by Mike Summerbee & Jim Holden
Reviewed by Ian Farrell
From WSC 260 October 2008
In an attempt to sell Mike Summerbee’s autobiography beyond a niche market of Manchester City fans, George Best is pictured alongside him on the back cover, while his minor role in Escape to Victory is hyped in the dust-jacket blurb. With few of his great moments – or massive bust-ups – caught on tape, and his eight-cap England career covering little of note, Summerbee’s impact on the collective consciousness is surprisingly slight for such a great player. He will always be thought of in relation to other people: as Best’s best friend in the Swinging Sixties, as one third of the Bell-Lee-Summerbee triumvirate, or as “Nicky’s dad”.
This is a book that relies on colourful anecdotes, and sure enough there are plenty of good stories about Best, Bobby Moore, Malcolm Allison, Pelé, Michael Caine and a mini-skirted cast of thousands. But there is a great sense of sadness, too, as Summerbee reflects on a childhood marked by loneliness and learning difficulties and on the heavy toll the game took on his footballer father, George.
Mike began by slogging through the lower leagues with Swindon but the main focus of the book is on his hugely successful decade as a fiery winger at Manchester City. The ongoing feud between former team-mates Francis Lee and Colin Bell provides interesting insight, as he has somehow been able to stay close to both individually without alienating the other. Whatever his faults, many people from varied backgrounds have found him easy to like – camaraderie and friendship are dominant themes throughout.
Sadly, the book is marred by endless reactionary complaining. There are no characters in the game any more, referees used to have a laugh with you, today’s powder puffs wouldn’t have lasted two minutes with Chopper Harris, policemen used to let players off drink-driving and strip-club busts with a knowing chuckle, and so forth.
But the very worst parts are when Summerbee gets into footballing morality. He has that annoying trait of getting very sanctimonious about “cheating”, before revelling in tales of two-footed tackles and sly right-handers. He proudly tells us about City players delivering “The Gymnasium Treatment” – that is, dragging any opponent thought to have been “dirty or cowardly” into the Maine Road gym and giving them a thrashing – while happily relating countless instances of leaving his foot in. All this was just a case of him “looking after himself” apparently. He was not, he assures us repeatedly, a dirty player.
Much of the rest is skirted over: the career wind-down at Stockport, the shirt manufacturing business, his return to City as a matchday greeter, and son Nicky’s painful targeting by the boo-boys during his own spell at Maine Road in the mid-1990s.
This is really aimed at those nostalgia freaks fascinated by the booze, blondes and boutiques culture of the late Sixties/early Seventies. And if that audience also loves a little hypocritical moral outrage, all the better.