Cult Heroes: Colin Bell, Manchester City

Alex StampCorrespondent IDecember 16, 2008

Colin Bell, was arguably one of the finest English players of the late '60s and early '70s, and is widely regarded as the finest player ever to play for Manchester City, and was affectionately known as the “King of the Kippax” and was also nicknamed "Nijinsky" after the famous thoroughbred racehorse, due to his incredible energy and athleticism.

Bell, was born just after the end of the Second World War in County Durham, in his formative years, he played for Bury, who spotted him playing for his college team. He played for the club for three years, and captained the club at an early age. In his three years, he played for Bury 82 times, and scored 25 goals, a scoring rate of nearly one goal in three-a rate he would continue for the rest of his career.

Bell was spotted by Manchester City assistant manager Malcolm Allison, who told other clubs interested in Bell that he “can't head it, can't pass it, he's hopeless” in the hope that they would not scout this highly prized player. Ultimately, this process paid dividends, as Bell was signed for Manchester City for £45,000.

The new signing made an immediate start, as he helped City achieve immediate promotion, finishing the season with four goals in 11 games.

As a midfielder, Bell bore many of the hallmarks of a modern midfielder, incredibly athletic and boasting endless amounts of energy. His game was spent driving forward at every opportunity, and when in front of goal, as his record testifies, he barely wasted a chance. Modern commentators have likened his game to that of Steven Gerrard.

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City's first season back in Division One was a struggle for Manchester City, but for Bell it was one which saw the midfielder take on increasing importance in the City team, as he finished the season with twelve goals, as City finished fifteen.

The following season would be a successful one for City and for Bell, complimenting new signing Francis Lee and the tricky Mike Summerbee, City were able to push for the league title, which they won on the final day, with a 4-3 victory over Newcastle. For Bell, and for City this was a remarkable achievement, coming only two seasons after their promotion from the Second Division.

Bell's form was such that he was called up for England-a big honour as they were then world champions, and Bell made his debut for England against Sweden and made an immediate impact, helping set England up for a three-one victory.

In 1969, though City failed to challenge for the league title, Bell picked up another medal-this time an FA Cup medal as City defeated Leicester City, then in 1970, City won yet more silverware as they won the League Cup and European Cup Winners Cup.

While for England, Bell was becoming an increasingly important member of the England squad, and at international level was beginning to distinguish himself, scoring the winner against the Dutch, and also scoring against soon-to-be world champions Brazil.

He was called up for the 1970 World Cup, and in the pre-tournament acclimatisation process, the squad held a mini-Olympics event, which saw Bell win every event-evidence of Bell's athletic ability.

As such, the tournament was to end on a sad note for Bell, and for England, as Bell was brought on to replace Bobby Charlton in the quarter final against Germany, with England 2-0 up. However, England let the two goal lead slip, and some blamed the substitution for the subsequent collapse.

Following this tournament came a period of stagnation for Manchester City, as the club failed to push on from its triumphs of '68, '69, and 1970. However this was due in no part to a lack of contribution from Bell, whose performances for City continued to be of the highest quality, it is worth noting that in his first six full seasons for City Bell always reached double figures in terms of goal’s scored-a fantastic achievement for a midfielder.

Throughout this time though, Bell was continuing to become an important member of the England team, he was made captain in Bobby Moore's absence against Northern Ireland in 1972, and continued to be a force to be reckoned with at international level.

In 1975, on the back of a magnificent season for City, where he scored 15 goals and was an ever-present member of the team, Bell played three international matches that were to lead one commentator to describe him as “the most finished article in the modern game.” Bell scored twice against Czechoslovakia in a three nil victory, once against world champions West Germany, and once more against Scotland in a five-one victory.

Many felt that Bell was hitting his peak for England, unfortunately things were very much about to take a turn for the worst.

In a local derby against Manchester United in 1975, Bell was on the end of a poor tackle from Martin Buchan which injured his right knee. The injuries were severe, causing damage to an artery and a blood vessel, however a mis-diagnosis caused further problems as Bell attempted a comeback too soon and ended up splintering his cartilage. This meant that Bell would be sidelined for the next 18 months.

Ultimately, his absence was to cost England, as many felt that Bell's absence contributed to the team's failure to qualify for the 1978 World Cup, and indeed Bell never played for his country again, and he finished with 48 caps and nine goals.

Bell's made his comeback on Boxing Day 1977, however injury had had a serious impact upon his abilities, he was no longer the same player. Bell said his knee never felt the same, and he featured sparingly for City, before calling time on his career in 1979—the injury, suffered at the age of 29, had got the best of him.

In retirement, Bell continued to play a part in Manchester City's fortunes, as he was a youth coach at the club, and then also returned to the club in the 1990s as an ambassador of the club.It is a measure of how highly regarded he is by City that one of the stands at the City of Manchester Stadium was renamed “The Colin Bell Stand” in his honour.

Bell's legacy at City is considerable, he is widely regarded as the club's finest ever player, and during his time at the club, City won one league title, two league cups, an FA Cup and a European Cup Winners Cup.

Contemporaries of Bell, and pundits have been effusive in their praise of the man, Bobby Charlton claimed that “Bell was unquestionably a great player,” while Tom Finney claimed that “Colin Bell was as good as anything I've ever seen.”

For City and for England, Bell was a great player, a player whose modest nature meant that he naturally shied away from publicity, and perhaps did not get the recognition that he deserved.

City fans, old and new, fondly remember Bell's performances in a Manchester City shirt, and he—quite rightly—is hailed as a cult hero by everyone affiliated with the club.


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