Thursday, March 26, 2020

BLUE BLOOD

Robert Hopkins didn't stay at Maine Road long enough to be appreciated. It was the wrong move at the wrong time, but, as Neil Moxley, a fellow true son of Birmingham, explains, any move away from St Andrews was the wrong move for Hopkins. 

*****

ROBERT Hopkins had blue blood running through his veins – unfortunately, it was the royal blue of Birmingham, rather than the sky blue of Manchester.


Limited as a player and limited in stature he may have been. But he was certainly the sort any team of the 80s wanted in their trenches. In fact, to those who fleetingly saw him play at Maine Road, they may have decided that Hopkins was actually better suited to that line of work.


The only puzzling aspect to the right-winger's career was why, as a die-hard Birmingham City supporter, he ever signed for despised rivals Aston Villa.


Hopkins himself has admitted that during one of his few first-team games for Villa – away at Notts County – he sported a Birmingham City badge over Villa's crest on his claret jersey. Taking a corner, it was spotted by Villa's away fans who began to hurl abuse at him. Hopkins promptly booted the ball out for a goal kick, flicked them the V-sign and ran off, laughing.


Unsurprisingly, shortly afterwards he signed for his favourite club and linked up with the likes of Tony Coton, Noel Blake, Howard Gayle, Mick Harford and Pat Van Den Hauwe. Inevitably, trouble followed the 'Birmingham Six' – both off and on the pitch.


During one match against Watford, play was halted and a policeman strode onto the pitch towards Hopkins who was being marked by Watford's Kenny Jackett. Hopkins went as white as a sheet but the copper walked past him to tell the match official there had been a bomb threat.


“Thank **** for that,” he said to a startled opponent, “I thought they were coming to arrest me.”

Hopkins in typically robust style on his City debut v. Norwich at Maine Road, 3rd September 1986.


Perhaps Hopkins wasn't ever good enough for Manchester City. It was the first time he had ever lived away from his home-town. Perhaps he couldn't settle. 

Certainly, Manchester City never saw the best of him.


Nowadays, Hopkins still attends Birmingham's matches as a supporter. Home and away. He has been inducted into the club's hall of fame, despite a decent, if unspectacular, career.

With respect to his time at Maine Road, it's most likely he was broken-hearted at seeing his lifetime's dreams dashed - being forced to wave goodbye to his beloved club. 

In a world of here today, gone tomorrow, badge-kissing mercenaries, surely he should be cut some slack for that. 

".... a great effort to walk away from trouble...."













Thursday, March 19, 2020

HEAD TO HEAD


Number one in a series comparing the best players in the history of Manchester City.  


Kevin de Bruyne v. Colin Bell


De Bruyne has often been compared to Bell, perhaps still City’s greatest-ever player, although that mantle is under pressure from numerous candidates from the modern era of success. Here we look at the skills of both and try to decide who comes out on top: 10 categories with a final score out of 100. 

1. SHOOTING

Colin Bell’s shooting often provided spectacular goals, none more so than a Van Basten-esque diagonal volley at Stamford Bridge that brought Bell’s trademark nod and hand shake celebration. For England the 9 goals in 48 appearances also included prodigious strikes v Scotland, Wales and Czechoslavakia. Predominantly right footed, with an admirable accuracy from all distances and angles, Bell could not be faulted in this area  9

Kevin de Bruyne has built a reputation for exceptional freekick expertise, scoring some absolutely sumptuous goals in City’s triumphant rise to the top of the tree in England. From rolling clever freekicks under the wall, to curling sublime efforts over and around it, the Belgian has a box of deadball tricks that has few peers. The hit in open play at St James Park in November 2019 contained a power that few in the modern game could have matched, as the ball zipped past Martin Dubravka like a heat-seeking missile, ditto his two-touches -and-smash-it goal v Swansea a year earlier. 9



2. BALL CONTROL

Colin Bell ran City’s midfield with a calm assurance for a decade or so, before calamitous injury forced an end to a majestic career. His use of the ball in all areas of the middle of the park was always exemplary, although the quality of the surfaces on offer in the 70s did not always allow the closest of relationships with the ball. Ironically, it was in getting his studs caught in the turf v United in 1975 trying to control the ball on the run that the horrendous injury occurred. 8

De Bruyne is such a master of the ball that he often seems to be stroking it around while looking elsewhere to see what opportunities are opening up further up the pitch. He is a master of control and of pass length and pace. Seldom does the ball leave his immediate area in a way he has not designed it to. The above-mentioned goal against Swansea involved two gentle touches forward whilst looking ahead to assess space. 9

3. PASSING

Bell’s metronome passing ensured that the great City side of the late 60s and early 70s packed a proper punch. With Neil Young gliding in from the left and Francis Lee hammering through the middle, it was Bell’s laser passing that often put them through or provided the last assist from the right flank 9

Probably the best passer in Europe at the moment, you get the feeling De Bruyne could land a tennis ball on the back of an elephant and make it stay there. Some of his sublime passes to put City’s strikers through to score have been too good to believe. A true master at work, especially when curving low balls in from the right flank that are impossible to defend against, Witness his sublime efforts in setting up team mates week in week out, beautifully illustrated with one of the passes of the season against Stoke 9



4. VISION

Colin Bell could pick out a pass that nobody else in the City side of that era could see. Long and short, nothing phased him, pinging passes across rutted ground and the green grass of early season with equal measure. Thanks to Bell, the likes of Lee, Marsh, Law and Young feasted on a hatful of chances that were more difficult to miss than score. 8

With the master of all impossible passes, David Silva, in advanced pre-retirement days, De Bruyne has taken on the mantle of being City’s chief visionary. That he has done it with complete nonchalance suggests here is a player with a different kind of vision to the others. Sme of his passes find places that do not exist to the rest of us. 9

5. TEMPERAMENT

As seen with his calm handshake goal “celebration”, Bell was always an undemonstrative personality in an era of multiplying drama queens. If the 70s brought a tidal wave of players trying out new hair styles and pushing new borders of extravagant, outlandish behaviour, the shy Bell was not part of that scene at all.  Never less than cool, calm and collected, he was the purest example of good sportsmanship, fairplay and level-headedness. 10

Often in the background when things are getting close to boiling point, De Bruyne’s special abilities sometimes lead to frustration when others cannot match the standards he expects. Wtness arm-waving moments and face pulling exasperation at less gifted team mates who have flunked in his opinion. His “let me talk, let me talk!!!” high-pitched outburst after the Napoli game an example. 8

6. HEADING

Bell scored a fair number of goals with his head and was not averse to an aerial challenge in an era when the ball spent much more time in the air than it does today. High profile goals v Bilbao for City and Czechoslavakia for England (where he was hurt in a brave challenge) prove his ability and courage. 8

Not the Belgian’s strongest asset, De Bruyne is seldom to be seen getting on the end of a cross or challenging for a high ball, partly because the crosses in question are often dispatched from his own boot. 7

 

7. TACKLING

In the no-holds barred days of the 70s, if you wanted to rule the roost in the midfield area, you needed to be able to take care of yourself. Bell’s tackling was fearless and crisp, often starting moves forward that then resulting in an assist from the same player when he had caught up with play. His all action lung-busting style meant that he was often the first man back to block an opposition break after an unsuccessful City attack. 9

De Bruyne is not afraid of a tackle, despite the damage done to his body in various injuries. In today’s game, where players have a more specialised role to play, he can rely on the likes of Fernandinho, Rodrigo and Nicolas Otamendi to do the lion’s share of the breaking up of play, however. 8

8. STAMINA

Malcolm Allison nicknamed Bell "Nijinsky", not after the Russian ballet dancer (although that too might have been apt), but after the racehorse of the time. Here was a player that seldom stood still. Bell’s stamina – as he often admitted himself – was one of the attributes that made him different. 10

Here is a thoroughbred race horse. Like Bell, De Bruyne seems to have an extra reservoir of energy to carry the side when it is flagging towards the end of vital games. 9
  

 

9. SPEED

Bell was not the fastest of players, neither was he a slouch, but he made up for that with non-stop work-rate that meant he was almost always up with play at stages of the game when others were clearly flagging. 8

Deceptively fast despite a languid style and slightly loping gate, De Bruyne is as quick across the ground as he is in his head. 9

10. TEAMWORK

Bell was the one player holding the whole City show together. Never the show-off, his entire ethic was to be of use to the team. His character matched this perfectly, as he was never interested in the personal spotlight. 9

In this modern football world of Instagram, Twitter and high profile sponsorship contracts, all the world’s top performers need to have a marketable personality. De Bruyne, now touted as perhaps the world’s third best player after Ronaldo and Messi, is no different. On the pitch he is a master of bringing others into the game, but contains a streak of individualism the retiring Bell could probably never have mustered. 9


TOTAL:

KEVIN DE BRUYNE 87 - 88 COLIN BELL










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