Manchester City 67-70 – Mercer & Allison’s alchemy
Posted on February 16, 2020
THERE HAVE been more successful Manchester City teams in recent years, and certainly more expensive, but it is unlikely that any of the 21st century City line-ups will be as loved as the side that won four trophies in three seasons between 1967-68 and 1969-70.
That team was immortalised in the late James Lawton’s new book, Forever Boys, a heartfelt reflection of an exciting era that ended a period of red dominance in Manchester.
City’s team, characterised by the triumvirate of Lee – Bell – Summerbee, played an exciting fast-flowing brand of football that not only left Maine Road crowds purring with delight, but also made them the neutral’s favourite. They were led by a classic “good cop, bad cop” partnership of avuncular manager Joe Mercer and his number two, the wise-cracking Malcolm Allison.
Lawton was joined by two members of the City team from that era, the giant goalkeeper, Joe Corrigan, and the often under-rated defender Tommy Booth, at the London Sports Writing Festival at Lords when the book was launched. Neither were part of the team that won the Football League title in 1967-68, but over the course of the next two years, both youngsters were introduced to the City first eleven.
Mercer and Allison
“We would have run through brick walls for them,” said Joe Corrigan, describing the feeling the players had for Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison. It was a curious relationship in many ways. Mercer was a much-loved figure from football’s golden days. The fact he is remembered fondly at three major clubs – Everton, Arsenal and City – says a lot about the impact he made on the game, and it is often overlooked that he baby-sat the England job after Sir Alf Ramsey was sacked in 1974.
Mercer was appointed City manager in 1965. He had recently endured some health issues, and at the age of 51, wanted a younger man to work alongside him. He opted for Allison, who had been manager of Plymouth Argyle.
While Mercer was called “wise and warm” by Fleet Street, Allison was brash but in many ways, a progressive and adventurous coach, schooled by the famous West Ham “Academy” that also gave the football world coaches like Dave Sexton, Frank O’Farrell, John Bond and Noel Cantwell. Corrigan recalled: “Malcolm was 20 years ahead of his time… focusing on players’ diets, physiotherapy, weight and sprint training.” He also wanted to ban the back-pass, some 20 years or more before it actually happened. “The tool of the cowardly coach,” he would call it.
In 1965-66, the duo’s first season in charge at Maine Road, City won promotion to the first division. A year earlier, interest in City was at a low ebb, with crowds averaging just 14,000. In 1966, they were up to 27,000 and in 1966-67, they averaged 31,000. Something was definitely building at Maine Road.
A team takes shape
In contrast to City’s 2012 and 2014 Premier title winners, the team of the late 1960s cost very little, even by the standards of the time – just over £200,000. Four of the 1967-68 team came from the club’s youth set-up: Glyn Pardoe, Mike Doyle, Alan Oakes and Neil Young. Mike Summerbee was signed from Swindon Town for £35,000 after playing more than 200 games for the Wiltshire club. The wonderful Colin Bell arrived from Bury in 1966 for £45,000, despite the interest of many clubs, and Tony Book, at the veteran stage of his career, was signed from Plymouth where he had played under Allison. Book had landed in the Football League after a lengthy non-league career, turning out for Bath City. His story provided many a photo opportunity as zealous snappers shot him wielding a trowel and laying bricks, his former profession. Experienced centre half George Heslop was picked up from Everton for £25,000.
In 1965-66, City won the second division title, losing just five games and remaining unbeaten at home. Pivotal in their promotion campaign was Northern Ireland international Johnny Crossan, who added experience to a young team as well as 12 goals. Crossan was eventually sold to Middlesbrough before the City bandwagon was in full flow, a victim of ill-health and a car crash.
Back in the top flight, City finished 15th in 1966-67, adding Doncaster Rovers winger Tony Coleman to the team for a fee of £13,000. There was little sign that this squad could mount anything like a championship challenge in 1967-68.
In the early months of that season, Mercer and Allison signed goalkeeper Ken Mulhearn from nearby Stockport County (£ 25,000) and Francis Lee from Bolton (£60,000).
Lee would go on to become a City legend and, like Colin Bell, an England regular, representing two of City’s best ever dealings in the transfer market.
Quietly getting on with it
City started the season slowly, losing two of their first three games and conceding six goals in those two defeats. They then notched up five consecutive wins to take them to the top three, level on points with a cluster of clubs.
By December, City were considered to be title contenders, and when they beat Tottenham 4-1 on a snow-bound pitch, the TV cameras saw for themselves what was on offer at Maine Road. They called it “Ballet on ice”, and the TV coverage remains the only decent footage of the 1967-68 City side.
Into 1968, though and City had fallen away and were five points behind leaders United. The title race was very tight in 1967-68, though, and as well as the two Manchester clubs, Liverpool and Leeds were also in with a shout.
City’s title credentials were underlined at the end of March 1968 when they beat neighbours United 3-1 at Old Trafford in a midweek derby. That pushed City up to second, level on points with first-placed Liverpool and United in third. Mercer, speaking in the national press, said, “that was the day when the boys grew up….they laid a bogey in their own minds.”
They slipped up a week later against Leicester and when Chelsea beat City 1-0 at Stamford Bridge on April 16, many people started to write-off the young pretenders to United’s crown. Desmond Hackett of the Express wasn’t too convinced by Mercer and Allison’s team: “They are well groomed but without any memorable personalities.” Ken Jones of the Mirror added: “Manchester City now need a miracle to take the title…they cannot be considered as more than fading outsiders.”
But United were also feeling the strain – they had the European Cup on their minds and had hinted they may rest George Best and Bobby Charlton in their remaining league games.
The killer evening was April 29. City won 2-0 against Everton in their final home game while United were getting trounced 6-3 at West Bromwich Albion. City went top for the first time of the season with two games to go. But both of their fixtures were away – at Tottenham and Newcastle. United, meanwhile, were at home to Newcastle and Sunderland.
Over in Liverpool, Bill Shankly still had hopes of another championship win. On May 4, his team travelled to Leeds and the ever-optimistic “Shanks” predicted: “This is the championship decider, the team that wins this match will win the title.”
The league table on the morning of May 4, 1968 showed City on top with 54 points from 40 games, United on the same points but behind on goal average. Leeds and Liverpool both had a game in hand, Leeds a point worse off than the Manchester duo. Liverpool were fourth with 51 points. Tottenham hosted City and Leeds and Liverpool came head-to-head. United were at home to Newcastle.
Mercer tried a touch of kidology in the press that weekend, tipping United to win the league. “If we win at Tottenham, though, I don’t think there will be any stopping us.” City won 3-1 at White Hart Lane and United hit six past Newcastle. Liverpool won at Leeds and Don Revie’s side all but capitulated with a 4-3 defeat at Arsenal in midweek. On the final day, May 11, it was all about Manchester.
Mercer was now confident: “The title is ours for the taking, but if we fail, then I can think of nobody better I would like to see the championship go to than my friend down the road at Old Trafford, Matt Busby.”
The Times, previewing the finale, said City were “probable new champions”, but added that they “have to prove themselves”. It was a see-saw afternoon on the last day:
13 minutes: Newcastle 0 Manchester City 1 (Summerbee); 14 minutes: Newcastle 1 (Robson) City 1; 16 minutes: Manchester United 0 Sunderland 1 (Suggett); 32 minutes: Manchester United 0 Sunderland 2 (Mulhall); 32 minutes: Newcastle 1 City 2 (Young); 35 minutes: Newcastle 2 (Sinclair) City 2; 44 minutes: United 1 (Best) Sunderland 2.
At half-time, City were on 57 points, United on 56
49 minutes: Newcastle 2 City 3 (Young); 64 minutes: Newcastle 2 City 4 (Lee); 86 minutes: Newcastle 3 (McNamee) City 4.
And that was it – City were champions! There was some consolation for United, however, as 18 days later, on May 29, Benfica were beaten 4-1 at Wembley as Matt Busby’s boys became the first English club to win the European Cup.
The venerable Geoffrey Green of the Times declared that City, “had emerged as a breath of fresh air” while pointing out that they had a small squad that would need strengthening for the rigours of European football in 1968-69.
Malcolm Allison, always good copy, promised that “City will frighten the cowards of Europe”. Allison had not been impressed by the teams that had come up against United in the European Cup that season, claiming that Gornik and Real Madrid, for example, had shown a distinct lack of invention. “Europe’s top clubs win in spite of their coaches,” he said.
In the summer of 1968, though, cold war Europe reared its head again and with the Russian invasion of Czechoslavakia causing some tension, UEFA decided to keep east and west apart in their competition draws. This prompted Russian, Hungarian, Polish, Bulgarian and East German teams to withdraw from the European Cup, Cup-Winners Cup and Inter-Cities Fairs Cup. Commentators said Europe’s major competitions had been devalued.
The new English champions were drawn to meet Turkey’s Fenerbahce. In the first leg at Maine Road, City’s forwards could just get past the Turks. According to the press, they “lacked tactical cunning”. They travelled to Istanbul for the second leg as underdogs. Amid a passionate atmosphere, all smoke and hissing rockets, City took an early lead but lost 2-1. Allison’s bold prediction that City would cause havoc in Europe suddenly seemed very silly.
City actually found the crown of champions a little uncomfortable in the early part of 1968-69, although they did beat Leeds 3-1 at the end of September – one of only two clubs to inflict defeat upon the team that would succeed Mercer’s men.
Better in cups
Manchester City’s 1968 title winners would not get another sniff of the grand old trophy, although in 1971-72, they were narrowly close to success in just about the most engaging title race of all time.
City became renowned for their flair and for their ability to produce some brilliant football from some talented players, but consistency was always an issue. Cup success was more in keeping with their style.
In 1968-69, City’s title defence floundered as they finished in 13th place. But they found joy in the FA Cup, beating Luton Town (1-0), Newcastle United (2-0 after 0-0), Blackburn (4-1) and Tottenham (1-0) before winning 1-0 in the semi-final against Everton.
The scorer that day was Tommy Booth, who recalled his winning goal with a broad smile when we spoke. Booth was just 19 years old when he netted the goal that took City to Wembley.
City beat a Leicester side that was bound for Division Two in the final, the winning goal coming from Neil Young. Tony Book was named joint Footballer of the Year that season.
The following season, City won two more trophies – the Football League Cup and the European Cup-Winners Cup. By now Joe Corrigan was in goal, but it was a match with West Ham United at Maine Road in March 1970 that stays in the memory. It was notable because it was Jimmy Greaves’ debut for the Hammers. He scored twice in that game, which was played on a mud-bound pitch. It was a goal by Ronnie Boyce, however, that still haunts Corrigan. He kicked the ball out and ran into his goal with his back to the action. As he did, Boyce had already volleyed the clearance first-time into the goal.
Corrigan, then just 21, was called up to to the boardroom after the game. Waiting for him was another goalkeeping great, Bert Trautmann. “I just wanted the earth to open up,” said Corrigan. “But Bert wanted to give me some words of encouragement. ‘Forget the defeat’, he simply said. He was a gentleman, a real inspiration”.City won 2-1 against West Bromwich Albion on another bad pitch at Wembley in the League Cup final after beating their nearest neighbours in a pulsating two-legged semi-final 4-3 on aggregate.
Later in the season, they completed a double by lifting the Cup-Winners Cup on a soggy night in Vienna. They beat Gornik Zabrze 2-1 in front of fewer than 8,000 people in the famous Prater Stadium.
Four trophies in three seasons, an impressive achievement, completely overshadowing Manchester United in that time. Players like Colin Bell and Francis Lee were among the nation’s finest and there were promising youngsters like Corrigan and Booth to enhance City’s potential.
But it never quite happened. In 1971, there was some boardroom chaos at Maine Road and this divided the management team. The new broom wielded by the likes of Peter Swales wanted the iconic Allison as manager. Mercer left after an attempt to push him “upstairs”. Life was never the same again at Maine Road as Allison relocated to London – could argue that they’ve only recently recovered. “You have to blame the directors,” said Booth. “After Joe left, it was more or less all over.”
For whom the Bell tolled
In October 1977, I walked around the Stamford Bridge pitch 49 times to help raise money for Chelsea. A tall, imposing figure cruised up alongside me, also on the sponsored walk in between signing autographs. It was Malcolm Allison, who was coach of Galatasary at the time. “A bit of a surprise to see you here,” I said. “Have you flown over from Turkey?”, He said he had. “I loved your Manchester City side – especially Lee and Bell. I saw Colin Bell score a cracking volley in that goal,” I added, pointing to the North Stand end we were just walking past. “That was some goal,” he recalled, I remember it. “And he was some player. We had a special team in 68.”