Colin Bell: Dear Mr. Sexton….sign Nijinsky of Manchester City

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 never did meet Colin Bell. It was hard keeping pace with Nijinsky.

Colin Bell, one of the greats. RIP Nijinsky.


Photo: PA

Docherty’s Manchester United and a hint of total football

THE 1974-75 season wasn’t a classic for English football. The country had been suffering a long hangover after the national team’s exit from the World Cup. We were excluded from the 1974 finals in West Germany, pinning our hopes on Scotland and Jack Taylor the referee. While the global audience marvelled at the exploits of Cruyff, Beckenbauer and Lato, we had John Craggs of Jack Charlton’s dour Middlesbrough. Total football? It would have been total disaster had Boro won the Football League Championship. Thank goodness for Derby County, who at least tried to play attacking football.

But there was something stirring, not necessarily in the First Division, but coming up from the division below. Manchester United’s long, slow decline ended in relegation in 1974 and they spent the 1974-75 regrouping and comfortably winning promotion. Tommy Docherty built a new-look United that was steeped in the club’s recently abandoned tradition of playing attractive football (ok, so they also had Jim Holton) and he brought a young, exciting team back to the top flight. Nobody expected them to make the impact they did, but they were not alone in trying to bring a bit of entertainment back to a game that was becoming the ugly child of English sport.

In London, Queens Park Rangers and West Ham, managed by Dave Sexton and John Lyall respectively, had finished 1974-75 unspectacularly in the league, but West Ham had won the FA Cup, beating Fulham 2-0 at Wembley. Rangers had won many friends with their free-flowing football, but nobody expected them to improve much on the 11th place they achieved in April 1975. But many people felt that with neighbours Chelsea relegated, QPR could lure a few disillusioned fans to Loftus Road.

Queens Park Rangers’ Gerry Francis gets away from Liverpool’s Phil Thompson

Manchester United, QPR and West Ham, and their commitment to entertaining football, promised much for English football in 1975-76. Sadly, it would not be rewarded by silverware, although all three went close to winning major prizes.

QPR started the season with a 2-0 win against Liverpool, a result that would become more important as the months passed. The first goal of the campaign went to Gerry Francis, the England captain whose star climbed and fell in the space of a year, largely due to injuries. West Ham won 2-1 at Stoke City and Manchester United began life back in the First Division with a 2-0 victory at Wolves.

People started to recognise QPR’s potential when they visited the Baseball Ground, home of champions Derby and came away with a 5-1 win. Derby themselves were also playing an eye-catching brand of football, enhanced by the arrival of Arsenal’s Charlie George and, latterly, by the arrival of Welsh winger Leighton James from Burnley. But they got off to a bad start and were chasing the leaders for months. After five games, only three teams – United, West Ham and QPR were still unbeaten.

United’s team of scurrying, baggy-shorted young players was making headlines. Docherty had stumbled across a goalscorer in Stuart Pearson in 1974 and he had continued from where he left off in the Second Division. Sammy McIlroy, Gerry Daly and Lou Macari formed the busiest midfield around. United played fast and furious, exploiting the wings through Steve Coppell and [from November 1975] new signing Gordon Hill. Where they fell down was in defence and in their away form, which was patchy. Although they had faults, United were great to watch and became, for the first time since the heyday of Best-Law-Charlton, the neutrals’ favourite team.

United lost their unbeaten record to QPR on September 13, a diving header by a rejuvenated David Webb winning the game at Loftus Road. On October 4, both QPR and West Ham lost their records, Rangers going down 1-2 at Leeds United and West Ham falling 0-1 at home to Everton. By Christmas, the fumes of FA Cup success had evaporated and West Ham lost momentum and slid down the table.

There air of optimism about Upton Park in the first few months of 1975-76 was mainly due to the club’s involvement in the European Cup-Winners Cup – nobody seriously saw the Hammers as title material, despite some fine footballers. Chicken-run veterans still remembered the club’s glorious 1965 run that ended with TSV Munich 1860 being beaten at Wembley in a final that captured the purist approach of Ron Greenwood and his charges.

West Ham easily negotiated the first round tie with Finland’s Reipas Lahti, drawing 2-2 away before winning 3-0 at Upton Park after three second half goals. In the next round, they were drawn to meet Ararat Yerevan of Armenia, although they were then part of the USSR and had won the Soviet Cup in 1975. The first meeting was drawn before the Hammers won 3-1 at home in another highly-charged European night in East London. This put Lyall’s side into the last eight of the competition where they would face FC Den Haag of the Netherlands.

Meanwhile, back in the Football League, the Hammers were top of the table and Derby County and Liverpool had started to creep into contention. QPR were in third place and United had slipped to fifth. By the end of 1975, the league table read as follows:

P W D L F A Pts
Liverpool 24 12 9 3 37 20 33
Manchester United 24 14 5 5 38 22 33
Leeds United 23 14 4 5 42 22 32
Derby County 24 13 6 5 37 30 32
Queens Park Rangers 24 10 10 4 31 18 30
West Ham United 23 12 4 7 35 30 28

The manner in which QPR, Man.United and West Ham had started 1975-76 had prompted great discussion around the England team. Don Revie was struggling to win people over as manager and England were set to miss out on a second successive tournament having lost to Czechoslavakia in Bratislava in a misty qualifying game. Critics were starting to call for the removal of players like Paul Madeley, Roy McFarland, Mick Channon, Malcolm MacDonald and Allan Clarke and advocating an England team centred around the leading clubs of the day. One, I believe Eric Batty of World Soccer, was arguing for a team along the lines of: Parkes, Clement, Gillard, Francis, Thomas and Bowles of QPR, Brooking, Paddon and Bonds of West Ham, Greenhoff, Coppell and Pearson of Manchester United and Keegan of Liverpool. The argument was that familiarity would bring greater success than the disparate unit currently wearing the Admiral shirts of England had managed under Ramsey and Revie.

Of course, it didn’t happen, but it did show that the triumvirate of QPR, West Ham and Manchester United were being recognised for what they were trying to bring to English football.

West Ham United’s Alan Taylor watches his shot cleared off the line by Manchester United’s Tommy Jackson

The quality of the football was a reflection of the characters involved. Sexton at QPR was always a big disciple of European football, and his team, which combined the attributes of ball artists like Stan Bowles, Don Masson and Dave Thomas, with the steely grit of David Webb, Frank McClintock and Ian Gillard, played lovely football that paid homage to the Mighty Magyars. He would have loved to have achieved that at Chelsea, but the Kings Road got in the way. Shepherd’s Bush may have had the bookmakers to distract Bowles, but it didn’t have the cachet of the Kings Road hostelries that all but destroyed his Chelsea vision.

Ironically, Manchester United’s Docherty has also flown so close to great things at Chelsea. He preceded Sexton at Stamford Bridge but his temperament was far removed from the cerebral Sexton. At Chelsea, he forged a team founded on fast, exciting and youthful football, as well as an innovative approach to set-piece play. It all imploded, as it did at United in 1977 (amid different circumstances), but for a while, it worked spectacularly at Old Trafford and dragged the club from its early 1970s mayhem.

John Lyall was a protégé of Ron Greenwood and had been on the fringes of the famed West Ham footballing academy. West Ham, for years, preached purist football endorsed by the holy trinity of Moore-Hurst-Peters. Lyall carried on from his master, with Trevor Brooking partially filling the gap left by the World Cup winning trio.

How did it all end? QPR became the people’s favourites in 1975-76, but fell agonisingly short of the final hurdle, finishing second to Liverpool. They would never go as close again. West Ham lost their FA Cup at the first time of asking, losing 0-2 at home to Liverpool, but they went on to reach the final of the Cup-Winners Cup, losing 2-4 to Anderlecht in Brussels. In 1976-77, they were relegated.

United continued to delight and reached the FA Cup final, but were surprisingly beaten by Second Division Southampton 1-0 at Wembley. They finished third, four points behind Liverpool and three short of QPR.

The players:

QPR: Phil Parkes, Dave Clement, Ian Gillard, John Hollins, Mick Leach, Frank McClintock, David Webb, Gerry Francis (captain), Don Masson, Don Givens, Stan Bowles, Dave Thomas

Manchester United: Alex Stepney, Alex Forsyth, Stewart Houston, Gerry Daly, Brian Greenhoff, Martin Buchan (captain), Steve Coppell, Sammy McIlroy, Stuart Pearson, Lou Macari, Gordon Hill

West Ham United: Mervyn Day, John McDowell, Frank Lampard, Billy Bonds (captain), Tommy Taylor, Kevin Lock, Billy Jennings, Graham Paddon, Alan Taylor, Trevor Brooking, Pat Holland, Keith Robson, Bobby Gould

Photos: PA