader of Man City’ than a win tonight in a Manchester Derby? Anyone for 4-0?
RIP Colin Bell – it was an honour, a pleasure and a privilege.
By David Walker