When the news broke about Colin Bell, my first reaction was disbelief. I think in grief, we go through different stages: disbelief, denial, reluctant acceptance, then reflection, amongst many others. As fans, we’re so used to footballers being our heroes. We put them on a pedestal to worship, admire and respect. We don’t stop and think for a second that one day they will be gone. It couldn’t be that day. It surely wasn’t time.
My instant thought was to my boyfriend’s Dad. Stephen Porter is 70 years old – he’d often relay passionate stories to me about the days of following Bury because of Colin Bell. He was such a fan, so enamored that he followed Bell when he made the move to Maine Road and Manchester City – and has remained a blue ever since.
It was the fondness, sincerity and warmth in which he discussed Bell that struck such a chord with me. This player he spoke so highly of left a huge imprint on his life – the days out he had following City and the goals Bell scored during those days that lit up his life. Bell was the one – nobody could ever come remotely close to him as a footballer and, once he’d met him, a person. He wept when he met him, he wept when he heard of his passing. His hero. The hero.
He named my boyfriend after him – Colin was a popular name amongst Mancunians of a certain age who had been lucky enough to witness Bell play. If you were one of those lucky ones – treasure those memories. The outpouring of emotion from so many City fans after the tragic news broke was remarkable, with hundreds of blues sharing their own personal stories and tales of what Colin meant to them and the emotion they felt to hear of his passing. It was the mark of the man to the reach and effect he had on so many.
A generation of us in that sense were born in the wrong era and only have the grainy YouTube videos and stories passed down to us to go off. But every story shared, each tale told, helps to educate the younger blues on why Colin is held in such a high regard by City fans, the club and football as a whole. The videos of young City fans on away days in the concourse, beer flying everywhere, arms flailing, singing ‘he’s the leader of Man City’ to Colin’s song from the terraces is further proof to that – the respect we all show to the former footballer who has left a legacy in sky blue behind, transcending the ages, for all of us to cherish.
A legend in every sense of the word
A man who had a stand named after him by the club he achieved so much at. A man who could never understand why people would walk up to him outside the ground and ask to shake his hand, want a photograph with him to treasure or an autograph to frame. A man so humble and so unaware of the impression he had left on so many people’s lives – yet Colin Bell really was a legend in every sense of the word.
After starting his career at Bury, he made his name playing for City in the so-called ‘golden era’ of football during the 1970s. He was part of the ‘dream team’, playing alongside Mike Summerbee and Francis Lee and won numerous accolades and trophies for the Blues.
Colin went on to play for England, but his career was cut tragically short when he severely injured his knee during a match against City’s arch rivals, Manchester United. He was only 29 and at the peak of his career. After recovering, Colin went on to play in America at the San Jose Earthquakes, but eventually retired, leaving behind a career full of silverware and goals.
I was lucky enough to interview Colin – I am still incredibly aware of just how fortunate I am to have been able to do this, because he very rarely gave interviews. When I asked him where was best to meet, he suggested in the Marks and Spencer café at the Gemini Retail Park in Warrington. This was typical of Colin – beyond normal, not an ounce of flash or awareness as to his distinction or fame in any way. He even bought the teas. He was warm, passionate, genuine and a lovely, decent human being. Above all – he absolutely loved football. Football and Manchester City.
‘I don’t know if anything made me want to become a footballer,’ Colin said.
I just thought that I was put on this Earth to be a footballer. That’s the way it went through the early stages of my life in school. I was always playing football. I always went everywhere with the ball at my feet. I was playing football at school at an early age. I just thought, at the back of my mind, even though I was going through school, I would become a professional footballer.
‘It’s only in hindsight, years down the line, you realize how lucky you are that it all happened that way. There are a million kids that dream of becoming a footballer now and it never happens for them. But fortunately enough for me, it happened.’
Modest, unassuming yet astonishing
Happen it did. He started his career at Bury and scored 25 goals in 82 appearances for the Shakers. After three seasons and being club captain, in 1966 he moved to City for £45,000 under manager Joe Mercer. During his 13 years at City, he scored 152 goals in 492 games and endeared himself to the City fans forever, who gave him the nickname ‘King of the Kippax.’ He was a box-to-box midfielder who did everything: ran, chased, tackled, tracked back, passed and scored. He was a complete footballer – he ticked every box. But he almost acquiesced in just how brilliant a footballer he was. Modest, unassuming yet astonishing. Football was all he ever knew.
‘I was close to three players at City because they had a similar personality to me – quiet and reserved. Alan Oakes, Glyn Pardoe and Mike Doyle. If we ever went away on club trips, we would tend to run together and play golf together. We did everything together when we were away with the club, basically because we shared a similar personality and temperament.
‘I just loved football. I just wanted to be a professional footballer. I just loved it. To me, it was a hobby, but to become a professional footballer and get paid for doing something that you love, there’s nothing better in life. I was getting paid to do something I loved. It was fantastic. From being a young child, I wanted to be a footballer and it worked out for me. I was very lucky.
‘I wouldn’t have changed when I played. The only thing that I would probably change would be the wages and probably the pitches. Other than that, the time I played, the people that I played with and against, I personally feel that it was a better era. A better time in life and a better standard of football, better everything other than the two things I mentioned.’
The influence of Bell alongside players like Francis Lee, Pardoe, Doyle, Oakes, Neil Young, Mike Summerbee, Joe Corrigan amongst many others, helped City to win the Second Division, First Division, the FA Cup, the European Cup Winners’ Cup and the Charity Shield and League Cup twice. He made 48 appearances for England and played three games during the 1970 World Cup in Mexico.
‘The thing that I am most proud about is when you come out on top after those 42 League games,’ Colin mused. ‘So I would say winning the Championship was my favourite achievement. Winning the League is so, so hard to do. It’s a huge achievement.
‘But for glory, it would probably be the FA Cup in 1969. I was lucky enough to win that as well. Both of those come very high in honours really. But the most important thing for me was when I got injured and I came back from the bad injury to really be able to finish my career.’
‘I had this connection with City supporters from day one’
The knee injury that Colin sustained in 1975 came as a huge blow. He was only 29 and at the peak of his career. His determination to recover and play again for City from the injury gave him his favourite memory as a footballer; the game that marked his comeback after two years out, against Newcastle United on Boxing Day, 1977.
‘My favourite game has to be that day,’ Colin said. ‘There were 45,000 fans there and I got a standing ovation from both sets of fans. I just had this connection with the supporters from day one at City. They just took to me straight away and the reception that I got on this particular day was absolutely fantastic. Football is a team sport, but this day I came on as substitute at half time, it was a standing ovation for me personally. I will always remember that game, it was my number one game. I’ve played for England, I’ve won these trophies, but that had to be my favourite game. It will stay with me forever.’
After 13 wonderful years at City, Bell made the move across the Atlantic to play for San Jose Earthquakes, alongside another footballer who had made his mark in Manchester, this time playing in red – George Best. Bell, so reluctant to recognize his own brilliance, was quick to heap praise on others when and where he felt it was deserved.
‘George was very special,’ he said. ‘He will stand out in history as a great player and he really was. But the number one thing about George Best, even though he was a great player, he was a lovely person. I used to run with him when we played for the Earthquakes. We played away somewhere and we would run together. He was a genuinely lovely person. I hadn’t met him prior to that: all the times that I played against him when he was at Manchester United and I was at City. I hadn’t bumped into him or gone out with him. But for a few months at San Jose, I got to know him and he was lovely. But, as everybody knows, he was a very special player.’
Bell called time on his career after only a few games for the Earthquakes but looks back with nothing but the fondest of memories. He went on to open a restaurant in Whitefield, alongside his former Bury team-mate Colin Waldron, called Bell Waldron, before becoming a Club ambassador for City.
‘I opened a business when I retired,’ Bell stated. ‘I had a restaurant in Whitefield, many years ago. I knew that it was a short career. Nowadays they can retire on the amount of money that make, but in those days you had to have something to fall back on. So I opened a restaurant for when my career came to an end and I had it probably for about 10-15 years. But now, if they play for three or four years, players can be set for life.’
‘I’ve always considered City as a big, big club’
Bell’s first wage at Bury was £12 a week and he admitted how much football has transformed since throughout the years, conceding that finances were key to success in order to compete at the highest level. But it wasn’t always that way.
‘Football is moving with the times,’ Bell said. ‘The thing that I have always thought about over the years, is why somebody with money hadn’t invested in City sooner. I’ve always considered City as a big, big club. Why we hadn’t had interest from people with money before, I’ll never know. I’ve had my fingers crossed for a long time that somebody would finally come in with money and I’m so glad that finally happened.’
‘The money was needed without a doubt, you can’t go anywhere without money nowadays in football. The Premier League had become very predictable, it was always the top four clubs winning everything because they had money. That’s unfair to the rest. In my time, everybody in the First Division always had a chance of winning the Championship because it was the same wages for everybody. Everybody could afford the top players so everybody had an equal chance. But now, it’s a crying shame that the other clubs are just struggling and there’s talk of relegation from day one. It’s a crying shame.
‘I do think the money involved these days though is well and truly over the top. It’s a short career and I do believe that footballers should be paid decent wages because they are entertainers. They are classed as entertainers. I think it should be a good wage, but the wages at the moment that you keep reading about in newspapers are well and truly over the top.’
‘I can’t blame the players for taking the money. It isn’t their fault. If somebody comes along to you and says there’s X amount of money, I’m sure you would just say thank you very much. It isn’t their fault. There should have been a ceiling years ago on transfer fees and on wages. Somebody at the top should’ve done that a while ago. It’s too late to change it now. A lot of footballers would agree that they are very lucky to be picking up the kind of wages that they are.’
‘Let’s give some of our youngsters a try’
Bell was lucky to play alongside so much homegrown talent in a City side that featured many Mancunians – something that is increasingly rare nowadays in the sport. But he also acknowledged that the game now has benefitted from an influx of foreign talent, although he still wanted to see the youth prevail too.
‘There were a lot of Manchester lads back then,’ he said. ‘Which was great because I was a Manchester team. I would think that about 50% of the players were Manchester lads. You talk about foreign players coming in now; I don’t mind the quality players coming in, I didn’t like it a few years ago when they first started coming in, but you’ve got to draw the line somewhere. Once the quality players are coming in, I would rather give English players a chance after that. By all means, bring quality in if it’s going to improve the team, but at some stage you have got to draw the line and say, we have got the quality players now, let’s give some of our youngsters a try or our own players. I think it should be a happy medium really.’
Colin also had some words of advice for the younger generation of footballers. Facing the glare of the media spotlight and the scrutiny of a social media-driven world, it’s a very different era for players these days to the one that Bell excelled in.
‘Football is a short career and you have got to knuckle down and be whiter than white,’ Bell stated. Especially nowadays with the amount of press and television coverage. It only lasts perhaps 10-15 years, so it isn’t a great length of time, so you have to put the brakes on everything and be whiter than white. That’s how professional footballers should be. I get annoyed or frustrated when they get caught out, whether drinking or doing things that they shouldn’t do. They know what the press are like, they are looking for anything. They shouldn’t give them an excuse – they should be squeaky clean.’
‘I was blessed and so lucky to play football’
For such a glittering career, his injury was his own regret. In 2004, he received an MBE for his services to football. Yet despite all his achievements, he still felt like he could’ve won more.
‘I picked up an injury when I could’ve played for another five years with the way my career looked at that moment in time,’ Bell said. ‘To add another five or so years onto my career when I was at the top and had played 40-odd times for England, I could’ve probably reached 100. I could’ve probably won more trophies. I could’ve probably got another 200 or so appearances in, my goal-scoring chart would’ve looked better…there’s so many things.
‘But that’s my only regret. I was blessed and so lucky to play football.’
The thousands that were fortunate enough to have witnessed his genius will agree. They were all exceptionally lucky to have stood and watched his talent, his skill, his dedication and his passion. Those who didn’t, have listened to the tales with disbelief, in bewildered awe. He starred in the ‘ballet on ice’ game, featured during the match that condemned United to relegation from the First Division and remains City’s 4th all-time top scorer.
For a player to touch people so deeply with such longevity, tells you everything you need to know. Colin Bell will be remembered not only by City fans, but by football as a whole, for being one of the best midfielders the sport has ever seen. He made the number eight shirt his own. He was the beating heart of the Club.
King of the Kippax. A legacy for a legend. So drink a drink a drink to Colin the King, the King, the King. Forever the leader of Man City.