A passport to glory
By Neil Leigh
Fifty years to the day, we trace the remarkable story of City's
1970 European Cup Winners' Cup triumph, speaking to
Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison's Lions of Vienna
. . .
“You’ve proved yourself in England – but if you want to be classed as a top team, you’ve now got to win in Europe.”
That was the audacious gauntlet thrown down to Manchester City by visionary coach Malcolm Allison in the autumn of 1969.
And 50 years ago, today, the players answered Big Mal’s challenge in unforgettable fashion as we lifted the European Cup Winners’ Cup with a memorable 2-1 win over Gornik Zabrze in Vienna.
It was to be an eventful journey that took the swashbuckling side assembled by manager Joe Mercer and Allison on a kaleidoscopic journey through many of the heartlands of European football before culminating on a rain-lashed late April night in Austria.
This, through the eyes of the remarkable boys of 1970, is the story of how that wonderful squad assembled by Mercer and Allison lived up to the coach’s quest and went on to conquer Europe.
Of course, by the time we launched our Cup Winners' Cup campaign, the gifted, gilded City side astutely assembled by Mercer and Allison had become a by-word for success.
Back-to-back successes which saw us lift the Division One crown and FA Cup in 1968 and ’69 respectively, had been followed in the spring of 1970 by yet more silverware in the shape of League Cup glory.
It meant all the individual components were firmly in place for a successful assault on the European mainland.
A rock solid back four of skipper Tony Book, centre halves Mike Doyle and Tommy Booth and left-back Glyn Pardoe were now joined by towering teenage goalkeeper Joe Corrigan.
The twin midfield engine room of elegant enforcer Alan Oakes, and the shimmering creative genius of Colin Bell were a force to behold.
Further forward, the potent attacking trident of Francis Lee, Mike Summerbee and Neil Young blended into an explosive cocktail that bore comparison with any continental strike force.
Further buttressing that formidable array of talent was 17-year-old teenage midfield rookie Tony Towers.
Young in years but unburdened by the pressure of expectation, Towers – later to play for England - was to prove a revelation in our march to European glory with fellow teenager Ian Bowyer and the ever-dependable George Heslop also providing vital contributions along the way.
But for manager Mercer and his flamboyant sidekick Allison in particular, there was still that burning professional and personal desire for the players to translate their domestic prowess onto the European stage.
The examinations soon came thick and fast.
Starting in the pulsating Basque heartland of Bilbao in northern Spain, and on through the freezing Flemish fields of Lier in Belgium.
That led to a midnight assignment against Academica in central Portugal’s famed seat of learning in Coimbra before a semi-final encounter amidst the forbidding coal fields of Schalke in Germany’s Rhineland.
To a man, City were to pass every test with flying colours.
And that trans-European expedition led to a final showdown with Polish outfit Gornik amidst a torrent of non-stop rain in the Austrian capital which saw Mercer’s men proudly crowned as the new Lions of Vienna.
Yet, ironically, it was a shattering early European Cup exit a year earlier which helped provide the fuel that fired our march to Cup Winners' Cup success.
Back in September 1968, fresh from our league title win the previous May, City launched our maiden European Cup campaign with high hopes that we could go onto emulate Manchester United and lift the famous trophy.
The first-round draw saw City pitted against Turkish side Fenerbahçe and outspoken coach Allison was in bullish mood, proudly proclaiming that City would ‘go on and terrify Europe.’
Reality was to provide a rude and sobering awakening, however.
After a goalless first leg encounter at Maine Road, City’s dreams of continental success crumbled in the claustrophobic, frenzied surrounds of Istanbul’s BJK Inonu Stadium as we went down to a shock and sobering 2-1 loss.
It was a bitter disappointment.
Yet, skipper Tony Book believes it helped feed the desire that ignited City’s ascent to Cup Winners’ Cup glory.
“Going out to Fenerbahçe definitely did give us all that extra bit of incentive,” Skip recalled.
“It was a big disappointment going out as we did. We were always a team that was looking to go a bit further than we could and it did really serve to make us more determined.”
With the lessons heeded, the City squad were handed a shot at European redemption a year later following our 1969 FA Cup final triumph.
It saw us embark on our maiden European Cup Winners’ Cup campaign armed with a renewed sense of purpose and a steely determination to put the record straight as we jetted out on another journey into the unknown.
Just as 12 months earlier though, the fates handed City another daunting first round draw.
This time against crack Spanish side Athletic Bilbao, a club which served as the focal point and cultural embodiment of the passionate and proud Basque region.
The first leg was played at Bilbao’s legendary and atmospheric San Memes stadium, an intimidating venue known locally as The Cathedral.
And for the 40,000 pilgrims lucky enough to attend the tie, they bore witness to a veritable match for the ages.
For teenage goalkeeper Corrigan, newly thrust into the City first team and experiencing his first-ever foreign trip, that night in Bilbao remains indelibly printed in his memory.
“To be going abroad with City it was just a dream come true. Everybody wanted to play for your local team, and for a young kid to be given that opportunity was indescribable,” Big Joe admits.
“That first tie was away at Bilbao was remarkable.
“The furthest I’d ever been beforehand was Pwllheli! So, to step out and see the ground packed with an amazing atmosphere and the fans behind the goal drinking wine out of these porrons, shaped like a sheep’s stomach, was a massive eye-opener.”
On the pitch, it initially looked as if City’s European aspirations were once again headed for the rocks.
Amidst a raucous cacophony of noise, Mercer’s men found themselves 2-0 down inside the opening 15 minutes and though Young reduced the deficit, when Athletic added a third goal midway through the second half, the portents looked ominous.
Fortified by the lessons of the previous year however, City dug deep and launched a ferocious fightback, inspired by a wondrous performance from Summerbee.
A Tommy Booth goal injected fresh impetus into City’s system and our second half dominance was justifiably rewarded as we drew level on 86 minutes with an own goal to a cap a remarkable recovery.
“That game in Bilbao was one of the most exciting you will see in Europe. From being 3-1 down at one stage to come back and draw 3-3 spoke volumes about us,” recalls Buzzer.
“I remember that game very well as Ronnie Allen was the manager of Bilbao back then and the night before when we went to train, Ronnie had arranged to put us on a field covered in all sorts of dog muck and what have you!
“It was like a park – that was Ronnie trying to put us off.
“But it was a special match for me as I felt I had one of my best-ever games for City over there.
“It was the old atmospheric San Memes stadium, the crowd was very close to you as a player and it was such a good game.”
Buzzer’s legendary fellow sparring partner Francis Lee concurs and hailed Summerbee’s ferocious impact that evening.
“Mike had a corking game,” Franny declared. “Bilbao was a wild scene and wild place. They were tough guys up there in the Basque country and it was a very hard physical match.”
Fortified by that late revival in Spain, City stepped up the ante in the Maine Road return in front of almost 50,000 fans.
With Bell and Oakes at their peerless best in midfield, and both on target alongside Bowyer, we cruised to an impressive 3-0 second leg victory to clinch a memorable 6-3 aggregate triumph.
Confidence and belief fortified by that reign over the kings of northern Spain, City were boosted by a favourable second-round draw against Belgian outfit Lierse SK.
A part-time side back then, Lierse gave their all in both encounters but’s City’s all-round class and quality ultimately told, though Corrigan remembers the trip out more for sampling his first taste of fondue in Belgium!
A 3-0 first leg victory in the Flemish region, thanks to first half strikes from Lee (2) and Bell, all but sealed our passage into the last eight.
Mercer’s men duly competed the job a fortnight later, thriving in spite of an icy, half frozen Maine Road surface, as we skated to a 5-0 second leg victory in late November 1969.
Lee and Bell both bagged a brace apiece after Summerbee’s opener as City served further notice of our European intent.
The worst of the winter now behind us, City resumed European combat in early March and were handed what would prove to be the most demanding of quarter-final examinations – both physical and mental – against Portuguese outfit Academica Coimbra.
On paper, to all intents and purposes, it looked another favourable draw.
Instead, it was to prove City’s toughest test on the long road to Vienna – and a fight for supremacy in every sense of the word.
With the first leg staged in the picturesque central Portuguese seat of learning – Coimbra was and still is famed as one of Portugal’s most esteemed centres of further education – it also necessitated another short-haul European flight for the City squad.
Of course, back then jetting away to foreign climes was still very much considered a luxury. And for those of a nervous disposition – including several of Mercer’s men – the prospect of sitting in a plane was akin to session in a torture chamber.
And, as Booth reveals, for the then City youngster, one Stanley Bowles Esq, the very idea of flying out with his colleagues was to prove all too much.
One of the great talents – and unique mavericks - of the English game throughout the 1970s, the Collyhurst-born winger had numerous scrapes with authority during the course of his long and chequered career.
Even at a tender young age, Stan always did possess a mind of his own. And never more so than when he was due to jet out with City.
“A few of the lads were never keen on flying. Doyley, Alan Oakes and Neil didn’t look forward to it and they had a few tales to tell but, without doubt, the best scrape was the one regarding Stan,” Tommy chuckles.
“Stan said he wouldn’t get on the plane for one of our early trips. The Club had to send someone round to his house to try and talk him into it, but Stan locked the door and pretended not to be in!
“He just would not fly. We were all waiting ready to go, asking ‘What’s going on?’ But he wouldn’t get on the flight at all and insisted that he wasn’t going anywhere.
“The Club even tried to send a taxi round to his house to persuade Stan, but he wasn’t having any of it.
“Stan was a funny lad – he was on the fringes of the side back then but already a real talented player. But he just didn’t want to fly so he didn’t go!”
Maybe Stan knew more than he was letting on.
For once in Portugal, City soon realised that Academica were more than happy to mix brawn with brain.
Lee still winces at the memory of the encounter.
“It was a university town and Academica had degrees all right… degrees in mixing it!” Franny recalls.
“They were the first team I’d ever seen play all in black which made them look very sinister. Both legs were really tough, physical ties.”
For Corrigan, the experience of playing at Academica’s atmospheric ground was to prove another culture shock.
“Coimbra was a magnificent little city. It was a midnight kick-off over there, yet it was still so warm,” recalls Joe
“In that game, we came up to the side of the pitch from underneath the ground and I remember our coach, Dave Ewing, later getting sent off by the referee.
“He went down the stadium steps but the next moment, I saw Dave’s bald head popping up from the edge of the steps, shouting and bawling instructions out!”
Corrigan also ensured that City had our own man in black that night.
“I wore a black outfit all that season in Europe,” Joe adds. “My goalkeeping heroes growing up were Bert Trautmann, Harry Gregg and the great Russian ‘keeper Lev Yashin.
“Lev used to wear all black and you emulate your heroes as a kid. So, to actually wear the same colours in a different tournament was a big change from the green or blue jerseys I wore in England and it seemed to work.
“Malcolm and Joe both said to carry it on and I went on wearing it all the way through and wore all black in the final too.”
Having fought out a goalless draw in Coimbra – and then seen their flight home from Portugal delayed by a day – the rough stuff continued for City in another tense, tight affair during a draining Maine Road second leg decider.
With the match poised on a knife edge, it went into extra time before - with penalties looming - salvation arrived in the unlikely form of midfield tyro Towers who rifled home a dramatic right-foot winner, seconds from time.
Fifty years on though, Tony instead has one other abiding memory of the Academica encounters.
“The main thing I can remember about Academica is that they came out with flowers at the beginning of the game, passing them all round… and the next minute they were kicking us to bits!” TT laughs.
“I think they were the most aggressive team I’d ever met - they were smiling assassins!”
Booth was another to have cause to flinch at the mere mention of the Portuguese side.
“They gave us a real tough couple of games,” Tommy admits.
“At Maine Road, there was a corner that we were defending, the ball came across and I thought: ‘That’s mine’ and five minutes later, I actually woke up!
“As I’d gone to head the ball, someone had done a scissor kick and hit me in the head, and I went down… but we got the job done.”
Victory meant that 180 minutes of combat against German side Schalke 04 was now all that stood before City and a first-ever European final.
The draw once more looked upon City kindly, pitting us away to the Bundesliga outfit in the first leg before the denouement back at Maine Road.
But the semi-final drama began even before the squad left Manchester, as pre-flight nerves took a torrid toll on another squad member, this time defender Arthur Mann, as Corrigan recalls.
“Arthur was one of my best mates, but he wasn’t the best of flyers,” Big Joe revealed.
“Ahead of flying out, Arthur picked me up on the way to Manchester Airport and Sandra, his wife, was driving. I was in back and my wife Val was in the front with Sandra.
“Suddenly, Sandra said: ‘Have you taken your tablets? and Arthur said: ‘No, I’ve not.’ They must have been Valium or something to calm his nerves.
“So, she gave him two and Arthur, being a true Scot, had a little sip of whisky to help wash them down. But, by the time we got to the Airport, he was really, really terrified.
“We had a long, long wait to board and he ended up having another couple of drinks and then, as were waiting to take off, he just totally lost it. He had to be taken off the plane and away in an ambulance as he was just not in a fit state to fly.
“I’ve never been afraid of flying and couldn’t imagine what poor Arthur was going through. Only people who have that fear of flying really know.
“It was so sad as he was such a lovely man and great pro and I loved him dearly.”
That drama notwithstanding, City’s collective unity and strength of purpose was never more evident than in those two Schalke ties.
And it needed to because Schalke were many people’s dark horses to lift the Cup that season, as Lee reveals.
“The one game where people did think we might get knocked out was Schalke,” Franny adds.
It took a 76th minute strike from dangerous German international winger Reinhard Lubida to break City’s iron-clad resolve at the Glückauf-Kampfbahn Stadium, which handed Schalke a 1-0 advantage to bring back to Manchester.
“Lubida was an excellent winger who went on to play for Germany in the 1970 World Cup finals,” Franny notes. “He scored the only goal over there and having got the result, they thought they would go on and win it.”
Armed with that slender but crucial lead, the Schalke squad flew into England brimming with confidence and belief.
City, though, were to provide a rude and devastating awakening in the semi-final decider amidst a raucous, rumbustious Maine Road atmosphere.
An early goal from Doyle levelled the tie before two strikes inside fourteen minutes from the irresistible Young all but lifted the roof off. Lee and Bell then also struck to inflict a remarkable 5-1 defeat on the men from Gelsenskirchen.
“We knew we would beat them at home,” insists Summerbee. “And in that game at Maine Road, we were unstoppable – even though I missed from five yards early on!”
Skipper Book echoed Buzzer’s vivid recollections, adding: “Beating Schalke in the way we did in the semi-final was one of our best displays of the whole run.
“Make no mistake, Schalke were a decent side, as all German teams are, but we were magnificent at Maine Road.
“We played fantastically well in that return leg,” Lee agreed. “It was an unbelievable display.
“Helmut Schon, who was the German manager at the time, said after that game that our City side was one of the best he had ever seen from the UK.”
Having scaled yet another mountain, Europe’s summit was within sight.
A European Cup Winners' Cup final assignment in the dazzling Austrian capital of Vienna now awaited – where our opponents would be Polish side Gornik Zabrze who had overcome Italian side Roma in their semi-final.
All the classic portents for an unforgettable clash were in place.
It was East against West. City’s irresistible force locking horns with Gornik’s immoveable object. Allison and Mercer’s cavaliers taking the fight to the Polish roundheads.
Cruelly, however, for what was to be one of the biggest occasions in the Club’s history, injury was to deprive Summerbee his place in the final.
“I broke my leg against West Brom before the final. It was a hairline fracture on the side of my leg - I tried to play but I couldn’t go on with it,” Buzzer recalls.
“It was just one of those things. You are either fit to play or not. Much as you want to play, you don’t want to go out there and let your team mates down.
“When you are in a final and you have played in every other game up until then, you want to play, but you have to be professional about it.
“To miss it dug deep a little bit. Deep down, I would have liked to have played, but I was so pleased for the rest of the lads. And I knew we would win.”
The match-up with the men from east of the Iron Curtain was also a giant-sized leap into the unknown for City.
Armed with only a paucity of information about their opponents, the pre-match preparations were a far cry from the detailed tactical breakdown and analytical advantages enjoyed by sides in today’s technological age.
Not that any of that bothered coaching mastermind Allison, according to Bell.
“We all knew each other inside out,” Colin asserts. “We all knew what Malcolm and Joe wanted to do. It was all about what we could do rather than worrying about the opposition.
“From one to eleven, the balance of the side was perfect, and we all knew how to play.
“There didn’t come any better coaches than Malcolm with Joe at the helm.
“It was a joy to play under them. We were one big family – and we were confident.”
With the final to be staged at Vienna’s open air Prater Stadium, all seemed set fair.
However, there was one element that Mercer and Allison could not control: the vagaries of the Austrian weather, as Corrigan describes.
“We went and trained at the stadium the night before the game and went down again on the morning of the game and had a little light training session and it was blisteringly hot,” Big Joe reminisces.
“Malcolm apparently went to the groundsmen and gave him a few schillings to water the pitch before the game.
“Then, unfortunately, it absolutely poured down from the late afternoon onwards. We were all going: ‘Oh God, he’s watered the pitch too!
“There was no cover or shelter in the stadium at all. The City fans were trying to keep out of the torrential rain and it was a totally surreal sight.
“Most of the stadiums you are used to playing in have all got roofs on, but this was like an open bowl!”
However, if City needed a lucky omen in addition to the Manchester-like rain, they could take comfort from the fact that for the final, we were again kitted out in our eye-catching red and black striped away strip, the colours that had seen us lift both the FA Cup and League Cup.
“We felt so good wearing that strip. It was like an aura when we put it on,” Booth reveals.
“It was as if it was our lucky kit – after all, we won three finals wearing it!”
With visa issues preventing most Polish fans from travelling to Austria, it also meant there was a surreal atmosphere to the game with less than 10,000 fans present.
With Towers impressively deputising for the injured Summerbee, City also had to overcome the early loss through injury of Doyle, with the ever-dependable George Heslop moving back to partner Booth in central defence and substitute Ian Bowyer coming on to shore up the side.
Despite those enforced changes in personnel however, on this the biggest of stages, City were at our flamboyant, formidable best.
With Lee – celebrating his 26th birthday – proving a veritable whirling dervish in attack, wave upon wave of City forward raids rained down on the Poles and within 12 minutes our dominance was rewarded.
Lee brilliantly shook off three defenders out on the left before hammering in a fearsome shot which struck the foot of a post and then cannoned off the legs of goalkeeper Hubert Kostka straight to Young, who applied the finishing touch.
The birthday boy then made it a night of special happy returns by doubling our advantage from the penalty spot after Young had literally been Pole-axed in the box – Franny barreling the ball beyond the grasp of the Gornik keeper.
“The final was in the days of the Iron Curtain and Gornik were real tough guys from the East. These guys were hard as nails,” Lee surmised.
“So, you couldn’t be confident when you hadn’t seen them play. They lost very few games and were a team packed full of Polish internationals.
“We were very apprehensive about it and thought we might struggle but we played really well.
“The rain made the surface wet and fast and that suited us to the ground as we played very quick football. We played absolutely tremendously in Vienna.
“It was my birthday and I took the winning penalty, so it was an extra special occasion for me.
“It was big pressure game against a very difficult team, so we all had to play well... and we did.”
City could and should have extended our advantage before, with 22 minutes left, one of Gornik’s rare attacks pierced our backline.
Gornik managed to force the ball out to veteran international Stanislaw Oslizlo who had cut in cunningly from the left and he beat Corrigan with a left foot drive to set up a nervy finale.
Nothing though was going to deprive City from deservedly securing our second piece of silverware of the season and a fourth major trophy in two years.
But for Towers, only now with the benefit of hindsight does he realise the significance of his own special part in one of City’s greatest achievements.
“To be perfectly honest, I was barely 17 when I played in the final,” Tony recollects.
“I had no inkling I would be playing. Malcolm just read the team sheet out and that was it really.
“At that age, you don’t take it in. You tend to take it for granted – it’s only later in life that you appreciate quite what happened.
“I was just doing my job. Malcolm told us what to do and I just went out there and tried to follow what he said.
“Everything happened so fast. It was like a whirlwind and I just regret not taking it all in. But like they say, you can’t put an old head on young shoulders!”
With the rain still lashing down, a slightly chaotic pitch-side post-match trophy ceremony saw skipper Book receive the Cup Winners' Cup under the cover of an umbrella!
“Being presented with the trophy under an umbrella was somewhat unorthodox!” Skip chuckles.
“But it was such a proud moment. It was amazing. I didn’t come to City until the age 32 so it was something very, very special to be captain of that side with so many great players.
“Three or four years on from playing non-league football at Bath, here I was winning in Europe. It still stands as one of the proudest moments of my life.”
It was the crowning glory of the success-laden Mercer and Allison years – yet, amazingly, the spectacle was one denied to expectant City fans yearning to watch the action unfold back home in England.
Incredible as it seems now, neither BBC nor ITV screened the game.
Instead, that night’s FA Cup final replay between Chelsea and Leeds United at Old Trafford was beamed live to viewers in the UK.
“The game was televised live throughout Europe but it was the same night as the Chelsea v Leeds replay, so it wasn’t televised over here,” remembers Corrigan.
“It seems unimaginable to think of it now.”
There was another surprise awaiting the City players immediately after the rather chaotic trophy presentation as Booth and Co. discovered.
Tommy recalled: “It was still throwing it down when we were presented with the trophy and our medals but as soon as we got back in the changing room, Doyley said: ‘We’ve got the wrong medals!’
“I said: ‘What you on about Doyley?’ But, sure enough, it was a square box and there was a round indentation for a round medal but instead, the medal was square sat on top of that. It looked really odd.
“So, we were thinking we’ve got the wrong medals. We checked and found out it was correct, but you couldn’t make it up.
“A European Cup Winners' Cup final and that happened!”
That was the prequel to an eventful night of celebrations – albeit one that the City squad’s wives and girlfriends would remember for all the wrong reasons!
“Our wives and girlfriends had all gone out to the hairdressers in the morning and got really dolled up and then, of course, they all got absolutely drenched at the game,” Corrigan reveals.
“To make matters worse for them, there was another unusual situation after the game.
“It was decided that the two teams would have a banquet together which meant the women had to dine together away from us in a separate room.”
Confusion notwithstanding, nothing could prevent the City squad from marking their historic achievement in celebratory style that night prior to the return home and a subsequent victory parade in Manchester city centre.
“We had a great celebration after the game in Vienna – in fact, we never went to bed that night!,” Francis Lee confirms.
“We left at about 10 in the morning then went for some lunch in Manchester which turned into another very late Thursday night.
“I don’t really remember a lot about things until the Friday!”
Fifty years may have passed since that heady occasion.
But for the boys of 1970, the unique bond and shared pride in their European escapades burns just as bright today.
“It was always a pleasure to play for the Club – every game was a delight - and none more so than that night in Vienna,” is Francis Lee’s verdict
“They talk about Bell, Lee and Summerbee but we were a team in every sense of the word. They all made my job so much easier as captain,” adds Tony Book.
“No-one can ever take it away from us. It was a very special day for everyone connected with the Club.”
Pride is the overriding emotion for Tony Towers when he reflects on that magical evening half a century ago.
“Looking back, it was a complete dream and I was so proud to be a part of that squad,” says TT.
“We were like a family – we are all cared about each other. And if I speak to any of the boys now, it’s like we are still playing – the bond is still so strong.”
Fittingly, the final word belongs to Colin Bell, one of the greatest players ever to wear the sky-blue shirt, yet a man whose shyness and modesty was almost at odds with his magical God-given talent.
“To win something in Europe meant so much to us all given how strong the opposition was. You had to be something very special to achieve that feat,” Colin concludes.
“The thing is the City supporters were so deserving. They do not come any better.
“Whatever you gave the supporters they always gave - and still do - 20 percent more back. It was simply a joy to play in front of them. How lucky can you be?”