Colin Bell would have been celebrating his 75th birthday today, Friday 26 February 2021. The Club legend sadly passed away last month and by way of tribute we are republishing the story of Colin's famous comeback game for City against Newcastle United on Boxing Day, 1977.
After almost two years on the sidelines following a serious knee injury, Colin made his long-awaited return to action as a substitute and was afforded one of the most memorable and moving receptions in the long, illustrious history of our former Maine Road home.
As well as gathering Colin’s thoughts from that special day in what was his final interview, we also spoke to several of his colleagues along with manager and former team-mate Tony Book about what it meant to be part of such a special occasion.
It was the day Dennis Tueart claimed a memorable hat-trick against his boyhood heroes.
It was a match that saw Maine Road rock in unison arguably like never before.
It was an occasion all of those lucky enough to be present will never forget
But above all, it was the moment the King returned to Maine Road.
For December 26, 1977, and City’s Division One clash with Newcastle United, marked the moment the legendary Colin Bell made his long-awaited return to action more than 18 months of injury hell.
One of the greatest players ever to represent the Club, Colin had the world literally at his feet when he suffered a terrible knee injury on the night of November 12, 1975 during a League Cup tie against Manchester United at Maine Road.
At 29, and with almost 450 City games under his belt and approaching 50 caps for England, our midfield maestro was poised to enter the prime of his glittering career.
Fate was to decree otherwise, however.
In the wake of a challenge by United’s Martin Buchan, Colin suffered terrible damage to his right knee. There was extensive trauma to his cartilage, ligaments and muscles with doctors later recalling the injuries were something akin to someone who had been in a car crash.
And in age where medical technology and surgical techniques in terms of treating such a scenario was still in its infancy, it left Colin facing a desperate fight to save his career.
There followed almost two years of surgery, extensive and painful treatment, along with hour upon hour of lonely work in rehab as the man also known as Nijinsky thanks to his incredible stamina and fitness, sought to make a recovery.
Few gained a better insight into the sacrifices Colin made to try and get back than Peter Barnes who, by then, had emerged as one of both City and England's brightest young talents.
“I ended up accompanying Colin to hospital on occasions with my own knee injury -though mine was obviously nowhere near as bad as Colin’s,” Barnes recalled.
“I was having some fluid drained off and I’ve seen situations where I saw Colin in the operating theatre and seen doctors operating on his knee – believe me, he really was put through the mill.
“I was coming back with our physios Freddie Griffiths and Roy Bailey and I never saw anybody train so hard as Colin. The sacrifices he made were incredible.
“I was coming back with our physios Freddie Griffiths and Roy Bailey and I never saw anybody train so hard as Colin. The sacrifices he made were incredible."
“They had us running up hills in the middle of Salford, then Freddie would get us in the gym, jumping over pommel horses, benches, then up and down the stands at Maine Road… the fitness tests Colin went through were phenomenal.
“Freddie was such a good physio, but he was a hard taskmaster, and he really pushed Colin to try and get him back on the park.
“To do that for 18 months or so was unbelievable and spoke volumes as to Colin’s mental strength too.
“It was incredible what he went through – and I had a first-hand view of just how hard he worked.
“He had an amazing attitude – he just on got with it and never moaned or complained.”
The severity of the injury – and the painful aftermath of treatment – meant that a series of projected comebacks had to be abandoned before finally, at long last, Colin was back where he belonged – in the City matchday 12 for our key Christmas assignment against Newcastle on Boxing Day, 1977.
Of course, festive games – especially those under the Maine Road lights – were always memorable affairs.
But to the lucky 45,811 fans who bore witness to the events of Boxing Day 1977, many insist that it was a cauldron of noise, atmosphere and emotion unmatched in the famous old ground’s long and illustrious history.
Two years’ worth of pent-up emotion, apprehension, fear, hope, support and above all love came crashing down the terraces, enveloping the ground in a cacophony of noise.
To a man, the memory still resonates with the City players lucky enough to figure that day.
Not that the first 45 minutes gave any inkling of the drama that was to unfold.
Tony Book’s team slugged it out with the Magpies in a veritable war of attrition with the game goalless when the sides went in at the break.
It needed a special spark and, as Book reveals, fate was to play a hand in ensuring King Colin ignited City into life.
“It was a long haul back for Colin as it was a very, very bad injury that he got,” Tony recalls.
“But we got him back into the squad for the Newcastle game.
“Originally, the idea was that we would bring Colin on for the last 20 minutes or so but then Paul Power picked up a knock which forced us to bring Col on a little bit earlier than we had planned.
“I sent the team out for the second half and followed them down the tunnel.
“Halfway down I stopped and listened to the roar. It was amazing. I recall the kids hanging over the tunnel and it began with them shouting; “It’s him, it’s him”, and from there it went around the ground.
“Halfway down I stopped and listened to the roar. It was amazing. I recall the kids hanging over the tunnel and it began with them shouting; “It’s him, it’s him”, and from there it went around the ground."
“The reception and noise was amazing. And I mean truly amazing.”
The City Chairman at the time was the late Peter Swales and, speaking in the mid-1990s, he echoed Skip’s power of recall, describing a unique and spellbinding atmosphere, the like of which he had never experienced before.
“It was certainly the best ovation I’ve ever seen given to any player in any game,” Swales recalled.
“I’ve seen most of the England games over the last twenty years and all of City’s.
“I’ve certainly seen plenty of tremendous occasions, players getting hat-tricks, United getting beat 5-1, but the reception for Colin Bell was far and away the best I’ve ever heard a player get.”
The irony was that such an emotional, passionate ovation was reserved for the most modest and unassuming of players.
Always happier away from the limelight, Bell’s shyness and quiet, dignified manner only further cemented his standing and popularity both with our own fans and beyond.
One fan even went so far as to run onto the Maine Road pitch and re-anoint City’s very own King with a home-made crown.
Recalling the match 43 years on, the great man himself talks of an occasion that struck a deep emotional chord and one that would stay with him for ever.
“I didn’t score, in fact I don't think I touched the ball, but it was the most fantastic experience, truly humbling and hugely emotional,” Colin recalls.
“I do remember that I was very, very nervous beforehand.
“What also sticks in my mind is coming down the tunnel at half-time as I prepared to come on.
“It was about 50 yards long at Maine Road, and by the time word had got out to the touchline I was coming on, it seemed to spread around the ground.
“By the time I made it out onto the pitch, the ovation I got was absolutely fantastic.
“The City supporters with me were always different class and never more so than that day.
“Over the years I have had supporters who were there tell me they were in tears that day and I was, and still am, deeply touched by their support.”
It wasn’t only the City fans who were moved by the remarkable ovation.
For Joe Corrigan and Tommy Booth, two of the yeoman foot-soldiers who had been there alongside Colin through the incredible roller-coaster ride of City’s late 1960s glory years, subsequent decline and resurgence, the sight of Bell back where he belonged was a special and poignant moment.
“I still remember it vividly. I’d never heard anything like it before or since when he came on – it was deafening… just unbelievable,” Tommy recalls.
“Every single person in the crowd got up and applauded when he came on. We were talking about it weeks and weeks later – it’s something that stayed with us all.
“Col shunned away from the limelight – but a day like that made him realise just how much he meant to the fans. He was such a great player but such a lovely lad too. Everyone at the Club loved him to bits.
“Some fans told me that seeing Col back was the best Christmas present they could have had and for us players it was too.
“And to be honest when Col came on, he turned the game around. Even though he didn’t have full mobility in his knee he still turned it round for us that day.”
Goalkeeper Joe Corrigan, a man who saw it all over the course of three wonderful decades as a player with the Club, concurs about where that match stands in the pantheon of truly special City occasions.
“The ovation was one of those parts of the career where the hairs on the back of your neck just stand up on end,” Big Joe admits.
“It demonstrated the love that all of our fans had for Belly and it was their appreciation of just what a great player he was - not just for City but for England too.
“It went on all half. Every time he got the ball the noise was like we had won the FA Cup final.
“Honestly, it was an incredible experience to be part of.”
It may have been more than two years since Bell had last graced the Maine Road stage with his presence – but his return inspired a familiar and welcome turnaround
Fuelled by adrenalin from the emotionally charged atmosphere, and with constant choruses of ‘We'll drink a drink a drink, to Colin the king the king,'' echoing around Moss Side, a fired-up City applied themselves with renewed vigour and swagger.
And aside from King Colin no-one revelled in the occasion more than Dennis Tueart.
A Geordie by birth and boyhood Magpies fan who had been rejected by the Club as a schoolboy, City vs Newcastle matches always ensured the competitive juices were overflowing as far as the England striker was concerned.
Dennis’s spectacular overhead kick, which secured City League Cup glory against Newcastle in 1976, remains one of the most iconic goals in Wembley’s long, illustrious history.
And with the Maine Road Christmas choir in full voice thanks to the return of our King, Dennis was to become a thorn in the Magpies’ side once again that Boxing Day night as he claimed a memorable hat-trick – with Brian Kidd also finding the target - to help propel City to a barnstorming 4-0 victory.
Recalling that match now, Dennis believes there are salutatory lessons for what the national game has had to endure these past nine months in the wake of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic.
“What comes into my mind, as well as the special emotions with Colin, is the value of having fans at the game,” Dennis states.
“That was a unique noise when Colin jogged out with us after half-time to come back.
“Honestly - it was an earth-shattering noise as he came out on the pitch. It showed how important having the fans there to drive you on was -and is - as we have seen with what has happened this year.
“You do pull out more when the fans are there. And that day of all days, the fans did give us that boost with Colin coming back. They helped put an extra spring in your step, that extra bit of pace, that's what fans do.
“And yes, for me to score a hat-trick against my home-town team was that extra bit special – and even more so after what happened with the League Cup final in 1976.
“It was so emotional to have Col back with us in the dressing room.
“When had been in bit of a sticky patch before Colin returned and when someone of his enormous quality is out injured you can’t help but miss it.”
Peter Barnes concurs about the galvanising effect having Bell back in the Blue fold had on his team-mates.
“Colin was badly missed as a player so to come back like that against the Geordies, it was wonderful,” Peter reminisces.
“As for the crowd… I’d never seen anything like it. The whole ground as one stood up and applauded – the reaction was so intense.
“Under the Maine Road floodlights it was even more special and atmospheric. It’s no coincidence that Colin came on and inspired us to go on, score four goals and win the game.
“He really helped us click into gear.”
Typical of the self-effacing modest that is the hallmark of one of England’s greatest sons, Colin still downplays his role and impact to this day.
“I don’t think I got much of a touch in the second half and it was a bit like 10 against 11,” Col chuckles somewhat self-deprecatingly.
“But it was great to get the result and it was a real change in the two halves. The first half was very dull, the second was really lively
“I will always remember it. It was very special for me – one of those moments I will never forget.
“It was great to be back out there and to get the support I got was fantastic. It was very, very special.”
High drama on the field was then met by high jinks in the City dressing room – albeit of an unwitting nature with Paul Power the unwitting centre of attention.
Tommy Booth, as only that great wit of the City dressing room can, takes up the story.
“I still remember it vividly but one of the funniest moments was in the dressing room afterwards,” Tommy chuckles.
“As you can imagine, we were all on an absolute high given what had happened and we were all sat there congratulating Colin.
“Suddenly, Paul Power turned round and said: ‘Blimey lads, I’m not being funny as it’s great to see Colin back, but did you see the standing ovation that I got when I came off?’
“Now, he’s a clever lad is Paul but we all just looked at him and said: ‘You blinkin’ idiot!.’
Joe Corrigan also chuckles at the memory.
“Everyone looked as each other and just shook their heads. Paul seemed to have forgotten the fact that an iconic City star had made his comeback! We were all in stitches.”
Inadvertent mirth and merriment aside, it’s surely no coincidence that Bell’s emotional return helped inspire an inconsistent City onto an eight-match unbeaten run.
Twenty-four hours after his Newcastle heroics, Colin was named in the starting line up as City won 2-0 at Middlesbrough and he went on to figure 21 times in total that season to help us eventually finish fourth in Division One.
Sadly however, the ravages and legacy of that horrific injury were apparent with the graceful mobility and movement that had marked Bell out as a unique talent greatly restricted.
The damage and pain inflicted never allowed him to be the same player again and by the time the 1978/79 campaign had drawn to a close, so sadly had Colin’s majestic City career.
For Joe Corrigan there’s a bittersweet element when he reflects on Boxing Day 1977 and Colin’s comeback.
For the City keeper it merely re-emphasised the yawning chasm left by Bell’s enforced absence – one which afflicted both City and England.
And Big Joe can’t help but wonder what might have been had Colin not been laid low by such a cruel and debilitating injury.
“It was a great lift to us all to have Colin back as he was a truly, truly great player,” Corrigan reflects.
“But there’s also a sadness twinged to it too as we were in a period where we so near to being top of the league for several years.
“It suddenly dawned on us that we ended up not doing as well as we would have done had we not lost such a great player.
“To replace a player like Colin Bell - well you just can’t. He was a once in a generation talent.
“With a fit Colin Bell, I’m sure we would have gone on to bigger and greater things as a team and I know England would have too. The national team went through an iffy spell at that time and we missed out on the 1978 World Cup finals.
“Colin would have made all the difference for City and England… he was that good.
“You just can’t replace players like that.
“We were in the top four for four years but to have had that ability of a player who could play box to box, score goals with his head, left foot, right foot, get back and tackle… to lose that it was a massive blow.
“I’m not being disrespectful to anyone who came in and played in that position, it’s just that we are talking about Colin Bell.”
For Dennis Tueart – no stranger to memorable occasions himself – even given the significance of the occasion against his hometown club, hat-trick or not, he was more than content with a seat amongst the City supporting cast.
“It’s not often you score a hat-trick but are almost overshadowed, but I was quite happy to take second place to Colin that day,” Dennis insists.
“That game was so important to him, it was so important to the Club and so important to the supporters. I was quite happy to be part of the support team on that day.”
Fittingly however the last word on a Boxing Day like no other belongs to King Colin himself, a man loved and revered just as much today thanks to the class, quality and sheer footballing joy that he brought every time he graced the field.
“You don’t have to be the best player in the world but if you put the effort in, the City fans will recognise it. They are so honest – they don’t come any better – and that day was so very humbling for me,”
“The thing that also moved me was it wasn’t just our fans who were applauding me - it was the Newcastle fans too. That meant such a lot too.
“It was great to be back out there and to get the support I got was fantastic. I will always remember it – it was truly something very, very special.”
Just like the man himself.