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A Nijinsky for All Time

Colin Bell, legendary 60s and 70s Manchester City and England star – nicknamed Nijinsky because of his huge capacity to run and run like the famous thoroughbred – is the latest loss to the world of football.

1966 England immortals Jack Charlton and Nobby Stiles have both died recently, as have other club and international greats like Norman Hunter and Trevor Cherry, both Leeds United heroes – Norman through Covid 19.

And, of course, the most high-profile player in global terms to pass away has been Diego Maradona, the Argentinian genius and scorer of one of the game’s greatest ever goals – against England in the 1986 World Cup finals… the other one, not his infamous ‘Hand of God’.

But somehow, Colin Bell’s death has come as a particularly harsh blow. Such as dynamic and always youthful-looking footballer, Nijinsky was a powerhouse on the pitch. Heading off his goal-line one second and slamming home another goal at the other end the next. Years pass and seasons come and go, yet it was crazy to imagine Colin being 74 and impossible to believe he had now left us.

In the late 60s and early 70s Bell was a dominant force in England’s top flight. A prolific goal-scorer, an unstoppable engine about the pitch, he was at the core of Manchester City’s great success in this period and an important part of the England squad.

I saw Colin play live only the once - against my team, Charlton Athletic, at our ground, the Valley, in May 1966 just a couple of months before England won the World Cup. He was part of the great Manchester City team of Summerbee, Lee, Young, Pardoe and Oakes who won the Second Division Championship that year and went on to Division One, FA Cup and European Cup Winners Cup glory. Charlton lost 2-3 (well it was Friday 13th!), the season was nearly over, and I just remember how classy City were.

Before he died, if someone had asked me who had been England’s most complete player in my life-time, I would have put Colin Bell easily in the top two and perhaps at the zenith – Bell and Manchester United’s Bryan Robson fighting it out for top slot.

Both are in the mould of whom I consider to have been be the most complete world footballer ever – the very great Johan Cruyff of Holland, Ajax and Barcelona. The ‘Best Player in the World’ is a football fan’s standard debate and I think largely an empty one as you have to ask yourself ’best player of what’ – goal-scorer, defender, goal-keeper, passer…? In any team, different players do different things. Maradona may have been a goal magician but in the back-four?

‘Most-complete’ is a good benchmark. Bell and Robson could score, run midfields, defend, head, pass and cover the pitch – do it all – and Johan was undoubtedly the best multi-tasker of the lot.

There has been a wonderful appreciation of Colin Bell in the New Statesman magazine making some key points about this very private and reserved footballer. Aspects of what made him so great set against the backdrop of the modern game which is so very different now from what it was in his glorious heyday.

Colin played in an era of no shirt sponsors, no big-telly financing, muddy pitches, no diving or acting injured, no manhandling at corners, no VAR, no social media or broadcast phone-ins calling for manager’s heads if your team lost, few, if any, sports agents and black football boots. I don’t mind the colourful footwear worn by today’s players but the rest and more, has, in my view, lessened the world game.

Colin was a simple man with superb talent. He played the game with everything he had without, I am sure, an eye on the money or the photographer unlike so many players in the modern era. He spoke his piece on the pitch and what he said was there for all to see. He didn’t need a twitter account or his name on his boots to tell the world what a star he was. His football told his story.

The modern game has many positives, not least the greater safety of fans in stadiums (when we can all get back to watching in grounds post COVID), but it is blind to its many negatives not seen in Colin Bell’s day.

But an important point in the New Statesman and in the many tributes to Colin Bell since he died remains so true. He may have played in a different, simpler time but his immense talent, the way he played, his vision, his great stamina and ability to get around the pitch, would make him an incredible star in the modern game.

The Middle-Eastern owned, immensely rich, star-studded Manchester City of today would welcome Colin Bell into its side with open arms. Manager Pep Guardiola would have him down as first choice on his team-sheet every week, alongside Kevin De Bruyne with whom he has been very closely compared.

Colin Bell, much missed already and deeply mourned, was a footballing great for all time. If football is still being played in 100 years, Colin Bell’s name will still be remembered with respect. What a legacy.

Colin Bell MBE (26 February 1946 – 5 January 2021)

New Statesman’s appreciation of Colin Bell

Colin Bell – Reluctant Hero

An autobiography by Ian Cheeseman written with the player’s support

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