One City player who has divided more opinion over the years is Rodney Marsh – not because people argue whether he was a maverick or not, because there is no argument to be had - more as to whether his signing cost the Blues the league title in 1972.
It’s a harsh accusation and whether it has any basis in fact is both subjective and impossible to prove.
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So, what exactly is Rodney Marsh’s story?
Born October 11, 1944 in London’s East End, Marsh a docker’s son from Stepney. He lived and breathed football from an early age the traits of later life were evident even at a tender age in that he always wanted to be the star man in the team.
Blessed with a natural ability that made him stand out a mile in junior matches and a penchant for tricks and flicks, Rodney was a bright lad and he turned down the chance to go to grammar school because they only played rugby, which he hated.
He knew his path to stardom was assured and he wouldn’t do anything that might end his dream of becoming a professional footballer.
His career in earnest kicked off aged 17, when he signed for Fulham and soon made his debut against Aston Villa in 1963 where he made an immediate impression.
“We won 1-0 and I scored the only goal,” he recalled. “Was it a good goal? No, it was a brilliant goal – a right-foot volley 25 yards out into the top corner on 61 minutes.”
Rodney not only played a good game, he talked a good game, too – and always has.
He learned his trade at Craven Cottage under the watchful eye of the great Johnny Haynes, Marsh’s idol, and the raw youngster studied Haynes’ technique and learned all he could from him.
“His standards were incredibly high,” Marsh said of Haynes, “both in what he asked of himself and of others.”
In 1966, aged 21, Marsh transferred to QPR and it was while at Loftus Road that his star really began to shine. Rangers may have been in the Third Division, but Marsh’s signing seemed to be the icing on the cake for a side that would go on to cause one of the biggest cup upsets of all time.
“There was a time, between 1967 and 1969, when QPR were unbeatable,” said Marsh. “We won promotion in successive seasons and also reached the League Cup final in ’67 where we played – and beat - West Bromwich Albion.”
Though West Brom led 2-0 at the break, Rangers fought back, and it was Marsh who levelled the scores with a goal that remains as crystal clear in his mind today as it were yesterday.
“I picked up a long pass out of defence about 40 yards from their goal,” he recalled. “I turned my marker, went to the left, went to the right, beat a couple of other players along the way and then suddenly, from 25 yards, hit a shot that skimmed across the Wembley surface, hit the inside of the post and went in. It was pandemonium.”
Over the next five years, he continued to enthral, frustrate and delight in equal measure before winning his first England cap against Switzerland in 1972.
Shortly after he became only the fourth player to transfer for a fee of £200,000 or more when City head coach Malcolm Allison brought the mercurial forward to Maine Road, just 24 hours before the transfer deadline, for what seemed likely to be the title run-in. It was March 1972 and the Blues were clear at the top of the table with just nine games to go. Six wins would guarantee the title and Allison reckoned Marsh’s arrival would be icing on the cake, but the move was to spectacularly backfire.
The deal was clinched in a 45-minute meeting a London hotel and it was a club record for City. Allison, who had tracked the player for four years, was convinced Marsh could be City’s answer to George Best and he thought he’d also add 10,000 to the gate at Maine Road. Joe Mercer wasn’t convinced that Marsh would be good for the team and besides, why even take the risk of failure when things were going so well? But Joe trusted Malcolm’s reasoning and he put up a great case for Marsh’s signing.
“This has been a tremendously successful day for me,” said Allison. “I’m delighted we came to a quick agreement with QPR. Rodney is a great character and a cockney. That means there will be two cockneys at Maine Road – him and me. We can keep each other company.”
Marsh would no longer be the big fish in the small pond, either. He was joining a club brimming with talent and in Colin Bell, Francis Lee and Mike Summerbee, three of the greatest talents of the era. Lee saw no harm at all in Marsh’s arrival and said: “To bring the best out of his style of play, I think City is the only club he could go to. I think his signing is an exciting prospect.”
Yet he was joining a squad of largely tough northerners with a tremendous work ethic. They played as a team and despite the talent at the club, there were no superstars, and everyone got on well together. It was an ageing side, but they certainly had on last hurrah in them and a desire to prove the critics wrong by landing the league championship for a second time in just four years.
The Blues had topped the division through hard work, though there were plenty of match winners in the team. Neil Young was a gifted playmaker with a cultured left peg and Tony Towers had broken into the side and was having a fantastic season – many felt it was City’s title to lose and, in that respect, Allison was taking a spectacular gamble.
The irony was, City had nearly signed Marsh before the start of the season for a fee of £154,000 – had he enjoyed a pre-season with his team-mates, learned how they played and the team understand better how he played and could fit into the side, things may have been very different.
The offer, however, was considered too low and the deal was put on ice.
Allison couldn’t wait to get Marsh into the side and despite not quite recovering from a slight groin strain and not being totally fit, he was plunged into the home game with Chelsea, with Towers relegated to the bench. More than 53,000 turned out to see his home debut – some 10,000 above the average attendance that season, and City edged the game 1-0. Yet it was clear from the word go that Marsh’s laidback style was slowing down the fast counter-attacking style of the team.
During the next three games, City took just one point, drawing at Newcastle before disastrously losing at home to Stoke City and then at Southampton. The drive towards the finish line had been lost and the Blues had been knocked off the top of the table. Marsh showed his talent in the next game, scoring twice in a 3-1 home win over West Ham, but was on the bench at Old Trafford for the Manchester derby.
Allison had told Marsh he would play at least half the game and Mike Doyle was the man to make way. City won 3-1 and Marsh scored again, though he was left out of the side that drew at Coventry three days later, he was back for the trip to Ipswich Town, where City’s title hopes completely evaporated in a 2-1 defeat. The Blues ended the campaign by beating Brian Clough’s Derby County 2-0 – and the Rams would be crowned champions, while City ended fourth in the final standings.
Where had it all gone wrong? The finger was pointed squarely at one man – unfairly, of course – but it was Rodney Marsh who was blamed for losing the title in 1972.
Marsh later admitted he was the reason behind the slump in form. “I changed the way Manchester City played football,” he said. “When I joined them, they were a well-oiled machine, well-coordinated and well-organised. But what they didn’t have, and I hate to say this, was star quality and that was what I was supposed to provide and although I provided it, it was to the detriment of team play.
“They started to play around me, and we lost the focus of what we were trying to do. I hold my hand up to say I was the responsible for City losing the championship in 1972.”
It was quite a burden to carry, yet Marsh was not regarded as persona non grata by City fans. Far from it. His trickery and skills may have come at a cost, but the flamboyant and stylish forward was perhaps the closest thing to a living embodiment of Manchester City Football Club and the entertainment and style the supporters demanded.
He was mercurial, unpredictable and a lovable rogue. To not like Marsh was to not like football. He was, at times, magical to watch and pure entertainment. The fans fell in love with him and though it was, at times, a rocky affair, it was a match made in heaven and his colourful stay with the Blues had only just begun.
Like all mavericks, he was capable of genius moments and also of lacklustre displays - there wasn’t much middle ground with the man whose name echoed around the Kippax long after he’d gone.
“I never wanted to sign Rodney, you know Tommy - it was all Malcolm’s doing.” Joe Mercer squinted into the Hoylake sunshine and struck his ball towards the tiny patch lush green turf in the distance as he recalled Marsh’s stay with the Club.
The ‘Tommy’ in question was Mike Doyle (his nickname) and Genial Joe had a captive audience in the City hard man. Doyle had never liked Marsh – he thought he was a talent, but there was something about him he could never take to.
Too flash for his liking. The two men continued their golf round, but the revelation had come as no surprise to Doyle.
To him, Marsh and Big Mal were two of a kind and when things were rough at Maine Road and Big Mal, by then manager of the Blues, was under severe pressure from the board, Marsh stated “If Malcolm goes, I’ll quit, too.”
Malcolm did quit, but Marsh remained – for a while.
The beginning of an inevitable parting of the ways began at the end of the 1974 League Cup final where City had surprisingly lost 2-1 to Wolves.
Socks rolled down his ankles, trudging towards the dressing rooms, Marsh cut a lonely figure when he decided to snub the presentation ceremony at the end of the 1974 League Cup final. Marsh had done his best, but City had lost 2-1 to Wolverhampton Wanderers and the disappointment hit him hard.
While the other City players stayed to applaud Wolves as they collected the trophy, Marsh was even booed by a section of his own supporters for what seemed to be unsporting behaviour. Was he trying to attract attention to himself, even in the midst of a morale-crushing defeat? Only Rodney could answer that.
Gifted, frustrating, mercurial and selfish – he had heard it all, but one thing that could never be denied is that Rodney Marsh was an entertainer. He looked like a rock star and he played rock and roll football – and almost always to his own composition.