44 Years On: Manchester City’s Last Football League Championship Revisited
The hard work, the experts will tell you, has been done. Victories against Manchester United and Newcastle United have taken Manchester City to the cusp of their first English league championship in almost four and a half decades and on Sunday afternoon a win against Queens Park Rangers at the City of Manchester Stadium will be enough to return the second part of the dynasty that the club’s lavish owners have set their hearts upon since taking control of it in 2008.
Yet seasoned supporters of Manchester City will be taking little for granted. This is a club that has let them down on more than one occasion in the past, and few will be celebrating too much before the final whistle blows on Sunday afternoon. Nerves will be shredded and fingernails will be ground to the point of non-existence.
Manchester City, however, have been here before. Forty-four years is a long time, when the club last became the champions of England in 1968 they did so on the last day of the season. This was a title win at the end of a season that had been dominated by the north of the country, with four of the top five clubs – Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool and Everton – coming from the north-west, with the other being Leeds United. Yet of these four clubs, Manchester City were probably the outsiders of the bunch. Manchester United were the defending league champions and would complete the 1967/68 season by becoming the first English club to win the European Cup, Liverpool had won the championship the year before that and Everton had won the FA Cup in 1966 and were in the middle of a run that would see them finish below the top six in the table just once in ten years and would end up with them winning the title themselves in 1970.
Manchester City, by contrast, had not enjoyed a great decade up until 1968. Having spent the first years of the decade in mid-table, the club had been relegated in 1963 and took three years to return to the top flight. This return had been masterminded by the managerial team of Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison. Mercer, who had been sacked from his previous job at Aston Villa after having suffered and recovered from a stroke, decided that he needed a younger assistant and selected Allison, who had been brought up as a player in the near-academic atmosphere of West Ham United before losing a lung to tuberculosis in 1957 and enjoying a moderately successful start to his managerial career in the lower divisions with Bath City and Plymouth Argyle and in Canada with the long-defunct Toronto City. Their first season saw the club return to the First Division after three years away, and their second saw the club consolidate in the lower reaches of the top flight, finishing in fifteenth place in the table. Few, however, could have predicted what was to follow next.
The club’s pre-season wasn’t exactly ideal. Club captain Johnny Crossan was sold to Middlesbrough and an attempt purchase World Cup winning goalkeeper Gordon Banks saw the club outbid by Leicester City. On the pitch, the team fared little better in its opening matches with a goalless draw against Liverpool in their opening match followed up by two away defeats at the hands of Southampton and Stoke City. The next few weeks of their season would prove to be something of a roller-coaster, with five successive wins followed up by three successive defeats. What happened next would come to define not only the remainder of this season for Manchester City, but arguably the next half decade of the club’s history. The club had already made a tentative move into the transfer market with the signing of goalkeeper Ken Mulhearn from Stockport County, but were forced through injury to throw him in at the deep end for his debut in a derby match at home against Manchester United in front of what would turn out to be a season-high crowd of almost 63,000 people. United won that match by two goals to one, but Mulhearn kept his place in the team and would stay there for the remainder of the season.
Mulhearn, however, was just a warm-up act for what Mercer had planned in the transfer market. Francis Lee, a squat confident striker from Bolton, had signed for his local club, Bolton Wanderers, in 1959 at the age of fifteen and went on to score ninety-two goals in one hundred and thirty-nine matches for the club over the following eight years. It took a club record fee of £60,000 to prize Lee from Burnden Park, but Mercer regarded him as “final piece in the jigsaw” and his impact upon the team was immediate. He made his debut in a win against Wolverhampton Wanderers that marked the beginning of an eleven match unbeaten run and scored his first goal for the club a week later during a win at Filbert Street against Leicester City. This run would include a run of six wins in seven matches, with the only points dropped coming at Goodison Park in a draw with Everton.
By the time that Tottenham Hotspur visited Maine Road in December, Manchester City were starting to attract serious attention as title challengers and, prior to the match, the BBCs Kenneth Wolstenholme – who was commentating as the club made its first appearance on Match Of The Day of the season – described this team as “the most exciting team in England” and, on a snow-covered pitch and playing using studs that had been modified at the request of captain Tony Book, City lived up to their billing with a 4-1 win that might have ended with a considerably greater margin of victory had it not been for an outstanding performance from Pat Jennings in the Spurs goal. After the match, one Spurs player told reporter Ken Jones of the Daily Mirror that “City moved like Olympic speed skaters while we were falling around like clowns on a skid patch”, while the Spurs manager Bill Nicholson, magnanimous as ever, commented that “City may have gained some sort of advantage from their boots, but the difference went much deeper than that.”
This win moved Manchester City to within a point of the top of the First Division table, and ended up being voted as Match Of The Day’s “Match Of The Season” for 1967/68. At least in part due to the lack of coverage of the club on the television that season – they only appeared three times on Match Of The Day and four times on commercial channel ABC Television’s World Of Soccer show over the course of the entire season – this match has become canonised by supporters of club as “The Ballet On Ice”, but the unbeaten run couldn’t last forever and came to an end with two successive defeats at the hands of West Bromwich Albion either side of the Christmas break. The FA Cup didn’t provide much of a distraction, however. They required a replay to beat Reading in the Third Round of the competition and lost to Leicester City, again after a replay, in the next round. In the league, however, the team’s form held until a 2-0 defeat at the hands of Leeds United meant that a trip to Old Trafford took on even greater importance than even a Manchester derby might ordinarily have done. This time, however, they got revenge for their defeat in the corresponding fixture earlier in the season at Maine Road with goals from Colin Bell, defender George Heslop and Francis Lee bringing them a 3-1 win.
For the remainder of the season, City kept the others at arm’s length and went into their final match of the season at St James Park against Newcastle United knowing that a win would be enough for them to lift the title. If they failed to win, however, either Manchester United – level on points with them at kick-off but with an inferior goal average record – or Liverpool – three points behind but with two matches to play – could still snatch the title. It proved to be an eventful afternoon on Tyneside, with City taking the lead three times in a 4-3 win, before finding out that the result was academic anyway because Manchester United had lost their final match of the season at home to a Sunderland side that finished in fifteenth place in the table, while Liverpool lost their game in hand. For only the second time in the history of the club – and the first time since 1937 – Manchester City were the champions of England.
A couple of weeks later, City’s spell in the limelight would be curtailed when Manchester United beat Benfica by four goals to one to become the first English club to win the European Cup, and Malcolm Allison’s claims that his team could “terrify Europe” fell flat when City were eliminated from the following year’s competition in the first round at the hands of the Turkish champions, Fenerbahce. The team couldn’t continue its form in the league, either, with a disappointing tenth place finish the following season, although the club did accomplish the not-inconsiderable consolation of winning the FA Cup in 1969 by beating Leicester City at Wembley, while the 1969/70 season saw the club win the European Cup Winners Cup by beating the Polish side Górnik Zabrze in the final and the League Cup – against West Bromwich Albion – to bring the trophy tally at Maine Road to four in just three seasons.
Mercer and Allison would have the fall-out that some might have predicted during the 1970/71 season. When there was an attempt to buy the club out, Allison was offered the manager’s position whilst Mercer supported those already in charge. Mercer left the club for Coventry City but Allison – despite a fourth placed finish in 1972 – was unable to replicate the success that he had enjoyed with Mercer and resigned his position in the spring of 1973. His return to the club six years later was less successful still. Having spent heavily on the team – including a British transfer record fee on Steve Daley, whose name would go on to become a byword for the risks of the big money transfers of the time when he failed spectacularly – and left the club the following year. Malcolm Allison died in September 2010 at the age of eighty-three. Mercer, meanwhile, stayed at Coventry City until 1974 before retiring after a brief spell as the caretaker England manager following the departure of Alf Ramsey following England’s elimination from the 1974 World Cup in their final qualifying match. Joe Mercer died on his seventy-sixth birthday, in August 1990. A road is named for him at The City Of Manchester Stadium.
For all of the exuberance of Malcolm Allison, though, Manchester City’s 1968 First Division league championship was rooted in Joe Mercer’s ability to rein in his wilder excesses. Francis Lee may have been the big money signing, but their top scorer that season was the late Neil Young, who scored twenty-one goals in all competitions that season, and among the other players that were the backbone of the championship winning team were other players oft-forgotten outside of the blue half of Manchester such as Alan Oakes, Glyn Pardoe and Tony Coleman. These were players in the mould of Joe Mercer – unassuming and quietly effective, players who came together at the right time and complemented the likes of Lee, Mike Summerbee and Colin Bell to perfection. If – or when – Manchester City overcome the inevitable nerves against Queens Park Rangers on Sunday afternoon, it might even be that the current batch of players join the hall of fame of which the above are members, and for all the talk of the money that got them amongst the elite, it is upon these intangible glories that football’s foundations are built. It’s a lesson that Roberto Mancini may even be pondering ahead of the visit of Queens Park Rangers on Sunday afternoon – win this match and half of a city in the north of England will never forget the names of him or his team.
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