By Richard DJJ Bowdery.
In a poll carried out last year by the Manchester Evening News, its readers overwhelmingly voted Colin Bell as Manchester City’s greatest player ever. This at a time when the club’s star is in the ascendancy and its current crop of players are winning the hearts and minds of a new wave of fans.
But supporters have long memories and can recall those heady days in the 60’s and 70’s when Bell romped across the pitch like Nijinsky, one of two nicknames City fans bestowed upon him: the other being King of the Kippax. How he would have graced the game today with its Bowling Green pitches, unlike the quagmires he so often had to contend with.
Bell, from County Durham, started his football career at Bury, before that wily old fox Malcolm Allison spotted his potential. Man City’s assistant manager deflected interest from other clubs by saying: “He can’t head, can’t pass. He’s hopeless.” Allison’s subterfuge won the day and in 1966 20 year-old Bell became a City player costing the club £45,000.
In his first season with City he helped them win the Second Division (now the Championship) title. During his time at Maine Road the club also won the League title, the FA Cup, the League Cup twice and the European Cup Winners Cup.
He was the dynamo in City’s midfield. Such was his athletic prowess that the great British runner, and world mile record holder in the 50’s, Derek Ibbotson, after watching Bell in training, said: “He would have been a world champion had he chosen athletics over football,” hence his Nijinsky nickname.
What helped cement his iconic status among the City faithful was his performance against near neighbours, and deadly rivals, Manchester United during the 67/68 season. In a league game at Old Trafford Bell scored and also won a penalty. The Blues ran out 3-1 winners, a result which helped them beat the Red Devils to the League title that year.
His first cap came against Sweden, a game England won 3-1. He went to Mexico as part of England’s World Cup squad where he replaced Bobby Charlton during the 3-2 quarter final defeat to West Germany. Some at the time criticized the substitution, claiming it was the game’s turning point. But Charlton pointed out that West Germany had already got their first goal before his substitution.
Bell hoped he would get another crack at a World Cup. As he recalled: “I had joined the England squad just after 1966, and was on the edge of things in 1970, so…  was going to be my World Cup.” And had it not been for a goalkeeper Brian Clough labelled a ‘clown’ he might well have achieved his dream. Bell later said the Polish keeper “… played out of his skin, but he was a bit lucky that night as well.”
Bell went on to represent his country 48 times, scoring nine goals and would undoubtedly won more caps had a serious injury not curtailed his playing career.
In 1975, and still in his prime, 29 year old Bell suffered a serious injury that would ultimately bring down the curtain on his glittering career.
City hosted Manchester United in a League Cup tie. Bell was racing towards goal when United defender Martin Buchan attempted to stop him. As he tried to cut inside Buchan, the defender tackled him. The combination of both player’s movements resulted in Bell being sidelined for two years. It was no consolation that City won 4-0.
On his return to the City first team, City fan Dave Brammer managed to get to Bell as he warmed up and placed a crown on his head. The king had returned…but not for long. In August 1979 he announced his retirement.
He flirted briefly a return to football in 1980 with North American Soccer League side San Jose Earthquakes. He lasted 5 games: it was time to call it a day.
Speaking about the tackle Colin Bell said: “People ask me if the tackle was done on purpose. I don’t believe it was and don’t believe things like that should happen in the game. No – it’s a man’s game, you take the knocks. I’ve only got to be thankful that I was in my late twenties when picking up the injury.”
In a thirteen year career at City he made almost 500 appearances, scoring 152 goals – a tremendous goal to game ratio for a midfielder.
Bell took on the role as City’s reserve and youth team coach in 1990 but left when Frank Clarke became manager. He later returned as an ambassador for the club.
Fittingly Manchester City honoured their famous son with a stand named after him. What was the City of Manchester stadium’s West Stand was, in 2004, renamed The Colin Bell Stand.
The following year he was awarded an MBE in recognition of his charitable work, and was also inducted into Football’s Hall of Fame.
A Reluctant Hero
It is a given that footballers, at some point in their careers, publish an autobiography. Colin Bell was no exception, though in one respect it was exceptional: it probably saved his life!
Written by Ian Cheeseman and published in 2005 it was called: Colin Bell – Reluctant Hero: The Autobiography of a Manchester City and England Legend.
Jim Hill, a colorectal surgeon at the Manchester Royal Infirmary, was given a copy of the book. Coincidentally Bell’s son, Dr Jon Bell was also working at the hospital. On reading the book the surgeon discovered Bell’s mother died of bowel cancer at a young age. The surgeon suggested to Dr Bell that his father should have some tests.
Colin Bell had a scan which showed which showed the onset of an aggressive form of bowel cancer. Within three weeks he was being operated on.
Mr Hill said later: “If it was left untreated then I think what Colin had would have turned into a bowel cancer. I’m just pleased he’s come through this fine.”
It was a shocking bit of news but it led to an early diagnosis which saved his life.
Bell said: “It wasn’t until a few weeks after the operation that I started to take it in.”
Still the King
Whether it’s on the City of Manchester stadium terraces or in the Manchester media, Colin Bell is still called the king. They started singing ‘He is the King of the Kippax’ (after City’s Kippax stand at the old Maine Road ground. And as last year’s poll demonstrated, his fans are still singing it now.