Book that changed a shy hero's life

The Man They Called Nijinsky: Old City thoroughbred wouldn't swap memories for trappings of today
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Halfway through an hour-long interview at a hotel near Manchester Airport, a middle-aged man approaches diffidently and asks: "Colin Bell, isn't it? Could I just shake your hand and say how much pleasure you gave me. I've read your book and it made me cry."

It is difficult to know which of them is more embarrassed. The title of that book* includes the words "Reluctant Hero" and even 40 years after first joining Manchester City, the subject of it has never really adjusted to the idea of standing out from the crowd, let alone being City supporters' favourite player of all time. Spotted walking through the city at the height of his fame, he would claim: "No, I'm not Colin Bell, you're mixing me up with someone else."

The decision last year to cooperate with an autobiography, then, was not lightly taken. But it probably saved his life. "A specialist in bowel cancer called Mr Hill at the Royal Hospital where my son Jon works was given the book as a Christmas present," he recalled, "and after reading that my mother died very young of bowel cancer he said I should be checked out. My son kept on at me so I eventually went and saw this same specialist. Within 10 days of getting the test results, I was having an operation. The doctor said I would have had no symptoms, and in anything from six months to five years I could have been dead. That's why I want people to be aware of this, and why all these family trees they're doing on television should look at the health of relatives as well. Take Bobby Moore, dead at 51. If it had been diagnosed early enough, he could still have been here."

Bell's mother had died when he was barely a year old, and he did not know until the age of six or seven that the woman he called "mum" was in fact an aunt. A further trauma occurred shortly afterwards when his father, a hard-working miner who had been living elsewhere, and the aunt stood in the road holding one each of his hands and arguing about which of them Colin and his older sister should live with. The father won, his sister took on the role of mum, and the young Bell boy slowly found himself in football. "I think my shyness all went back to those days," he now says. "I don't like the limelight even today."

It was typical that in 1964, aged 17, he should happily sign for Bury, because everyone there seemed friendly, even though more fashionable clubs including Newcastle United in his native North-east were interested. At 19, he was captain and being watched regularly by Malcolm Allison, who would tell everyone what a bad player this Bell was, until the price was low enough (£45,000) for City to afford. Allison soon nicknamed his new acquisition Nijinsky after the Triple Crown racehorse; though there was something of the ballet dancer too about a player whose favourite film is Billy Elliott ("substitute football boots for the ballet shoes and Billy Elliott could be me").

"Malcolm Allison," Bell insists, "was the best coach there has ever been. Not the best manager but the best coach. He and Joe Mercer were a great combination. Malcolm was way ahead of his time." And what times they were; winning the League championship on the final day of the 1967-68 season with a 4-3 victory at Newcastle to finish just ahead of the hated Manchester United; then the FA Cup and European Cup-Winners' Cup, all in successive seasons.

Bell was a formidable contributor, the ultimate box-to-box player, with extraordinary stamina first built up "running everywhere in our village, with a tennis ball at my feet"; capable of passing long and short; and possessing a ferocious shot that brought a goal almost every three games while operating in midfield. One of his proudest rewards was a total of 48 England caps between 1968 and 1975, under two very different managers: "Alf Ramsey knew football inside out and was a player's manager. Don Revie was very different, he tried to bring the Leeds thing into the England set-up and I don't think it worked. There were things that should have been left at Leeds, like having to come together for half an hour to play bingo."

Philosophical enough to believe that "everything happens for a reason", even the easy-going Bell is entitled to wonder about the reasoning behind a severe knee injury in 1977, after which on his own admission he was never the same player. Like many of his generation he suffered from rushing back too soon, partly from financial necessity.

"You made your money up by appearance money and bonuses. If you didn't play, you didn't get a good wage." After playing his last game for City in May 1979, he spent a decade running a restaurant, then returned to Maine Road as part of the youth set-up, only to be sacked under the chairmanship of his former team-mate Francis Lee (whom he has never quite forgiven).

These days, happily, he is a match-day host at the City of Manchester Stadium, where a stand is named after him. He finds much of modern football mundane, even with "bowling-green pitches and balls that control themselves", and not for £75,000 a week "hand on heart" would the reluctant hero want to swap his career with any 21st- century superstar on the front cover of OK! But he is glad he wrote that book.

* "Colin Bell - Reluctant Hero" (Mainstream paperback £7.95)