There is no doubt that Colin Bell is still considered by many as the best player Manchester City have ever had. Even opposition supporters marveled at his natural ability. A player who has kept a low profile since his retirement, Bell is still fondly remembered. He was the key player in Manchester City’s greatest ever side and went on to establish himself as a regular fixture in the England national team and eventually took over as captain from the peerless Bobby Moore.
Bell began his league career with Bury who spotted his potential while playing for Horden Colliery in his native north east. Bury were a mediocre second division side at the time and the teenage inside forward went straight into the first team and stayed there. In a side with little ambition Bell was always going to leave Gigg Lane and move to a higher level.
He spent the best part of three seasons at Gigg Lane in a constant battle against relegation and yet still managed a goal every three games, a contribution which undoubtedly kept the club in the division but there was inevitably widespread interest in the youngster. Bell was rarely ever static on the field and specialised in driving runs from midfield, carrying the ball and getting up in support of forwards.
One of the interested clubs was Manchester City, whose assistant manager was the charismatic Malcolm Allison. City were a second division side too and not yet a side full of money and household names. Bell was still a Bury player in March 1966 when City, on the verge of promotion to the first division, parted with a record fee of £45,000 to take the midfielder to Maine Road.
After scoring nearly a goal every two games for the remainder of the season, Bell’s City were promoted to the First Division and his contribution included not only goals, but bursting runs and brilliant all round play. City may have struggled to gain promotion without him that season and the history of Manchester City may have been very different.
With City becoming League Champions for only the second time in 1968, Bell’s legacy and legendary status at the Maine Road side was guaranteed as City hit these heights only two years after climbing out of the second division.
Bell was nicknamed ‘Nijinsky’ after the great racehorse and his performances soon brought him recognition from Alf Ramsey, with his England debut coming against Sweden at Wembley in May 1968.
City’s European success continued, but sadly they failed to challenge for the League title again until 1972 when they were narrowly edged out at the top finishing just one point behind champions Derby County.
Bell managed to reach double figures in each of City’s first six seasons back in the first division in spite of a series of niggling injuries. In 1969 he picked up an FA Cup winners medal and followed it up a year later with both League Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup medals. In the double cup winning year he scored twelve cup goals to go with the eleven he managed in the league campaign.
With the retirement of United legend Bobby Charlton from the international game after the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, Bell finally made a place in the national side his own and his increasing importance was demonstrated when Ramsey handed him the captaincy.
When a poor England failed to qualify for the 1974 World Cup finals in West Germany, Bell aged only 28 was at his peak and perhaps would have become the legend at international level that he was, and remains, with his club.
In the 1974-75 season Bell bagged himself another fifteen league goals but in the course of hammering Manchester United 4-0 in the League Cup, he was caught by the flailing boot of Martin Buchan.
The contact was compounded by the fact that his standing leg had lodged in the rutted turf and he was not able to move before falling awkwardly.
The injury was never expected to be severe but no one knew at the time that he had broken his leg and damaged arteries and blood vessels. The extent of the injury was not initially diagnosed and when Bell attempted a comeback towards the end of that season, clotted blood from the original damage caused cartilage to splinter and the midfield master would be out for a further eighteen months.
Although Bell made an emotional return as a half-time substitute against Newcastle United on Boxing Day 1977 and thereby allowed a host of young City fans to get a glimpse of him, the real Colin Bell never truly returned and by the end of the 1979 season his career was over.
Colin Bell was a true City legend and the main stand at the Etihad Stadium is named after him, such was his impact.