NICK HORNBY’s excellent book Fever Pitch gave the man on the terrace the idea that his relationship with his chosen club was in someway special and unique. Hornby’s groundbreaker spawned many imitations, resulting in minutiae-packed and myopic tales of how following Torquay United or Middlesbrough was somehow as relevant to literature as Tolstoy’s finest work.
When battle-hardened journalists write about their relationship with a club, it’s often based on their attachment from the vantage point of the press box and insider access. James Lawton’s fine book on Manchester City 1967-70, Forever Boys, is one of the best examples of the genre, an occasionally moving account of one of the most enigmatic and enjoyable football teams of the past 50 years.
Forever Boys is an excellent read from start to finish. Anyone who remembers City’s title win of 1968 – it was my initiation into the world of football – will recall, with relish, the likes of Colin Bell, Frannie Lee, Mike Summerbee and their team-mates.
The story of the team that won four trophies in three seasons is the classic format of what was achieved and then personal accounts of how the members of that team fared since their golden age. It is superbly linked together by Lawton.
While we know that Lee became a successful businessman and that four of that squad – Harry Dowd, George Heslop, Mike Doyle and Neil Young – have since passed away, it is rarely spoken about that Colin Bell, one of the greatest players of the era, is a private and reserved man. Summerbee, meanwhile, is involved at City as a “meet and greet” man filling an ambassadorial role.
Of all the tales of the City squad, it is Summerbee’s that sticks with me. He was let go by City in 1975 and signed for Burnley for £ 25,000. Some people believed that he was sold too early, but when he arrived at Turf Moor, he received an astonishing pay rise. Summerbee was bemused by this, but Bob Lord told him he deserved it because in all the discussions between club and player, the City legend had not mentioned money once, but merely spoke about what he could do for Burnley. Lord liked that.
Lawton’s story has elements of sadness about it, notably in Malcolm Allison’s role in City’s triumphs of the period. Allison is widely regarded as the driving force, rather than “uncle” Joe Mercer, but it is the decline of “Big Mal” that leaves you wondering what could have happened had he not concentrated too much on the hedonistic lifestyle that became his trademark.
Allison’s methods were, in latter years, eccentric, but in his day, he was one of the most progressive coaches in the game. Lawton recalls some of Allison’s antics, but the book also reflects on how it all turned sour.
Many people think City should have won the league again in 1972 and Allison’s signing of Rodney Marsh is often blamed as the turning point. With such a pool of rich talent at their disposal, there is credibility in the view that City should have won more. That’s why City fans of a certain age will love Forever Boys, possibly leaving them with the sort of longing ache that Dutch fans experience when they remember Munich ’74. What might have been, as they say.
Almost half a century after their greatest victories, City fans still go all misty-eyed when someone says, “Lee, Bell, Summerbee”. Although City’s current team represents some of the best talent available today , it is unlikely that in 50 years’ time, anyone will reminisce about Aguero, Kompany and Sterling in the same way.
Forever Boys is published by Bloomsbury under the Wisden Sports Writing category.