James Lawton’s Forever Boys is a retrospective look at the Manchester City team of the late 1960s, early 70s. They won the League, the FA cup and the European Cup Winners’ Cup, known then as the Fairs Cup, in three consecutive years, from 1968 to 71. Their three most famous players – all gifted attacking footballers – were Colin Bell, Francis Lee and Mike Summerbee, and these three epitomised the fast paced and athletic passing game that gave the team so much success.
James Lawton was a sports writer on the northern desk of one of the national papers – the Express I think – in the days when Manchester had a strong national media presence. I can remember the Express building from driving past it with my father. It is an icon really: impressive, grade 2 listed, built in 1939. It was a Manchester landmark, and Lawton remembers this City team in the same way, as a local and national sporting landmark.
Lawton was prompted to write Forever Boys to capture the history of the team at a time when some were at the end of their lives – George Heslop, Neil Young, Mike Doyle and Harry Dowd all having passed away already this century. And so he set out to meet and interview some of those remaining, both to celebrate and to record the team’s success.
Lawton celebrates the vigour and genius of Malcolm Allison, the coach who Joe Mercer, newly installed as manager in 1965, hired from Plymouth Argyle. Allison’s vision and enthusiasm was coupled with an inspirational touch as a man manager, and with the addition of Summerbee, Bell and a year later Francis Lee, the team gained promotion from the second division, then after a year of consolidation went on to the 3 year winning streak described above.
Joe Mercer was an affable old head and his partnership with Allison was heaven sent. Lawton describes some of the matches and events – and these are especially interesting to read about when they bring memories of matches you saw. For me the 4-1 hammering one wintry day of a Spurs team containing great players such as Jimmy Greaves – a match christened The Ballet on Ice – was one such example. The description of the way the city players filed down their studs so the nails were showing and thus would grip the icy pitch really did knock me back though. I’d always put the win down to City’s brilliance at football rather than other less noble shenanigans.
Lawton has a close knowledge of the players, who have clearly opened up to him, and so there is a lot to learn from behind the scenes, and about their subsequent histories. The bad blood that Colin Bell now apparently feels for Francis Lee, who, when Chairman of City in the 1990s, sacked Bell as youth team coach, came as a sad surprise to me. Come on Colin – get over it!!
The book is organised around a series of interviews – with the players, with a former director and with some family members. The problem with this is that the same points and issues keep on coming back, so there is a some repetition.
So, the downfall of the team is discussed in almost every chapter. It’s widely attributed to the fact that Joe Mercer was sidelined and Allison, notorious as a high living, champagne drinking playboy, promoted instead. He did not realise that his main ability was as a coach, not a manager. Another issue was the recruitment of Rodney Marsh, a talented player, but one who did not fit in with City’s passing game. According to the players this lost them the chance of a second league title: I would agree.
I was disappointed by some aspects of the book. Lawton acknowledges the talent of Glynn Pardoe – sadly hacked down in a career ending tackle by Georgie Best, but I think there could have been more said about the contribution of some of these less well known players. Pardoe was really so good – world class I would say. It did seem cruelly ironical that Colin Bell – the greatest of the three City stars in my opinion, also lost his career to a bad tackle from a United player – Martin Buchan. Though these were probably not malicious challenges they were hard to forgive at the time.
One player who is not mentioned is Stan Bowles. He’s widely regarded as a QPR player, but I remember what I assume must have been his debut during one Wednesday night game. Bowles came on as a substitute at half time on the left wing and twice waltzed around the opposition to score. At the time it felt like there was an infinite conveyor belt of great talent ready to step in to the team – they had just won the league, if my memory was right, and here they were hiding a talent like Bowles. Ian Bowyer was there too, coming through from the youth ranks. Later he was a European Cup winner with Nottingham Forest. Again he is not mentioned.
Forever Boys may be a book for old men. Lawton starts the book looking back at his own life and there is quite a lot of philosophising in the opening section before he gets down to writing about City. It’s also a book for City fans who want to know more about a historic and successful period of the club – though I think this is more accessible to someone viewing the old tapes: it’s a pity the club doesn’t make more of this period by making these available on DVD at the store.
For the general reader I’d say there are better choices – having said that I got this as a Christmas present, and shot through it at double my usual rate, so for a City fan of my age – priceless.