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13 January 2021

Appreciation: Colin Bell

Dubbed Nijinsky, after the champion racehorse, by Manchester City team-mates and fans, the unparalleled footballer was a modest man with an immodest gift. 

By Michael Henderson

Nijinsky they dubbed him at Manchester City, after the champion racehorse, although his team-mates might also have been nodding towards the leading dancer of the Ballets Russes, the brightest star of his day. Colin Bell, who has died at the age of 74, was adopted by his very own Diaghilev, Malcolm Allison, a coach whose mission to mould his protégé into a great footballer succeeded triumphantly. The tributes that anointed Bell, renowned for his remarkable stamina and ability to score goals from midfield, as the finest player ever to represent a club now among the world’s richest told no lies.

Between March 1968, when he ran Manchester United ragged at Old Trafford, scoring a goal in a 3-1 victory on the way to City’s first league title for 32 years, and 12 November 1975, when they beat United 4-0 at Maine Road in a League Cup tie, Bell was the finest all round player in the land. He was 29 that misty evening, an established England midfielder with 48 caps. It wasn’t Martin Buchan’s tackle that did for him so much as the locking of studs in the turf, which turned his knee round. Despite his brave efforts to return two years later there could be no proper recovery, and a career of symphonic proportions ended in a minor key.

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“If we had him [Bell] in our side,” Brian Clough used to tell his magic circle at Derby County, “we’d win everything for the next ten years.” Cloughie was speaking for the game as a whole, because everybody envied the range and scope of this unparalleled footballer-athlete. After Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton and Jimmy Greaves, the three supreme English players of the past 60 years, nobody stands taller than Colin Bell.

His was an old-fashioned background. Born in County Durham, that great nursery of the English game, he spent three seasons at Bury, in the old second division, before joining Manchester City just as they were going up to the first.

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With Allison supporting Joe Mercer, the genial manager, City won the league title, the FA Cup and the League Cup between 1968 and 1970, adding the European Cup Winners’ Cup in that last year.

Those were the days of four divisions, no live matches on television, dubbined black boots, heavy leather balls and pitches that resembled ploughed fields by the first week of December. It was a manlier game then, and the manliness occasionally translated into thuggery. Matches kicked off at 3pm every Saturday, and ended no later than 4.43pm. Goalies wore green jumpers, and the outfield players lined up from two to 11, with only one substitute. The number four was a wing half, not a “holding midfielder”, and the number eight on his back signified that Colin Bell was an inside right.

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Snigger if you like, and those green enough to think the world began with the Premier League in 1992 almost certainly will, but they were great days. At least, I think they were. England won the World Cup in 1966, and might have retained the trophy in Mexico four years later if goalkeeper Gordon Banks, a custodian without equal, had not gone sick on the day of the quarter-final against West Germany, which England lost 3-2, having led 2-0 (Bell came on as a substitute in that match).

The old English First Division was a much more competitive league. In the seasons between 1958, when Matt Busby’s superb Manchester United team perished in the snow at Munich airport, and 1976, when Liverpool began their years of domination, no fewer than 11 clubs won the title. When Bell fired City to that triumph in 1968 every member of the team was an Englishman. Different times.

Now English football is marketed as an entertainment package designed for global television, and local identity counts for little. The players, managers and owners are overwhelmingly foreign, and Bury, the grand little club that gave so many fine players to the world, left the Football League last season, their assets stripped, unmourned by the game’s new masters.

The club that Bell adorned is no more. Manchester City is now an accessory for multi-billionaires from the United Arab Emirates, whose wealth has brought success (four Premier League titles since 2012) but little sense of kinship.

Home is no longer Maine Road but a functional stadium in the east of the city. The ransom of £145,000, which City shelled out to second division clubs for Bell, Mike Summerbee and Francis Lee, those three musketeers, would keep a modern player in washers for about four days.

Was it really so much simpler then, as the song has it?

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It was certainly more wholesome. There were no Ferraris in the car park, no mansions in Prestbury, and not a tattoo to be seen. Television money has transformed football into a pastime detached from its roots. Even the language has changed. A pundit on Match of the Day recently talked about “breaking the lines”. Not a phrase that Brian Glanville or Eric Todd ever used.

Colin Bell was not a “legend” or an “icon”. He was a modest man with an immodest gift, who grew to maturity in an age of proud footballers who played body and soul, and then retreated to lives of relatively well-paid domesticity. Grateful for the chances the game offered him, Bell accepted his good fortune with grace, and offered a straight bat to the wretched luck that ended his glory days too soon. The club he served can throw a rope around the moon if they want, and they probably will. They will never find another Nijinsky. 

Michael Henderson is the author of “That Will Be England Gone: The Last Summer of Cricket” (Constable)

This article appears in the 13 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, American civil war