Great Reputations: Crystal Palace 1975-76 – in a broken dream

ONE OF the abiding memories of the mid-1970s is the image of a big man in a sheepskin coat wearing a velour, wide-brimmed hat. The man in question was Malcolm Allison, manager of Crystal Palace and every bit a larger-than-life character. The hat, a fedora was a gimmick, but it worked, for Allison was pictured time after time during Crystal Palace’s memorable FA Cup run of 1975-76.

Palace were a third division club at the time and 1975-76 was their second season at that level. Allison had been appointed as manager of the club in March 1973 and a couplke of months later, Palace the first of two relegations, the second of which landed them in the third division. Most managers would have been sacked at that point, but Palace liked what Allison brought to Selhurst Park – profile, publicity and some inventive, and often bizarre, tactics. Furthermore, his number two, the equally innovative Terry Venables, another progressive coach who liked to win friends and influence people.

Drops

Palace’s team had moved on from the 1973 relegation season and a period when Selhurst Park had a revolving door on its changing rooms. From 1969-70 to 1972-73, Palace seemed to churn their team almost weekly, manager Bert Head forever bringing in reinforcements. In their first three seasons in division one, Palace avoided relegation by one, eight and four points. When Allison was hired by the club’s chairman, Ray Bloye to take over from Head and save them from relegation, he was reputed to be earning a wage of £ 13,000. Allison had literally just left Manchester City where he had been manager since October 1971.

Allison’s first game saw Palace beat Chelsea 2-0, their first London derby victory in 32 games. But they still went down and Allison inspired a rebranding of the club, changing their nickname to the “Eagles” and also introducing a new red and blue diagonal shirt as Palace discarded their old claret and blue strip. There was a lot of hype around the club and they were favourites to win promotion at the first attempt, but another relegation was the outcome of 1973-74.

Palace missed out on promotion by four points in 1974-75 but they were still considered as promotion contenders in the summer of 1975. In all but name, the club was of a higher status than the third division, enjoying crowds of 17,000 in 1974-75. In 1975-76, the team was largely built around a group of young players who had graduated through the youth system, with a few seasoned professionals who had learned the trade elsewhere. Alan Whittle, for example, was still only 25 but had won a Football League Championship medal at Everton in 1970. Stewart Jump had joined the club from Stoke City and Peter Taylor, a skilful 22 year-old, was signed from Southend for £ 110,000. 

Palace started the season impressively, winning their first five games and were unbeaten until September 23 when they were beaten 1-0 at home by Brighton in front of 25,000 people. They were still top, but the pack was closely behind them. Their second defeat was just before Christmas in a local derby with Millwall, but their 12-game unbeaten run had given them a five point lead over second-placed Bury.

While most people expected Palace to concentrate on promotion, the FA Cup provided a glorious interlude, one that eventually cost the club their league form.

As a third division club, Allison’s side had to start in the first round proper, where they beat Walton & Hersham 1-0 at Selhurst. The draw couldn’t have been tougher as it paired Palace with Millwall. The first meeting, at the Den, ended 1-1 but goals from David Kemp and Peter Taylor earned Palace a 2-1 win in the replay and a third round tie at Scarborough.

FA Cup – Fifth Round – Chelsea v Crystal Palace

Dive

Either side of Christmas, Palace’s league form collapsed and they lost four games in a row, all by a single goal margin. The last of those came just a couple of days after Scarborough had been beaten 2-1 in the FA Cup, a 1-0 loss at home to Walsall, whose defence was ably marshalled by former Palace centre half Roger Hynd.

Leeds were the opponents in round four and few gave Allison’s team any chance at Elland Road. But Allison was now in full flow, donning his hat and smoking huge, cynlidrical cigars, predicting that Palace would go all the way in the competition. At Leeds, Allison and Venables won the tactical battle, thwarting the threat of Peter Lorimer, Duncan McKenzie and Allan Clarke by adopting an unusual 5-3-2 formation. David Swindlehurst headed the only goal and Peter Taylor sparkled on the flank. Leeds, the cup favourites, were beaten and Palace were drawn to meet Chelsea in round five. Allison’s response was typically cocky: “Chelsea? a nice little team, but we’ll enjoy going to Wembley.”

The game at Stamford Bridge attracted a 54,000 crowd and although Chelsea were a division above Palace, they were really the underdogs. They had struggled in their first post-relegation season and didn’t have the brashness of Palace. Allison was confident of victory, walking across to the Chelsea Shed end before the game, holding his fingers up in front of the home fans to forecast a 3-1 win for Palace.

Palace were more assured than Chelsea, but their danger man, Taylor, had a quiet start. The game came to life suddenly in the 37th minute with the winger in possession on the flank. He went past Steve Wicks and Ron Harris, switched to his right foot and sent over a cross-come-shot that hit the underside of the crossbar. As Chelsea’s defence floundered, Nick Chatterton was on hand to control the ball and shoot home. Four minutes later, Taylor added a second goal, playing a neat one-two with Chatterton before shooting past Peter Bonetti with a low curling effort. The goal not only prompted Allison to raise his headgear in salute, but also sparked-off crowd trouble at the north end of Stamford Bridge.

Chelsea staged a dramatic comeback in the second half, drawing level in the 71st minute after goals from Ray Wilkins and Wicks. But Taylor struck again a few minutes later, chipping Bonetti with a sublime free kick. Chelsea didn’t have the heart or the resources to respond and Palace won 3-2 in what was a riveting cup tie. “There was no way we were ever going to lose…we were always the better side,” said Allison after the game.

Meanwhile, the third division promotion race was turning a little sour for Palace and just a few days after their win at Chelsea, they were beaten at Peterborough and were now trailing leaders Hereford United by three points. They were beaten again at fellow contenders Brighton, even though Peter Taylor returned from a two-game suspension. They had now dropped to fifth and had not won in seven league games.

The FA Cup sixth round draw gave Palace another tough away tie, at second division promotion candidates Sunderland. Taylor was on song again and created the only goal of the game, scored by Whittle inside the six-yard box. They were now in the semi-final, just one game away from fulfilling Allison’s bold promise.

Logic

Norman Fox of the Times painted a bizarre picture of Crystal Palace, suggesting that the club defied logic. “They act more like champions of Europe than a club hoping, even in their very moment of cup glory, that Shrewsbury had lost to help keep them in third place in the third division.” In many ways, this comment summed-up Palace under Allison.

But the walls were closing in on them as rivals were more consistent at the top. By the time they met Southampton in the FA Cup semi-final on April 3 at Stamford Bridge, they were hanging on to third place in the table. 

Back at the scene of their fifth round triumph, Palace were far from impressive against Southampton, who were also very average on the day, despite having the likes of Mick Channon and Peter Osgood in their line-up. Palace, according to Geoffrey Green, “were firmly of the third division” and seldom looked capable of scoring. Southampton won 2-0 with second goals from Paul Gilchrist and David Peach (a penalty). The first part of Allison’s “double” dream was over.

The second part was also soon over – they were beaten twice in the week following their FA Cup exit, at Sheffield Wednesday and at home by Cardiff, and that was followed by a 1-1 draw with Halifax at Selhurst when Taylor missed his second penalty in a matter of days. Palace were now fifth, but just a point behind third-placed Brighton.

But in their final home game, on April 28 against Chesterfield, Palace’s stuttering form virtually wrote-off their promotion hopes. The 0-0 draw meant they had dropped 20 points at home and with Hereford and Millwall both promoted, only one spot remained and Cardiff were better placed to secure it. Palace’s final game at Chester was lost, so Cardiff went up.

Taylor, who had been capped by England, was sold to Tottenham at the start of 1976-77 for £ 200,000. Malcolm Allison resigned at the end of 1975-76 and Terry Venables took over. Palace won promotion in 1977 and returned to the first division in 1979 with a vibrant team of home-grown players. The 1975-76 campaign was a roller-coaster ride for the club’s fans, a team too big for the third division, but clearly unable to focus on run-of-the-mill games. It was mostly all about Malcolm Allison and his inventive and some might say eccentric ways. Was he ahead of his time? Maybe, but he was very much of his time. 

@GameofthePeople

Manchester City 67-70 – Mercer & Allison’s alchemy

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.


Terrorising Europe

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.”

http://www.gameofthepeople.com

twitter:@gameofthepeople

 

 

 

Great Reputations: Manchester City 1967-70 – Mercer and Allison’s alchemy

Colin Bell and teammates lift the 1969 FA Cup after beating Leicester City. Photo: PA

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 has been immortalised in 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.

Manchester City’s winning teams – 1967-70

League Champions 68 FA Cup winners 69 FL Cup winners 70 ECWC winners 70
 MCFC 1967-68  mcfc 1968-69  mcfc 1969-70  MCFC 1969-70 2
Ken Mulhearn Harry Dowd Joe Corrigan Joe Corrigan
Tony Book Tony Book Tony Book Tony Book
Glyn Pardoe Glyn Pardoe Arthur Mann Glyn Pardoe
Mike Doyle Mike Doyle Mike Doyle Mike Doyle
George Heslop Tommy Booth Tommy Booth Tommy Booth
Alan Oakes Alan Oakes Alan Oakes Alan Oakes
Francis Lee Mike Summerbee George Heslop George Heslop
Colin Bell Colin Bell Colin Bell Colin Bell
Mike Summerbee Francis Lee Mike Summerbee Francis Lee
Neil Young Neil Young Francis Lee Neil Young
Tony Coleman Tony Coleman Glyn Pardoe Tony Towers

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, was:

    P W D L F A Pts
1 Manchester City 40 24 6 10 79 39 54
2 Manchester United 40 23 8 9 82 53 54
3 Leeds United 39 22 9 8 67 32 53
4 Liverpool 39 20 11 8 62 36 51

The fixtures on May 4
Tottenham v Manchester City
Leeds United v Liverpool
Manchester United v 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.

Terrorising Europe

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

MCFC 1967-68Manchester 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”.

COLIN BELL HIPSCity 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.”

http://www.gameofthepeople.com

twitter:@gameofthepeople