Eric Bell did his heroic damnedest to prevent one of the most ecstatically acclaimed football results of the 20th century. The steely Mancunian's contribution to the 1953 FA Cup final, in which national treasure Stanley Matthews inspired Blackpool to a breathtakingly dramatic late victory, was to score the goal which had seemed likely to ensure a Wembley triumph for their Lancashire rivals Bolton Wanderers.
And it wasn't just any old strike, but one which required immense courage and athleticism, given that – in the dark era when important games were often ruined because substitutes were not allowed to replace injured combatants – left-half Bell was a hobbling passenger on the wing, barely able to walk after tearing a hamstring only 18 minutes into the action.
However, with Bolton having made light of their handicap to seize a 2-1 half-time advantage, the Wanderers winger Doug Holden delivered a tempting cross 10 minutes into the second period – and the invalid contrived somehow to climb above his marker, Eddie Shimwell, and steer an adroit header beyond the unavailing grasp of the Blackpool goalkeeper George Farm.
At 3-1 up, the 10-man Trotters looked odds-on to prevail, which would have doomed Matthews to a third FA Cup final defeat in six years – and at the age of 38, the great man was deemed unlikely to get another chance to secure that elusive winner's medal. But depleted Bolton were tiring on the lush Wembley turf and the remarkable Matthews was merciless, exploiting the extra space afforded by Bell's immobility to mount relentless pressure on the Wanderers goal and turn the game around.
First, the "Wizard of Dribble" sent in Stan Mortensen to make it 3-2, then Mortensen completed his hat-trick with an equaliser from a free-kick in the 89th minute. Cue the climactic thrust as Matthews danced past two exhausted defenders to set up the winner for Bill Perry some 180 seconds into injury time. Thus neutrals all over the land rejoiced unrestrainedly at the veteran's fulfilment, and poor Bell was left to limp away to the dressing room clutching a loser's medal, his defiant strike reduced to a footnote in Wembley history.
There had been a time, after he was recruited by Manchester United as a teenage amateur inside-forward in October 1949, when the promising local boy – he was born in Clayton, home of United until their 1910 move to Old Trafford – had nursed legitimate hopes of glory as one of Matt Busby's emerging Babes. But after only a month he was released by Busby, who later admitted to regretting that decision after Bell had been converted into a stylish wing-half by Bolton, whom he had joined soon after his Old Trafford exit.
Having made his senior entrance as an inside-left in a 4-1 home defeat by Tottenham Hotspur in August 1950, he featured mainly for the reserves before displacing Tommy Neill as the first team's regular left-half in January 1953. Bell was ever-present as Bolton, fortified by the goals of rumbustious England centre-forward Nat Lofthouse, battled past Fulham, Notts County, Luton Town, Gateshead and Everton to reach that Wembley date with Blackpool.
The 1953-54 season proved to be the best of his career as he excelled in a well-balanced half-back line alongside Johnny Wheeler and Malcolm Barrass. He missed only a handful of games as the Trotters finished fifth in the top flight, and he was rewarded by call-ups for England "B" and the Football League, both against their Scottish counterparts.
Far more of a prompter and stopper than a goalscorer, Bell contributed the only League goal of his career in a 6-1 humbling of the reigning champions, Wolverhampton Wanderers, at Burnden Park in February 1955, but then his career momentum was severely jolted when he suffered a broken leg. He reclaimed the No 6 shirt in the spring of 1957 when his replacement, the slightly younger Bryan Edwards, was deployed temporarily at left-back, then centre-half.
Thereafter Bell lost his place again and retired in 1958 after another leg injury, and so was not a candidate for Wembley redemption in the Bolton side that beat Manchester United to lift that year's FA Cup.
Eric Bell, footballer: born Clayton, Manchester 27 November 1929; played for Bolton Wanderers 1949-58; married (one son); died Wythenshawe, Manchester 22 July 2012.