The days of
Citizens & heroes
by James Lawton
Reviewed by Ian Farrell
From WSC 346 December 2015
Manchester City’s dynamic, highly successful but long-underappreciated side of the late 1960s has finally started to become a familiar literary subject over the last decade. The title- and multi-cup-winning team’s brilliance, camaraderie and innovation have been comprehensively dissected in several fan-written books, autobiographies by Colin Bell, Mike Summerbee and Mike Doyle, individual biographies of genial boss Joe Mercer and charismatic coach Malcolm Allison, and even a novelisation of the managerial relationship.
The thought then of yet another run through of the same anecdotes might not prompt much initial enthusiasm, but it would be a shame if presumed familiarity put City fans off a book of the scope and detail of James Lawton’s Forever Boys.
Lawton, former chief sportswriter at the Independent and co-author of Bobby Charlton’s memoirs, followed events closely as a young Manchester-based reporter, and it’s that balance between insider knowledge and an outsider’s perspective that gives the book its angle. It forgoes a chronological history of the team’s rise and fall from 1965 to 1972, and instead presents friendly, nostalgic conversations with each of the surviving characters in turn.
This inevitably leads to some overlap and repetition, but there are enough distinctive personalities and voices, from the no-nonsense Francis Lee to the insightful Joe Corrigan, to provide sufficient variation in tone and focus to keep things moving.
The book is a celebration of a team, of its togetherness and style, but the story is woven through with sadness. The joy of being young and successful flows through the interviews, but for many players there is also the dark counterpoint as they segue down through the lower leagues and back into the real world. Few footballers from that time seem to have found true peace and comfort in later life, and financial hardship, alcoholism and illness are familiar themes.
Allison – who for all his faults emerges as a deeply loved figure and the hero of the narrative – struggled with all three, but at least he somehow lived to genuine old age; Neil Young and Doyle, both a generation younger, outlived him by less than year. Add in the deep and widespread regret at the one major rifts in the happy family – the continued estrangement of Lee and Bell – and the basic fact of the author and his subjects having to come to terms with life past 70, and the book mixes in plenty of melancholy with its happy memories.
Whatever glories the current incarnation of Manchester City might achieve, the days of Mercer and Allison will always hold a special place in the affection of older supporters. Whether the wider footballing public would accord the team a high enough status for the book to cross over beyond City fans is debatable, but for those with an emotional attachment to the times, Forever Boys is a fascinating portrait of – and tribute to – the men who did so much for the club.