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. 

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.

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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.

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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Source:: New Statesman


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