UPDATE 6 FEBRUARY 2013 – Flowers of Manchester RIP
It’s taken me sometime to get round to updating this blog but today seemed an appropriate day to do so, considering Eric himself was a Busby Babe pre-Munich and a friend of Duncan Edwards.
Sadly & unfortunately, Eric Bell, ex-Manchester United amateur and scorer for Bolton Wanderers in the legendary 1953 FA Cup Final passed away last July in Wythenshawe. The first I heard of it was an email out of the blue from Eric’s granddaughter Sonya, late on a Sunday evening, only the day after he died. The email mentioned how the family had found and enjoyed this blog I’d written and they thought I’d want to know.
I’d been dozing off on the sofa after a rare sunny day but quickly found myself pouring a whisky to help digest the sad news as I revisited old memories. I was genuinely upset but at the same time I felt a tinge of pride that the blog had found a way to it’s original subject.
After a couple of email exchanges the following day, I was told that Ivy, Eric’s wife had read the blog to him and though he was suffering terribly from Alzheimers, the sentiment had sunk in.
This meant so much to me and I so hope it did.
My father and I went to Southern Cemetery the following week to pay our respects and to say I was choked with emotion was an understatement. I was completely engulfed by goosebumps as a huge chunk of my blog was used as part of the eulogy. To the extent that I nearly had to excuse myself, due to this strange feeling that gripped me. It was such an honour. Though my father had a heavy cold and had to go home, I stayed on and joined the family afterwards and though a sad occasion it was lovely to catch up after so many years.
On a sad day for English football, tonight was definitely the time to close the loop on this story and though I suspect his religious belief would have otherwise, I personally hope Eric is tonight kicking a football about in heaven with the Babes.
I promised Ivy I’d keep in touch and have finally made contact this evening, sending pictures of my boys and sharing family news. I won’t leave it so long next time. Rest in peace Eric.
The original blog from 2009 >>>
Growing up in Manchester is always going to bring you into direct contact with footballers past and present. Some of these experiences are extremely pleasant like sharing a flight from Schiphol to Milan with ex-United 60s/70s player Carlo Sartori back in 1999 to watch United play Inter (I had played Sunday league football with Sartori Jr as a boy and my dad also knew the family through the deli).
Brought up in Collyhurst, Carlo played 55 times for United but had now settled near myself in Wythenshawe. He’d come down and watch us play for Hazel Grove as kids but when I boarded the flight in Amsterdam I hadn’t seen the old man for donkeys years but still, someone who had shared changing rooms with the likes of Best, Law and Charlton, remembered his boy’s old teammate. I was honoured.
Equally memorable, if a little distant, was having Roy Keane and his dog watching me deliver the closest performance I will ever deliver to the man himself on a Hale Sunday league park a few years ago. He simply couldn’t walk away from the action and I’m so glad I reserved the one decent performance of my senior career for that day alone.
Other experiences were less pleasant. Like when Brian Kidd told this wannabe 12 year old, during a coaching session that I “don’t know how to kick a ball properly”. Surely there was a nicer way to destroy my one and only dream at that time? I was to later prove Kiddo wrong by being voted the 2004 Red News 5-a-side Player of the Tournament.
What did he achieve?
However, one experience warms the heart and always raises my spirits above all others. A story of a footballer from a bygone era. In fact I had to remind myself of something I was told a long time ago by his wife and seek out Sir Matt Busby’s pre-Munich autobiography. A rare find but thanks to Ebay mine for the bargain price of £3.50. I’ll come back to this.
It’s not often that an ‘unknown legend’ is your next door neighbour for the first seventeen years of your life but that description would apply to Eric Bell, once of Bolton Wanderers and previously a Manchester United amateur. Mr Bell actually to me. And Mrs Bell, or Ivy to my mum and dad. A lovely couple who were neighbours in the true sense of what it used to mean.
We lived on the corner of Peel Hall Road, they lived next door on the corner of Simonsway. A stranger configuration of ground floor flats you will not find anywhere but their back door backed onto our kitchen window which opened out to the courtyard/car park which is where the story began.
Me and our kid must have played a thousand games of football out there (on our own, with each other, with other local kids) before I realised the importance of who he was. Before that, he would walk by, say hello, smile, offer sporadic and hushed advice on crossing, heading, whatever we were upto and we’d just think ‘yeah, whatever old-timer, leave it to the whippersnappers’.
Twenty years on, I can’t remember how I found out, but Eric wasn’t just any professional footballer. His main claim to fame was that he scored in the cup final of cup finals. The 1953 FA Cup final to be precise. Sir Stanley Matthews and all that. In fact, not many people know this but Stan Mortensen notched a hat-trick that day (gutted or what for it to be known as the Matthews final after you’ve banged in three at Wembley). And though Matthews eventually ran riot on the right wing it was only because his adversary for the day, Eric Bell, was struck down with a torn hamstring – the sort of injury that has the modern player leaving the field on a stretcher.
To Eric’s great credit and with no substitutes back then he gamely battled on, hobbling round the pitch, even grabbing his headed goal after the injury happened. Incredible stuff – surely no other man has ever scored with such an injury in such an important match. I will quote a little extract from this detailed match report elsewhere on the internet.
“Even given the ultimate joy of scoring in an FA Cup final, Bell’s body and facial expressions betrayed the agony he was feeling as he wheeled away to be congratulated by his teammates”
Eric had put Bolton 3-1 up (the winning goal?)…but of course Blackpool fought back to beat Bolton 4-3 and Matthews was immortalised forever after. But surely Bell’s heroics weren’t only recognised by his young neighbour in Wythenshawe…
“Not only was it obvious that Eric Bell’s injury made a massive difference to the outcome of this game it was simply distressing having to watch a man in such obvious pain risking more serious injury in a desperate attempt to help his team prevail”
And what happened to Eric?
Well in Sir Matt’s 1957 autobiography, I refer you to page 130…where Busby reveals that of all the exceptional young players he moved on through the Babes era, only Eric Bell went on elsewhere to prove him wrong. Busby’s tone is one of regret and if I was Mr Bell I would take that sort of verdict from here to eternity.
The year after the cup final, Eric was playing for England B (it meant something then) alongside the likes of Roger Byrne, Don Revie and Johnny Haynes. He was eventually ousted from his position in that team by the incomparable Duncan Edwards. No further comment necessary.
The following year Eric finally had the chance to represent his country on an FA tour of the West Indies but again misfortune struck and a broken leg on Easter Saturday at Deepdale meant a certain Jimmy Hill took his place and Eric never got the same chance again, not with Duncan Edwards as competition.
I left home at seventeen and my mum and dad have since moved on, going their separate ways, so I’ve mostly lost touch with the Bells but a quick check on Wikipedia confirms that if he is well, Eric will be 80 this weekend. I know that in the latter years he’d struggled with some of the ‘what ifs’ in his life…the main one being the cruel misfortune that prevented him from representing his country, long before an international cap became something akin to scattering confetti at a wedding.
But misfortune aside Mr Bell achieved so much that I would ask all football fans anywhere and everywhere to raise a glass this weekend and toast a true gentleman and an unknown legend.
My neighbour, Eric Bell.