68 | 18

By Chris Bailey
Editor in Chief, Manchester City

Whenever a writer is prompted - whether it be by financial need, an internal yearning, or a downward command - to make comparisons spanning eras or centuries they should probably run the proverbial mile.

No matter if the subject of the meanderings and musings is television programmes, the gravitas of politicians, a country’s infrastructure or football players, teams and managers, the opinions will almost certainly be invidious, superfluous and unprovable.

So, all that said, here I go with a lengthy evaluation of the 1968 title winning side and the Pep-led, record-breaking, earth scorching current champions of England 2018. Teams from very different times.

Yes, I am a hypocrite.

Fortunately, I am a dissembling, double-dealer with a long and decent memory so it’s probably good to get this out there before the seeping senility quickens its march to a gallop.

In 1968 I was but a boy. Wide-eyed and innocent. When a trip on a double-decker bus was an adventure to be savoured and the fortnightly homage to all things sky blue at Maine Road and a weekend stay at my grandparents (grandad was the man who introduced me to Manchester City) was the elixir of life itself.

Make no mistake the side that won the title in 1968 and laid the foundation for the 20th Century’s golden City era was a prodigious team led by a great management duo.

Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison were inextricable in football life back then and are now almost always mentioned in the same breath let alone sentence. To all intents and purposes a transcendental tandem of swashbuckling yin to the stoical yang.

The dynamic duo’s impact on City’s fortunes, and the side they built, cannot ever be underestimated. Allison was a coach way ahead of his time. His training methods – even when the side had to resort to drills on the lush Tarmacadam of the Maine Road car park – were exotic and ‘European’.

These were the days of muddy, almost grassless pitches, and sponsor-free shirts. A gentler age when the local haberdashery store proclaimed its support of an individual player with hard cash and a line in the programme.

It was way before replica shirts, in advance of fans recording everything on a phone, before television showed handfuls of live matches per day and analysed everything that moved and definitely before violence was eradicated from grounds – a fact re-enforced after every home contest by a projectile strewn, empty post-match Kippax.

Still from my cosy eerie in the middle of the main stand block D, sat between grandad and his brother, the Kippax Kerfuffle was something happening a long way away.

It was almost as glamorous as the on-the-pitch tableau. A thing of such rare beauty that it sometimes even silenced the moans from the ‘grown-ups’ around me – a peculiar Mancunian and City trait that in time I inherited and even perfected.

At the sharp end of the 1968 side was the holy trinity of Colin Bell, Francis Lee and Mike Summerbee.

Bell, nicknamed Nijinsky either after the racehorse or ballet star depending on who and where you asked, was the elegant piston of the side. Box-to-box, highly proficient in the air and in the tackle and with a goal ratio boosted by an almost unerring ability to score one-on-ones.

Quiet almost to the point of silence, ding-dong did his talking on the pitch and but for injury sustained in a derby in November 1975 he may have gone on to add 50% or more to the near 400 games and the 100 plus goals he racked up in City colours.

His modern equivalent probably wouldn’t be the space creating, pass-picking magician that is David Silva but rather the luminous Belgian Kevin De Bruyne.

Comfortable as a six, eight or ten, De Bruyne is just as lethal as Bell and probably just shades the argument in terms of passing range. The current model may be not as defensively sound as the Englishman who also operated at right back on occasions, but should his production line of assists and game running performances continue until the end of his new five-year contract then KDB will surely inherit Bell’s mantle.

In terms of out and out goal power Francis Lee and Sergio Aguero are both in any conversation regarding an all-time greatest eleven.

Despite birth places more than 7,000 miles and a language apart, there are, literally, striking similarities – Lee a bustling, barrel-chested son of Bolton (Westhoughton to be exact but it didn’t alliterate) Aguero, born and bred in one of Buenos Aries less pre-possessing favelas.

Each blessed with a similar low-centre of gravity and a nose for an opening. Both shared speed over a short distance and the strength to hold off surprised defenders and each at their best equally adept at bludgeoning the ball beyond a goalkeeper or mesmerising them with the deftest of touches.

In addition deadly from the penalty spot, both can be considered City greats.

Elsewhere in the team, just like Guardiola the Mercer-Allison combination had a penchant for wingers and pace down the flanks.

On the right in ’68, at least some of the time, was Mike Summerbee, now club ambassador but half a century ago a tormentor of defences, part-time centre forward, and man about town.

With his angular gait Summerbee’s sharpened elbows were often stuck out at near 90 degrees, so acting as stabilisers as he slalomed in and out of defences leaving stud marks on opponents and scorch marks on the pitch.

On the other flank was TC. Anthony George Coleman. A mercurial flaxen, floppy haired left winger who was the perfect foil for Summerbee but always left the impression he under-achieved with his fabulous trickery and determination.

The 1960s pair lacked the raw pace of both Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling and certainly Coleman’s goal return was not in the same street as Sterling’s. Statistics were not such ‘a thing’ five decades ago so it’s hard to discern who was the assist king.

The combative Summerbee’s crossing on the run was a thing of rare beauty but pace scares defences more than anything else. It was as true then as it is now, and, in that regard, the current speedsters just have the edge.

That applies, too, at full back where Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy (or Fabien Delph) would leave Tony Book and Glyn Pardoe standing in terms of being fleet of foot. Book and Pardoe were though wily, cunning opponents and the former an ultra-reliable leader who read the game expertly and knew his teammate’s strengths. Both sets of full backs were/are perfectly suited to the system that they played.

When we move into central defence comparisons are not any easier to make and evaluations purely subjective.

Ashton-under-Lyne born Mike Doyle with his square jaw and outspoken dislike of neighbours Man United was a players’ player. Hard in the tackle, good in the air and reliable along the floor with his short passing. He was City through and through playing around 450 times for the club over 13 years and probably unfortunate that he operated in an era of commanding English centre backs and only played 5 times for his country.

Doyle’s trusty partner for most of the title winning season was George Heslop – think Gregor Fisher in the Hamlet add (if you are too young then please Google it) – a product of the Wallsend production line in the North East. He was seven seasons at City and later played down the road at Bury and was Mr Reliable. Sadly, neither of them is still with us to admire the current crop.

Vincent Kompany and Mike Doyle would have got on like a house on fire. Both hugely popular with the fans and both frequently displaying great empathy for those who pay to watch. Leaders on the field and leaders in the dressing room each was a commanding defender though Kompany earlier in his career could operate quite comfortably in midfield too.

In John Stones, Nicolas Otamendi, and Aymeric Laporte the 2018 squad has a big edge. Stones could yet prove to be the most complete central defender since the halcyon World Cup lifting days of Bobby Moore and Otamendi can lay justifiable claim to be the best central defender in the Premier League this season. Laporte’s elegant left foot has yet to be fully tested on this island but he and Stones are clearly the long-term future at the heart of Guardiola’s defence.

Behind these rearguards, in whatever combination they may play, is another tick in the box for the 2018 side.

The unsung heroes of the two title winning teams would undoubtedly be Fernandinho and Alan Oakes.

Let’s start with the latter. Oakes, a cousin of left back Pardoe, played all but one of the games in the title winning season. The number 6 shirt was welded to his hard-working torso. Oakes was the engine room stoker. There was nothing flash about his game and he never scored more than 4 goals per season, but his work rate was phenomenal, his reading of the game exceptional, and his team ethic and shunning of the limelight legendary.

Oakes went on to make 676 appearances for City - a number that has never been surpassed and probably never will be. He is joined in the top ten of the all-time appearance list by fellow 1968 alumni Summerbee, Bell and Doyle.

Like Oakes, Fernandinho’s importance to a winning City side is paramount. Ask Pep Guardiola about the willing Brazilian and he will beam from ear to ear and throw his hands to the sky in admiration.

Fernandinho is a manager’s dream. An uncomplaining soul, driven by winning the ball back and instigating attacks. A man who is happy for those in front of him to take the media plaudits and the adulation but who is loved and held up as an example by coaches and teammates alike. A professional’s professional personified.

Again, you would be hard pushed to choose between the two and would be happy with either.

Where the 2018 side does have a clear advantage is in goal. Post the Trautmann and Swift era and pre-Corrigan, Ken Mulhearn was the man between the sticks for the title winning run. Mulhearn sadly passed away only a few weeks ago and did so having been part of this great club’s history and first golden era.

Mulhearn was signed from Stockport County essentially as back up and competition for Harry Dowd. The latter was injured at the start of the title winning season and Mulhearn kept his place and earned his title winning medal and then hardly appeared again before moving to Shrewsbury where he became a fixture in the first team for almost a decade.

Liverpudlian Mulhearn was a competent keeper and excellent shot stopper in an age when advancing into traffic to catch crosses aimed at bustling, high-leaping centre forwards was the norm.

He would not have claimed to have the footballing skills of current incumbent Ederson who may well become a cult hero should he remain with City long enough. Rarely has a goalkeeper possessed such a deft touch and eye for a pass as the Brazilian. Whether he is feathering a cross field ball or using the full force of his sledgehammer of a left foot, his accuracy is unerring.

Indeed, so good is Ederson on the ball that many City fans, only half in jest, feel he could have graced many of the Blues midfields in the past half century!

So, we come to the two teams’ wildcards. Those players who are possibly incomparable – at least for the purposes of this article.

Let’s go back to 1968 first and talk about Neil Young. Half a century ago there was a feeling that he was too injury prone, perhaps not quite as tough as the pugnacious Lee, the combative Summerbee or the all-action Bell. There might have been a grain of truth in that desert of deception but make no mistake Young was a special player who (against Leicester at Wembley in 1969) forged an indelible memory for this City fan and I suspect many others.

Lanky and Languid in movement but lethal when in range of goal, the left-footed Young was employed either as an out and out winger or an inside left and had the enviable habit of scoring important goals. Not only did he grab the winner in the aforementioned FA Cup final he also notched in the European Cup Winners Cup final success in 1970 and more importantly even than that he scored twice (and had a goal disallowed) in the title winning match at Newcastle in May 1968. He finished top scorer that season ahead of the ‘holy trinity’.

Fast forward to the present day and two players who can both lay claim – above the class of 1968 – to be the greatest players in the history of Manchester City.

This is where we go back to my opening statement condemning comparisons as the invidious interlopers that they most surely are.

First there is the Ivorian colossus Yaya Toure a man with a sublime range of passing who could justifiably lay claim to be the catalyst for all that is good that has happened to City.

He was the early talisman. City’s calling card at the top table of domestic and European football. Toure, when he joined his elder brother Kolo at the Etihad Stadium, was the magnet for other star names and the catalyst for the trophy harvest that followed.

Yaya’s lung-bursting, terrorising runs from midfield became both a trademark and rallying cry as City ended their decades long allergy to silverware by winning both domestic cups and the League title – twice!

Toure didn’t just inspire he also scored crucial goals at crucial times on the biggest of stages. King Colin’s crown sat easily on King Yaya’s proud head.

But even as the midfielder was being anointed there emerged a rival of substance and longevity in Spain’s World Cup winner David Silva.

In style and physique, the two men could not be further apart. Silva is the rapier to Yaya’s broadsword.

The will o’ the wisp magician – so deserving of the Merlin sobriquet – is almost untrackable on a football pitch. Weaving mesmeric patterns that confuse the opposition and weighting passes with the care of an unsurpassed master craftsman.

For some unfathomable, bizarre reason and to the complete detriment of elite players and voting journalists and pundits, Silva has not won any major accolades during his spell as City. He probably doesn’t care but nevertheless there is a huge injustice at play.

For a couple of seasons, the Spaniard played hurt, his oft kicked ankles finally giving way under the brutal boots of outsmarted opponents, and most recently he’s continued to dazzle whilst shouldering the heavy weight of a young family at risk from illness. He has never complained and remains vital to the cause.

Silva has displayed no exaggerated ego whilst revealing a work ethic that makes him not only one of the greatest players of all time in a City shirt but also in the Premier League (or First Division).

There we have it.

Although some mornings it looks and feels like I might have seen Billy Meredith, Tommy Johnson, Eric Brook, Bert Trautmann and myriad other legends in Blue, 1968 onwards was the start of a wonderful half century watching and writing about Manchester City. Both the champion side of 1968 and the current iteration contain (ed) true greats of the game who will never be forgotten but if the Guardiola team continues its serene progress then they surely will be remembered as the greatest of them all.

I will end by paraphrasing Summerbee, one of the holy trinity, who once told me that he, Bell and Lee were desperate for new heroes to come along. Silva, Toure, De Bruyne, Zabaleta, and Kompany (and others in the pipeline) have made that wish come true.