TODAY is a very special anniversary in the history of Manchester City – the 40th anniversary of their last league championship win. To mark the occasion, I spoke to three of the players from that side for an article which first appeared in yesterday’s Manchester Evening News. Here it is.
COLIN BELL can’t help but raise a smile whenever he talks about the last City team to be champions of England.
“I must have met 90,000 fans who say they were there on the day we won the title at Newcastle,” he said.
“Every City fan I’ve met over the last 10 years who was around at that time insists they were at St James’ Park that day.
“There was one supporter who admitted to me that he went to the ground but was locked out. But everyone else tells me they got in!”
May 11, 1968. The greatest City side of the post-war era travelled to Newcastle knowing that victory would bring the league title to Maine Road for the first time since 1937.
A run through the City side of that era is enough to make any Blues fan of a certain age go all misty-eyed.
In front of goalkeeper Ken Mulhearn, there was the steel of Mike Doyle, Glyn Pardoe, George Heslop and Alan Oakes; the leadership of the wily Tony Book; the midfield promptings of the holy trinity of Bell, Francis Lee and Mike Summerbee; and the goal-poaching skills of Neil Young and Tony Coleman.
It was a magic formula, brought together by one of the great managerial partnerships.
Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison had arrived at Maine Road in the summer of 1965, transforming them from Second Division also-rans into First Division title contenders in just three years.
They blended homegrown lads such as Young, Oakes, Doyle and Pardoe with canny signings such as Lee, Bell and Summerbee to create an intoxicating mix of attacking football.
Summerbee recalled: “Ninety per cent of what we achieved was down to Joe and Malcolm.
“Joe was the figurehead, and in Malcolm we had the greatest coach this country has ever had.
“Forget Wenger or Mourinho; Malcolm was so far ahead of his time it was untrue. He was doing things in 1965 that clubs are still doing today.
“When I arrived at City from Swindon, he changed my life. He gave me so much confidence.”
City at that time were a team on the up. But at the start of the 1967/68 season, hardly anybody expected them to be champions of England.
Summerbee said: “You could have got 200/1 on us winning the title when we started that season.
“But Joe and Malcolm had brought together a good side. We had skilful players such as Colin and Francis, but there were no cowards in that team. We could all get stuck in.”
One point from the opening three matches was hardly the form of champions, though, and the early-season form was, to say the least, inconsistent.
By the time winter set in, the Blues found their form. And they announced themselves to the nation with a stunning 4-1 win over Tottenham on Match of the Day that December, a game now enshrined in City history as the “ballet on ice”.
City mastered a frozen Maine Road pitch with glorious football while Spurs slithered and slid – and it was largely thanks to a piece of smart thinking from Book.
He remembered: “An old trainer at Bath City, where I’d played before, told me that the way to deal with icy pitches was to take the top level of leather off your studs and let the metal protrude.
“So I mentioned this to the City lads. The referees never used to check your studs in those days, and the plan worked.”
Bell also remembers that game with fondness.
He said: “The pitch was like a skating rink. Tottenham were one of those teams who allowed you to play. And if anyone allowed us to play, we murdered them.”
And yet going into the closing weeks of the season, City were still outsiders for the title.
Defeats at Leeds, Leicester and Chelsea in the spring seemed to have scuppered their chances.
But wins over Sheffield Wednesday, Everton and Tottenham propelled City into a final-day title shoot-out with neighbours United.
City led United on goal average, and their task was simple. If the Blues won at Newcastle, they would be champions. If they didn’t, United could claim the trophy with a better result at home to Sunderland.
The BBC didn’t seem to fancy City’s chances. In an era when Match of the Day only showed highlights of one game, the corporation took their cameras to Old Trafford. It was left to Tyne Tees, the local ITV station in the North East, to capture City’s moment of glory for posterity.
City’s players spent the night before the big game playing ten-pin bowls at the Five Bridges Hotel in Gateshead.
Book said: “We didn’t do anything special before the game. We just travelled up on the Friday, had our evening meal, went for a stroll and did a bit of bowling.”
But the next morning, City’s players were made fully aware of just how much the game meant.
Summerbee said: “We heard this great noise near our hotel at around 9.30am. There must have been 25,000 City fans making their way to the ground.
“It was phenomenal support. They had all come to see us win the title, and it was up to us to do it.”
It was an extraordinary match. City twice went ahead in the first half, through Summerbee and Young. Both times Newcastle equalised within a minute, first through Bryan ‘Pop’ Robson, then through Jackie Sinclair.
Summerbee said: “Malcolm laid into the defenders at half-time. He said: ‘What’s going on? Come on, tighten up.’
“But we always had the attitude that if the other team scored five, we would score six. So we knew we would win.”
And they did. Young and Lee put City 4-2 up, before John McNamee pulled one back for Newcastle late on.
United’s surprise defeat at home to Sunderland was rendered irrelevant.
“We only gave Newcastle the third goal to make a game of it,” Summerbee laughed.
Summerbee celebrated by going for a night out with George Best.
“I knew how disappointed George would have been,” Summerbee said. “But I knew when I walked into the Cabaret Club that he would be there, because he was a good friend.”
The title win didn’t sink in straight away, though.
Book said: “It was only a few days later, when the celebrations had died down a little, and I was able to stop to think about it, that it really hit home. We were the champions.”
There was more to come too. Mercer and Allison’s magic touch guided City to the FA Cup, the League Cup and the European Cup Winners’ Cup over the next two seasons.
Bell said: “It was a pleasure to play in that side. Everybody played for everybody. It was a talented team, but we were a very close-knit unit too.”
With thanks to the Manchester Evening News