Between 1968 and 1971, the late Dave Sexton, Chelsea’s softly-spoken and erudite manager, received a string of letters – written with a duck-egg green Osmiroid pen – that highlighted the skills and attributes of a midfielder plying his trade with Manchester City. The young lad who wrote these testimonials was giving Sexton the benefit of his 10 years on the planet, his three years of watching grainy Match of the Day programmes, and his desire to bring top-class talent to Stamford Bridge. This lad, whose first football kit was not in Chelsea blue – that would come later – but all white, the colours of Leeds United and Real Madrid, wanted to create the All Stars for Chelsea.
Dear Mr. Sexton, I would like to recommend a player who should be signed for Chelsea. His name is Colin Bell, and he plays for Manchester City. I think he would make a lot of goals for Peter Osgood and Bobby Tambling. I am 10 years old and one day, I want to play for Chelsea. If not, Manchester City.
He created a wall chart that had his favourite players in a 2-3-5 formation. It was mostly built around the Chelsea team of the time, but it also included a few players who he felt could make the Blues even better. It went: Bonetti, Harris, Cooper, Hollins, England, Webb, Cooke, Bell, Osgood, Tambling and Best. So as well as Bell, Terry Cooper of Leeds, Mike England of Tottenham and George Best of Manchester United were on the shopping list.
But it was Colin Bell that was central to this youngster’s plans to transform Chelsea into a super power. Sexton was not oblivious to this request, and wrote back: “Thank you for the suggestion. We are very aware of Mr. Bell’s qualities and consider him an excellent player. We are always keeping an eye on good players.”
In hindsight, there was little chance that Bell would move from Manchester to London. It just didn’t happen very often in those days. He was a Northerner. The North was a different world (it still is, despite professional Northerners like Stuart Maconie doing their best to sell it to the South). This was underlined in Hunter Davies’ 1972 book on Tottenham called The Glory Game (a classic), where Burnley’s Ralph Coates – who sadly died very young – joins the club and adopts the stance of a stranger in a strange town, much to the amusement of his team-mates.
Bell was born in Hesleden, County Durham, so he’s another player that slipped the net of Newcastle United. He joined Bury in 1963 and captained the team at a very young age. Malcolm Allison, coach of Manchester City spotted him and picked up the scent of a great prospect. But typically, Allison played it down, describing Bell as a no-hoper. Bell signed for City in 1966 and he was a pivotal figure in a golden period for the club, League Champions 1968, FA Cup 1969, Football League Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1970.
Bell had energy and pace and could score outstanding goals. In 1970-71, Bell’s Chelsea admirer saw him play at Stamford Bridge. Bell silenced the bulk of the 52,000 crowd with a brilliant 20th minute volley from an Alan Oakes cross. The 11 year-old looked up at the stands to try and catch a glimpse of Dave Sexton and nod his acknowledgement of a fine piece of skill. “I told you, Mr Sexton. I told you.”
Bell was also a favourite with the ladies. His shock of blond hair won him many votes in the Football League Review’s best looking league table. The Chelsea lad’s younger sister had a thing about him. His name was easy to remember, after all.
The lad tried to explain to his father why, despite not playing for Chelsea, Colin Bell was one of his favourites. “They call him Nijinsky”, he said. His father, pausing and stroking his chin, assumed that he was referring to the legendary Russian ballet star. “He could certainly dance. Does Colin Bell dance, then?” Nijinsky was indeed his nickname, coined by Malcolm Allison, but it was in reference to the racehorse that was renowned for his stamina.
But Bell could certainly lead many an opposition defence a dance. He returned to Chelsea in 1970-71 and tore the home side apart in the FA Cup, scoring twice in a 3-0 win. The scribe of Stamford Bridge could not resist a reminder letter to Dave Sexton. “In two games, Colin Bell has ripped Chelsea’s defence apart”, to which there was no reply this time. Sexton really did know all about Mr. Bell and the following season at least he did sign a blond player – Chris Garland of Bristol City (!).
Back at City, Bell never achieved as much as he did in that 1968-70 period. He became a fixture in the England squad, winning 48 caps, and represented the best the country had to offer in the post-1966 era. Perhaps he could have replaced Bobby Charlton earlier, but Sir Alf was never going to discard his team of winners that easily.
But Colin Bell’s England career came to an end in 1975, thanks to an injury he received in November of that year in a Football League Cup tie with Manchester United at Maine Road. That knee injury also put paid to his playing days, although he attempted a comeback two years later. He played around 400 games for City, scoring well over 100 goals.
Comparisons between the past and today are not easy to make. Invariably the old codger in the stand will claim “it was better in my day”. Furthermore, memories can often be short. There’s enough footage around to see just how good Colin Bell was. If there is anyone from his time that could cut it in Premier League 2013, it was surely “The King of the Kippax”.
The young lad, for what it’s worth, finally bumped into a white-haired Dave Sexton in 2006. He didn’t get the chance to say, “I told you so”. He’s still waiting to meet Colin Bell. It’s hard keeping pace with Nijinsky.