The night of 29 April 1970 is among the most famous in English football. As Chelsea overcame Leeds in the FA Cup final replay at Old Trafford, David Webb nodding an extra-time winner, an estimated 28 million viewers were watching. In the history of British television, only the 1966 World Cup final has received a wider audience for a sporting event.
On that same night a Manchester City team just as successful as their Leeds and Chelsea contemporaries collected their second trophy of the season, winning the European Cup Winners’ Cup by beating Poland’s Gornik Zabrze 2-1. Played in front of only 7,968 people in Vienna and with those back home granted only grainy late-night highlights on BBC Two, it is an occasion rather lost in the wake of events at Old Trafford and the deeper mists of time.
About 4,000 City fans travelled to the club’s only European final before the one in Porto on Saturday, to a stadium that could have housed 80,000. “The support then wasn’t the same as it these days,” says Arthur Harrison, then a 21-year-old engineer from Hyde. He had bunked off work to travel from Ringway airport with five friends. “You get huge crowds going to Europe now. It was all very new but it was an experience that’s lasted a lifetime.”
That night in the roofless Praterstadion, played out in conditions Harrison describes as “torrential, we were saturated”, represented the end of the cycle for the team constructed by the partnership of Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison, the last trophy they celebrated together.
Allison was a relentless ideas man, his philosophy forged in the cafes around Upton Park as one of the brains behind the moulding of West Ham as a footballing academy. Mercer, a league-winning captain with Arsenal, was the statesman whose diplomacy could curb Allison’s worst excesses. The younger man, soon to become a household name after that summer’s ITV World Cup broadcasts, was entering his cigars and fedora phase and would celebrate victory in Vienna in a blizzard of champagne. Together, they had built up a team from the Second Division to win the First Division in 1968 and FA Cup in 1969. Facing Gornik followed beating West Brom in the League Cup final the previous month.
“They were great together,” says Tommy Booth, the then 20-year-old centre-half Allison used as a sweeper in City’s final training session to get his forwards acclimatised to Gornik’s defensive setup. “Malcolm was a great coach and trainer but Joe was a guiding light for him and stepped in whenever he thought things weren’t working. Malcolm was always wanting to try things while Joe would say we could only do things in matches if they had worked in training during the week. Of course, Malcolm wanted to do stuff straight away.”
The Cup Winners’ Cup was a triumph yet also something of a consolation. After edging out Manchester United to win the 1968 league title, Allison had predicted City would succeed their neighbours as European Cup winners. “I promise you City will attack these people as they have not been attacked since the days of the old Real Madrid,” he said. “I think a lot of these European people are cowards.” City’s participation in the 1968-69 European Cup ended in the first round after losing to Fenerbahce. They would have to settle instead for winning the FA Cup at the end of that season to reach what was then Europe’s secondary competition.
Having beaten Athletic Bilbao, Belgium’s Lierse, Portugal’s Académica de Coimbra and then Schalke, City faced Gornik without one of their famed triumvirate of stars. Mike Summerbee had failed a fitness test, and Colin Bell was forced to adopt a deeper role when Mike Doyle was carried off early on after a tackle from Stefan Florenski. That left Francis Lee to seize the stage. His electric display of skating through the quagmire of a pitch was described by Paul Fitzpatrick in the next morning’s Guardian as “indefatigable, nigh irresistible, continually embarrassing the Gornik defence”.
It was from the rebound of a parried Lee shot that Neil Young gave City a 13th-minute lead. Two minutes before half-time, Young was bodychecked by the goalkeeper Hubert Kostka for a penalty that Lee blasted home off Kostka’s flailing legs. Young, who had scored the winner in the previous year’s FA Cup final defeat of Leicester, was a quiet man in the dressing room but City’s man for the big occasion. “Everyone would say Lee, Bell, Summerbee but all the lads would say don’t forget Neil Young,” says Booth. “He was different class, a great finisher too.”
It was left to Booth and George Heslop in central defence to ward off a Gornik attack that included Wlodzimierz Lubanski, one of Europe’s best strikers, and whose goal in June 1973 would puncture England’s hopes of qualifying for the 1974 World Cup. In worsening conditions, Stanislaw Oslizlo got a 68th-minute goal, but City held on so that 36-year-old Tony Book could lift the club’s fourth trophy in three years.
In victory, Allison again took aim at European football’s elites, saying “their like are not in the same league as us. We go and throw ourselves at teams, going for goals all the time”. Back at City’s hotel, he led festivities that included Lee dancing on a piano to the accompaniment of the club’s chief scout, Harry Godwin, tinkling away. Summerbee, back then George Best’s partner in carousal on the Manchester scene and taking on the role of social secretary, spotted the Gornik players commiserating in another room in the hotel, and invited them to the City party. “Mike knew everyone,” says Booth. “He went down and brought them all in. All the wives and girlfriends had got absolutely drenched and by the time they had got changed and come to join us, we were all absolutely legless with the other team.”
Vienna was the last of the glory nights under Mercer and Allison, the latter’s ambition to be fully in charge driving a schism between them. A boardroom battle ended with Allison taking over team matters in October 1971 before Mercer walked away once relations between the pair became irreparable. Soon enough, Mercer became manager of Coventry and later a highly popular caretaker for England. Booth, who played in both the one-year spells (1972-73 and 1979-80) “Big Mal” was in sole charge, says: “Malcolm was a great coach but he wasn’t the best manager. It didn’t go well for him.”
City would win only one further trophy, the League Cup in 1976, until the club’s rebirth under the ownership of Sheikh Mansour. The break-up of what Allison later described as an “implicit friendship and understanding” ended their previous great era.