20151204

The Summerbee, Bell and Lee years: new book revisits Manchester City's other golden era under Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison

Forever Boys: The Days of Citizens and Heroes, by James Lawton (Wisden Sports Writing) £18.99


Jim Lawton's disappearance from the pages of The Independent has been mourned by many whose reading experience was enriched by the depth and elegance of his prose as he described the great moments in sport from around the world.

Happily, freed from the requirement to deliver a daily commentary -- not that he ever saw it as a chore -- Lawton has had time to research and write a fine book that has taken him back to the beginnings of his career as a national newspaper sports writer in Manchester, when he was privileged to report on the emergence from United's shadows of the Manchester City side managed by the venerable Joe Mercer and coached by his assistant, the maverick Malcolm Allison, who between them oversaw the creation of a brief but brilliantly golden period for the sky blue half of Lancashire's great city.

It might be argued that, in many respects, there has never been a better time than now to be a Manchester City supporter, blessed with a wonderful modern stadium and the expectation, underpinned by the vast wealth of the club's current owners, that the clutch of silverware won in the last five years -- an FA Cup, a League Cup, and two Premier League titles -- is just the start of a trophy-laden era of dominance in the English game, and perhaps beyond.

Yet can the thrill of winning in today's football world, where to be successful requires also to be rich, ever feel quite so electrifying, such a joyous fulfilment of uncertain hopes and dreams, as it did when the field of contenders was wide enough for the beginning of any new season to be ripe with possibility for most of the field, rather than for only a narrow elite?

This was how it was when Mercer arrived at Maine Road in 1965 and saw in the young Allison, then managing Plymouth Argyle but whose ideas had impressed him when they met on a coaching course at Lilleshall, a coach with fresh, progressive methods and the dynamism he knew he lacked himself after a period of ill health.

Mercer and Allison brought together a collection of players, built around the dazzling talents of Mike Summerbee, Colin Bell and Francis Lee, that also won the FA Cup, the League Cup and what was then the First Division title, and tasted victory abroad by winning the European Cup-Winners' Cup.

Listen to Malcolm Allison talking about his Manchester City players





When City were crowned league champions in 1968 they were the eighth team to win the title in the space of 10 seasons, following Wolves, Burnley, Tottenham, Ipswich and Everton as well as the burgeoning superpowers of Liverpool and Manchester United.  In the three years that followed, Leeds United, Arsenal and Derby would be added to the list.  It was an era in which to be the supporter of a football team was to experience a full breadth of emotion, to be braced for the deflation of losing but to be sustained by the real possibility of winning, even if your club did not have the richest owner.

In Forever Boys, Lawton revisits those vibrant days with the aid of first-hand memories, not only those of the surviving members of that Manchester City side - Summerbee, Bell and Lee as well as Tony Book, Alan Oakes and Glyn Pardoe among the less exalted members of the cast - but his own. In a half-century and more pursuing his trade, Lawton has covered every major sporting event and written with such distinction he has been named sportswriter of the year three times among other awards. Yet while he has witnessed countless historic moments at World Cups and Olympic Games, on tennis courts, motor racing circuits and beautifully manicured golf courses, and followed the careers of Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Tiger Woods and countless more, he still regards watching the rise of Manchester City as one of the most exciting times in his professional life.
The Manchester City team of the 1960s brought great success to Maine Road
Manchester City's old Maine Road ground, scene of
their triumphs under Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison
Picture by Cjc13 (CC BY-SA 3.0)

It is a wonderfully evocative book, capturing the personalities of the players and that of the brilliant, charismatic and ultimately flawed Malcolm Allison, as well as the chemistry of their relationships as City grew into the iconic team of the sixties, symbolic of a time which buzzed with hope and possibilities, when it seemed that ambition need not have limits.  Inevitably, it is a deeply nostalgic recounting of those years but then again it was bound to be so, given that it was as he was driving away from Manchester's vast Southern Cemetery, having seen Allison laid to rest with a bottle of champagne alongside his coffin, that Lawton first began to ruminate on an era and a team that influenced so many lives and wondered if more needed to be said about it.

If there is an added poignancy it stems from Lawton's reviewing of his own life and times, the project having coincided with the unexpected consigning to history of the main substance of his career, a victim of falling revenues and ruthless cuts in his now struggling industry.

The Independent was his last long-term employer.  His almost daily columns and his beautifully crafted observations from the great sporting occasions around the world had been essential reading. For those who care to look, Lawton's words can still be found, notably in the Irish Independent.  And now there is this book, of which one needs only to read a few paragraphs to be reassured that his ability to employ the nuances of the English language to infuse the printed page with a lasting resonance is undiminished.

Buy Forever Boys: The Days of Citizens and Heroes from Amazon, Waterstones or WHSmith.

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