Mens Team

City DNA #123: Bell, Lee and Summerbee

City DNA #123: Bell, Lee and Summerbee
In the late 1960s, three City players earned the nickname ‘The Holy Trinity’.

They were also regularly grouped by their surnames of Bell, Lee and Summerbee.

Three stellar talents brought to the Club by the brilliant management team of Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison who would become the driving force that made City champions and one of the top teams in England and Europe for half-a-dozen seasons.

While technically three very different players, they were all fantastic footballers in their own right and shared a burning passion to be winners.

Bell was shy, but brilliant; Lee was bullish and confident; Summerbee was mischievous and determined – together, they were unstoppable.

Across the city, United had their own triumvirate in Best, Law and Charlton as Manchester football enjoyed perhaps its greatest era yet.

Of course, City had many great players at that time, but there was no jealousy that the spotlight fell so often on Bell, Lee and Summerbee – it was a rhyming collective that rolled off the tongue.

But what of their individual paths and time with the Club?

Buzzer was the first of the trio to arrive and Mercer’s decision to make him his first signing as Manchester City manager prior to the 1965/66 season was arguably also one of his best.

The Cheltenham-born winger arrived for just £31,000 from Swindon Town, upping his wage from £35 to £40 in the process!

The Swindon board had been reluctant to let their rising star leave the County Ground, but economics demanded they cashed in and ultimately sold to the highest bidder and fortunately for City, that was Mercer, who had played football with Mike’s dad George during the War.

Summerbee proved an instant hit with the City fans and fitted perfectly into a side destined for promotion from the Second Division during his first campaign at Maine Road.

He played in all 52 games in league and cup competitions, scoring 10 goals as City returned to the top-flight after a three-year hiatus.

He added a new dimension to the team with his trickery and ability to get to the bye-line and whip over wonderful crosses.

Towards the back end of Buzzer's first season, Bell was also signed.

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It had taken clever mind games from Malcolm Allison to ensure Bell became a City player in the first place.

Allison sat in the stand at Gigg Lane loudly expressing his doubts over Bury’s prized asset, questioning every aspect of the 20-year-old’s ability.

“He can’t pass it,” he’d say absently (but just loud enough for the scouts sat nearby to hear); “He can’t tackle and he’s no good in the air,” he continued.

Whether anyone was fooled by this is doubtful, but it might just have bought some time with City snapping up Bell once the cash had been raised to buy him.

At £47,500, Bell – who had scored 25 goals in 83 games for the Shakers – cost around £750,000 in today’s money and was worth every penny plus much more.

Initially wearing the No. 10 shirt, he made his debut against Derby County and scored one of the goals in a 2-1 win.

He played in all 11 remaining games during which City didn’t lose a match and alongside with his new team-mate Summerbee, picked up the Division Two championship for good measure.

Signing Bell and Summerbee was already proving a resounding success.

And it just kept getting better.

Bell was ever-present during his first full season and finished top scorer with a dozen goals as the City limped to a final placing of fifteenth in the table, but that was merely the warm-up for the incredible years ahead.

Summerbee also flourished in his first top flight season and was one of the first wingers to actively go looking for a physical battle, tackling back and offering fifty-fifty balls in order to give the full-back an early taste of what was to come.

For many defenders, having a winger with attitude was something entirely new and by the time the game was over, they knew they’d been in a battle

Bell 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.

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Francis Lee joined the club a couple of months into the 1967/68 season and for many, this represented the final piece of the Mercer-Allison jigsaw.

He was signed by Mercer in the hope the £60,000 paid to Bolton would help City land the First Division title.

Lee had a proven track record at Bolton where he’d made his debut aged 16 and been playing first team football for seven years. He’d also notched a very healthy 92 goals in 132 games for Wanderers.

An incredibly ambitious young man, he decided he wanted to leave Burnden Park and seek new horizons, but his transfer request was refused by the club.

Lee, demonstrating an independence and determination to look after his own interests that would serve him well throughout his life, promptly threatened to go on strike!

The board relented and when City made a firm bid, they reluctantly allowed Lee to join their near neighbours.

He wore the No.7 shirt for his debut against Wolves, replacing Stan Bowles who seemed to be coming into his own with four goals in four games, but Mercer felt Lee was a better fit in his team.

It was an inspired signing.

Lee was made for the City team and slotted in perfectly to the football and team ethic – he also added bite and swagger, not to mention his supreme self-confidence, that Mercer and Allison demanded of their side and it wasn’t too long before the management and supporters realised that the 23-year-old Westhoughton-born forward was a perfect fit.

City won the league title for the first time in 31 years with Bell, Lee and Summerbee inspirational throughout the campaign.

With Bell’s incredible athleticism and seemingly limitless stamina, even in a team of winners, he was an easy choice for the 1967/68 Manchester City Player of the Year.

Lee and Summerbee weren’t far behind and Lee’s goals and Buzzer’s assists were integral to Mercer’s swashbuckling side which was a heady mixture of skill, desire, and aggression.

Bell never scored winning goals in cup finals and rarely took the headlines for being anything other than brilliant – not unlike David Silva today, though he bore more similarities to the playing style of Kevin De Bruyne.

He was a fantastic footballer and a quiet man off the pitch, too, never seeking adulation or press coverage, even though he’d more than earned it. In fact, he positively shunned the limelight.

While Summerbee, Lee (and Mike Doyle, of course) would 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.

Lee, though not the tallest of forwards, was stocky in appearance but could more than hold his own and would give any defender a difficult 90 minutes, no matter what their size or reputation.

Feisty and fiery, he backed up guts with skill and intelligence and was soon a hero to thousands of City fans.

By the time City lifted the championship in May 1968, Lee had scored 16 in 31 games and it was his strike at St James’ Park on the final day of the season that effectively won the game and the title for Mercer’s men.

City fans loved Buzzer because he was a genuine character who played the game in the right spirit.

He was always prepared to enjoy himself – often with a deadpan look on his face – and would often tease opposing fans, throwing snowballs, sitting on the ball, blowing his nose on the corner flag at Old Trafford – there were dozens of memorable moments.

He played 50 games in all competitions, scoring 19 goals during the title-winning season– a fantastic return.

Though City would go on to win the FA Cup in 1969 and the European Cup Winners’ Cup and League Cup in 1970, it was the 67/68 campaign that Bell, Lee and Summerbee were arguably at their peak as a trio.

They would all continue to drive the team forward for the next four years, playing more than 1,200 games between them and scoring in excess of 300 goals during a collective 30 years of service.

Three stars that aligned perfectly to jettison Manchester City to a new level.

A Holy Trinity, indeed.

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