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’s still waiting to meet Colin Bell. It’s hard keeping pace with Nijinsky.


Photo: PA

Great Reputations: QPR’s total footballers of 1975-76

IN THE aftermath of the 1974 World Cup, English football was fascinated by Dutch and German football. England’s failure to qualify for that competition and the decline of league football into a physical, defensive product that had started to drive people away, meant that a lot of soul-searching had taken place. The conclusion was that English domestic football needed a lift.

In 1975-76, there were signs that the industry was getting the message. Tommy Docherty’s Manchester United served up some of the best fare seen in years, West Ham were keeping with their tradition of attractive, but ultimately fruitless, football and Derby County, as reigning champions, were also keeping the purists happy. But the club that everyone was talking about as the season got underway was Queens Park Rangers.

London’s best

QPR was an unfashionable club, despite its proximity to the BBC, but in 1975, “the superhoops” represented the best that London had to offer. Arsenal, just four years on from their memorable double, were in decline; Tottenham, now without legendary manager Bill Nicholson, had struggled to replace an ageing team; and Chelsea were languishing in Division Two, hampered by player unrest and massive debts. QPR had former Chelsea manager Dave Sexton in charge and the quiet, cerebral man who won silverware over the other side of West London had two of his team – David Webb and John Hollins – at Loftus Road.

Sexton was one of the few English managers who made the effort to attend the World Cup in Germany and he was excited by what he saw. Always keen to experiment with continental methods, Sexton had never forgotten the Hungarian team of 1953 and when he saw the likes of Ajax and Bayern Munich, not to mention the Dutch and German teams that lit up the 1974 World Cup, he was keen to bring the concept of “total football” to England. At QPR he had a team that was equipped to serve up the most progressive football west of Hilversum.

(L-R) Queens Park Rangers’ Stan Bowles gets away from Leeds United’s Trevor Cherry, Norman Hunter and Frank Gray

The men from the bush

QPR’s squad was relatively small, certainly by the standards of the 21st century. The team picked itself. In goal was Phil Parkes, a huge man with equally large hair. So notable was Parkes’ hair that he was used to advertise Cossack, a gentlemen’s hairspray. That aside, he was a fine keeper and played briefly for England. The full backs, Dave Clement and Ian Gillard, also played for England. They were fast overlapping defenders with a bit of steel in their make-up. Hollins, Frank McClintock and David Webb brought immense experience to the team, but Sexton gave them all an Indian Summer in 1975-76. There was also youthful vigour in the form of David Thomas, a fast winger, and the new England captain Gerry Francis, who was never as impressive as he was in this memorable season.

The guile and craft, not to mention headlines, were provided by Stan Bowles, a sublimely gifted, but flawed individual. He also had a stab at playing for England, but he was never going to win many caps in the era of Don Revie. Goals also came from Don Givens, a much underrated striker who played for the Republic of Ireland. Don Masson, a Scottish international, was a cultured midfielder who came to prominence late in his career. The rest of Rangers’ squad comprised journeymen like Mick Leach and Don Shanks. The starting eleven was arguably the best team in the First Division in 1975-76.

The season

QPR kicked off with a 2-0 win against Liverpool at Loftus Road. They followed that up with a 5-1 success at Derby, a result that stunned the media as much as it did the Baseball Ground. A typical headed goal by Webb enabled QPR to beat early-season pacesetters Manchester United 1-0 and it was not until October 4 that Sexton’s men lost their first game, at Leeds. It was tight at the top right up until the end of 1975 and a few frustrating results pushed Rangers down to fifth place at the turn of the year.

From the end of January, QPR went on a superb run that included 11 wins and a draw in 12 games. On March 6, Rangers went top after beating Coventry 4-1 and after overcoming Manchester City 1-0, they were one point ahead of United and Derby and two in front of Liverpool. The media had now accepted that QPR could win the league. Some journalists – those that eulogized about European football on a regular basis – went as far as suggesting that QPR should form the nucleus of the England team and that Sexton was the man to lead the country’s troubled national side.

Rangers barely put a foot wrong, producing some wonderful flowing football. But when they went to Carrow Road, home of Norwich, they were beaten 3-2, despite outplaying the East Anglians. It was a costly defeat that sent a signal of hope to the other clear challenger for the title – Liverpool. Rangers ended the campaign with a 2-0 win against Leeds United at Loftus Road. It put them top of the table with 59 points, but Liverpool – one point behind – had one game to play, against struggling Wolves. This finale was vital for both teams – defeat would send Wolves down, victory would enable Liverpool to deny QPR their first championship. It ended 3-1 to Liverpool. Rangers were destined to finish runners-up.

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

The best team to never win the league?

QPR certainly rank alongside the best sides to finish as bridesmaids. There wasn’t much wrong with the team, but it was never going to stay together for long. Why? Players like Hollins, McClintock, Masson and Webb were not in their prime and Francis was injury prone. Bowles was a mercurial talent, never likely to stay anywhere very long. And Rangers were not a rich club – they were always in danger of losing talent to bigger outfits. Sexton was also coveted, moving to Manchester United a year later. Basically, if he had been able to hold together his former club’s talent, QPR 1975-76 were what Chelsea 1970-72 might have become. QPR were great to watch and they deserved the title. It’s almost as tragic as Holland’s failure to win Munich ’74.

Photos: PA