Neil Young: Footballer whose elegant, artistic talents made him an unsung hero of Manchester City's golden age

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The Independent Online

The most successful and entertaining period in Manchester City's history to date, the late 1960s and early 1970s, has entered football folklore as the Lee, Bell and Summerbee era. It's a convenient tag paying tribute to three exceptional and highly contrasting footballers, but it does scant justice to their elegant fellow attacker Neil Young, who was at the heart of all their most glorious triumphs under the inspirational guidance of manager Joe Mercer and coach Malcolm Allison.

The lanky, long-striding left-footer, who belied his willowy build witha shot of fearsome velocity, was City's top scorer both when they won the Second Division title in 1966 and then lifted the League Championship two years later, securnig it with a dramatic last-day victory at Newcastle, to which Young contributed two scintillating strikes.

In 1969 he lashed home the only goal of the FA Cup final victory over Leicester City. Then in 1970 he netted twice as the Blues beat Schalke in the semi-final of the European Cup-Winners' Cup, and was on target yet again as the trophy was claimed by defeating Gornik Zabrze of Poland in the final on a soaking night in Vienna.

Francis Lee, Colin Bell and Mike Summerbee played mightily, too, of course, but to exclude such a talismanic performer as the popular local boy Young from the widely accepted definition of that fabulous sequence seems more than a tad perverse.

Young always maintained stoutly that he was unfazed by the omission, but he was a sensitive soul who encountered hard times after retiring from football, and it is difficult to believe that he wasn't hurt by the lack of overt recognition. He could, and did, take consolation, however, in the certain knowledge that he was never underrated by his team-mates and supporters at Maine Road. They understood the full worth of Neil Young; they knew it was immense.

Always taller than his contemporaries, Young was a central defender as a lad growing up in Fallowfield, but as he progressed to represent Manchester Boys his talent as an athletic front-running maker and taker of goals came naturally to the fore.

Duly he signed amateur forms for City as a 15-year-old in 1959, working as a trainee electrician until he turned professional in February 1961. Thereafter he rose rapidly, making his senior debut in a 2-1 defeat at Aston Villa 10 months later, shining so brightly that he retained the right-wing berth for the remainder of the campaign and stayed a regular in the side for a decade.

At that point, however, as Young's star ascended, City's headed in the opposite direction and they were relegated from the top flight. The team had declined into mediocrity and beyond under Les McDowall, a process which continued under another old-fashioned manager, George Poyser, but which was reversed spectacularly by the arrival at Maine Road of Mercer and Allison in the summer of 1965.

That pair transformed the club, with the genial Mercer's wisdom and man-management skills complemented perfectly by the visionary coaching methods of the flamboyant Allison.

Young's confidence burgeoned accordingly, and in 1965-66 he scored 14 times, mostly from the left wing but also as a central marksman, as City lifted the Second Division title with plenty to spare.

There followed a season of mid-table consolidation among the élite, during which Young laid lasting claim to the No 10 shirt in which he was to enjoy his pomp. He relished his maturing alliance with the clever, combative right-winger Summerbee and the creative, prodigiously industrious inside-forward Bell, and when the bustling Lee arrived in the following autumn a potent front five of Lee, Bell, Summerbee, Young and left-winger Tony Coleman was complete.

Now Young – dubbed affectionately as "Nelly" by some admirers who reckoned he didn't relish a full-blooded physical challenge – gave full rein to his repertoire of pace and grace. He was quick-footed in controlling the ball, a lovely, artistic passer and an expert finisher as he roamed to all attacking areas, scoring 19 times in 40 games, topped by a ripping volley and an acute-angled slot at St James' Park as the Championship was wrested deliciously from neighbours United on the season's final afternoon.

If the 1968-69 season was marred by shock capitulation to Fenerbahce of Turkey in the European Cup, and a disappointingly humdrum First Division record, it was garnished by the FA Cup triumph, the enduring memory of which was Young's fulminating left-foot drive from a typically cute Summerbee set-up. He missed the 1970 League Cup final victory over West Bromwich Albion to be present at the birth of his third child, but by season's end his European heroics had emphasised once more his place among City's most influential performers.

But lying in wait was a hammer blow from which the 26-year-old's still-climaxing career would never recover. Early in 1971 he was devastatedby the death of his elder brother Chris, to whom he had been exceedinglyclose, and although he helped the Bluesreach that season's Cup-Winners' Cup semi-final – which was lost to Chelsea – he would never regain prime form.

Thus drained emotionally, he slipped out of contention during the 1971-72 season, yet still, when he was soldto Preston North End of the Second Division for £48,000 in January 1972, having scored 108 goals in a littlemore than 400 appearances, he was demoralised to be deemed surplus to requirements by the club he had adored since childhood and which had been his only employer.

On arrival at Deepdale he wasstruggling for fitness, and North End never saw anything like the best of him. Still, for three seasons, first under Alan Ball Snr and then with Bobby Charlton at the helm, he offered craft and experience and a few goals to a poor side who were relegated to the Third Division in 1974.

That summer he moved to Rochdale, freshly relegated to the basementdivision, where their struggles continued. So, too, did Young's, and after one miserable year he retired from the game, something of a lost soul. It was a poignant exit by the former England youth international, whom many sound judges had tipped for a place in Sir Alf Ramsey's World Cup squad in 1970 but for whom the call never came.

Now Young embarked on a lengthy period of personal torment. With no job to go to after leaving Rochdale,he signed on the dole, and felt degraded by the experience. In time he worked as removal man, sports shop manager, milkman, supermarket shelf-stacker and insurance salesman. He went through two divorces, first from the mother of his three children, thento another woman, with whom hehad a daughter, eventually returning to live with his mother. His healthdeclined – back problems and deep-vein thrombosis proved particularly debilitating – and at one point he attempted suicide through an overdose of painkillers.

But redemption was at hand. In 1988 Young met Carmen, who would become his third wife, and with whom he remained happily for the rest of his life. With his fortunes now on an upward trajectory, he found fulfilment coaching boys. He also made a return to the Manchester City community – from which he had been split since leaving Maine Road, partly because he had never been allotted the testimonial match which he felt to be his due and which he maintained had been promised him by Malcolm Allison – and he was warmed by the esteem in which he was still held by former comrades and fans.

In December last year he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and when the FA Cup draw pitted Manchester City against Leicester City – the opponents vanquished by Young's goal in the 1969 final – the Eastlands club dedicated the match to him. Some 3,000 scarves were produced in the red-and-black colours worn on that memorable Wembley occasion, and were sported at the recent game by City fans as well as the club's manager Roberto Mancini. Proceeds from their sale was split between Young and the cancer unit at Wythenshawe where he was being treated.

Ivan Ponting

Neil James Young, footballer; born Manchester, 17 February 1944; played for Manchester City 1961-72, Preston North End 1972-74, Rochdale 1974-75; married three times, divorced twice; son and two daughters from first marriage, daughter from second; died 3 February 2011.