Colin the King

As our new 2022/23 home kit takes inspiration from Colin Bell, one of Manchester City's true greats, we look back at the career of this incredible footballer...

City have been blessed with some truly world class talent over the past decade.

Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva, Sergio Aguero Yaya Toure, Vincent Kompany… the list goes on.

But rewind to the mid-1960s and there is little argument about who City’s finest player was… the one and only, Colin Bell.

And alongside today’s modern-day legends, Bell sits comfortably among a pantheon of extraordinary footballers, all of whom could justifiably lay claim to be City’s greatest all-time player.

Yet Bell might have never worn the iconic sky blue jersey, but for a clever bit of kidology from City coach Malcolm Allison who was hellbent on ensuring other suitors were put off as the Club tried to raise the necessary transfer fee to prise away Bury’s midfield jewel.

Famously, Allison sat in the stand at Gigg Lane among other scouts and managers, loudly expressing his doubts over Bell’s ability.

In fact, Big Mal questioned every aspect of the 20-year-old’s game.

“He can’t pass it,” he’d say absently (but just loud enough for those sat nearby to hear); “He can’t tackle,” he’d add and then, shaking his head while puffing on his cigar, “and he’s no good in the air.” He even left early, muttering that his visit to Gigg Lane had been a waste of time.

Whether anyone was fooled by this is unknown, but it certainly bought some time with City snapping up Bell soon after once a deal had been agreed.

At £47,500, Bell – who had scored 25 goals in 83 games for the Shakers – cost around £800,000 in today’s money and was worth every penny of that bargain fee plus much more.

Initially wearing the No.10 shirt, he made his City debut against Derby County and scored one of the goals in a vital 2-1 win. He played in all 11 remaining league games – with ironically the only loss being a 1-0 defeat away to Bury – as the Blues went on to be crowned second tier champions and it was Bell’s winner in a hard-fought 1-0 win at Rotherham that clinched promotion

Signing the Hesleden-born youngster was already proving a very sound investment, just two months into his career at Maine Road.

Bell was an ever-present during his first full season, making 50 starts and finished top scorer with 14 goals as the Blues limped to a final placing of fifteenth in the table - but that was merely the warm-up for the incredible years that still lay ahead.

Though he changed shirt numbers during his first 18 months, the No.8 jersey would eventually become his own and with a full top flight campaign under his belt, he set about shifting up another gear, as did many of his team-mates.

Francis Lee had joined the club partway through the 1967/68 season and for many, this represented the final piece of the Mercer-Allison jigsaw.

Suddenly, Manchester City were playing a stylish, aggressive style that had a definite swagger to it.

The balance was perfect from back to front, with big personalities such as Mike Summerbee, Tony Coleman, Lee and Mike Doyle complementing those who preferred to stay out of the limelight as much as possible – Bell, Tony Book and Neil Young among them.

City won the league title for the first time in 31 years with Bell inspirational throughout the campaign. He was here, there and literally everywhere and the fans loved his incredible athleticism and seemingly limitless stamina and despite being in a team of winners, he was an easy choice for the 1967/68 Manchester City Player of the Year.

He was the beating heart of Mercer’s side and along with Lee and Summerbee, formed the so-called ‘Holy Trinity’ of players who would inspire the Blues to as yet uncharted heights.

Bell also won his first England cap in 1968 – the first of 48, which for several decades, was a Manchester City record.

"Suddenly, Manchester City were playing a stylish, aggressive style that had a definite swagger in it."

Bell never scored winning goals in cup finals and rarely took the headlines for being anything other than brilliant – not unlike David Silva  in years to come - though he bore more similarities to the playing style of Kevin De Bruyne. He was a fantastic footballer and a quiet, family man off the pitch, too, never seeking adulation or press coverage, even though he’d more than earned the right. In fact, he positively shunned publicity of any kind.

While Summerbee, Lee and Doyle would happily wind-up the opposition, the press and opposing fans, Bell quietly ticked along in the background, painfully shy, preferring to let his feet do the talking – and they never stopped talking!

"He was to Manchester City what George Best was to Manchester United – the golden boy, the untouchable, the prodigal son. A legend."

Fittingly, he earned the nickname of a thoroughbred horse of the day (and that of a world renowned ballet dancer) ‘Nijinsky’ and the City fans on the Kippax serenaded their idol, singing he was ‘Colin the King’ to the famous hit of the time ‘Lily the Pink’.

He was to Manchester City what George Best was to Manchester United – the golden boy, the untouchable, the prodigal son. A legend.

As the years ticked by, Bell’s influence seemed to grow even stronger rather than fade and while the press and pundits claimed Rodney Marsh’s signing cost City the 1971/72 league title, few highlighted the fact Bell had missed nine games through injury at a crucial period of the campaign where City won just four of those matches.

Bell was fantastically loyal to City and there was never the slightest suggestion that he would ever leave the club. Undoubtedly, every top club in Europe coveted the Blues’ No.8 but as the successful late sixties team slowly began to fragment, Bell powered on, missing just three league games in three-and-a-half seasons.

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Then came the infamous 1975 League Cup tie with Manchester United and the moment indelibly etched in the minds of all who witnessed it. Bell, attacking the Platt Lane end of Maine Road, was caught in two minds as to what to do as he approached Martin Buchan on the edge of the Reds’ box. He opted to cut inside and was strongly challenged by the United man, with the impact effectively destroying his knee joint and, in reality, ending his career.

Of course, he didn’t give up.

He returned later that season and was again on the end of a nasty challenge, this time during a 3-1 win over Arsenal at Maine Road – that injury was, many believed, equally as damaging as Buchan’s challenge. He was side-lined for the next 18 months, doing everything he possibly could do work his way back to fitness.

Quietly and stoically, he continued the long, painful road back to some kind of fitness, pounding the streets around Maine Road as some mobility returned to his badly damaged joint before he was finally passed fit to begin training again.

He was forced to miss the entire 1976/77 season, with Tony Book’s side finishing second to Liverpool by a single point – few doubted that with a fully-fit Colin Bell, the title would have been coming back to Maine Road that season.

But with medical science back then a long way from today’s methodology and thinking, he stood little chance of resuming the career he had once had.

He made an emotional comeback against Newcastle United as a second half sub on Boxing Day 1977 and received perhaps the most heartfelt ovation ever witnessed at Maine Road as a crowd of more than 45,000 stood as one to salute his sheer bloody-mindedness and determination to overcome the odds that had been stacked against him. And say thank you.

Bell’s appearance that day galvanised his team-mates and the crowd and City scored four goals to win the game 4-0.

He played sporadically after that but, understandably, he was never the same again, with the injury making the free-flowing running style that was a huge part of his game look awkward and painful.

His bravery, though, was admired by all in football and at City, he was revered like no other player before him.

Ultimately,, the pain and heartache of never being able to move fluidly on a pitch again forced his retirement with his final appearance coming as a sub against Aston Villa in May 1979 aged 33.

He played 501 times for City in all competitions and scored 153 goals – an injury-free Bell would have no doubt played well over 600 games and probably scored 200 goals.

Though he briefly tried his hand in the USA, his playing days were effectively over and after officially handing his boots up. he returned to City as part of the youth team set-up for a time and after being awarded the MBE in 2004 for his services to football and the Club recognised his incredible contribution by naming one side of the Etihad Stadium ‘The Colin Bell Stand’ that same year.

Colin was a regular fixture at the Club on matchdays in the years that followed, as part of the matchday hospitality team that included other former crowd favourites.

But ill-health meant his appearances became fewer in his later years and his passing came at a time football was being played behind closed doors.

The first game after his death was a FA Cup tie against Birmingham City – one can only imagine what the emotion of a full Etihad Stadium would have been like that day.

Fittingly for a man who graced the No.8 jersey for so many years with such distinction, City opened the scoring after… eight minutes.

The great man would no doubt have allowed himself a wry smile at the uncanny coincidence.

A true Manchester City legend in every sense of the word and one who will never be forgotten by this football club.