The Ballet on Ice: When Manchester City played Tottenham on a sheet of ice

If one were to make a list of football games played under the most extreme conditions, not many games would pop up on the list. But one game that would stand out from the rest is 9th December 1967, when parts of England had literally turned white. Tottenham travelled to the North-West in December 1967 to play Manchester City, in what has become a notorious example of football being played even in the harshest weather conditions.

The 1967-68 season was to be a famous campaign for Manchester City as they won the league title for the first time in 30 years. Joe Mercer’s side finished 3 points ahead of Liverpool who came third, and 2 points ahead of rivals Manchester United in second. Although Tottenham ended the season in seventh place, when the two met in December it was an important game for City to ensure that they remained in the title race.

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It was certainly a period of football managing greats in England as City’s title rivals were coached by some of the biggest names in managing history. Manchester United were led by Matt Busby who, during this same campaign, led United to their first European Cup victory. During his Old Trafford managerial career, he won 5 league titles and 2 FA Cups. He is also remembered as being the manager of the side during the Munich Air Disaster, when 23 people died during a take-off failure of the aircraft returning the Manchester United squad and staff from a European game away to Red Star Belgrade.

Liverpool were managed by their enigmatic leader, Bill Shankly. He is a man who turned a struggling Second Division team into one of the greatest in England and left them on the brink of further phenomenal success. His title winning teams of 1963-64, 1965-66 and 1972-73, partnered with the FA Cup in 1965 and UEFA Cup in 1973, illustrate his huge managerial impact. He is not the most successful Liverpool manager, yet he is no doubt the most important, as he created the accomplishments of the following decades.

Tottenham were under the stewardship of the greatest manager in their history, Bill Nicholson. During a sixteen-year stint at White Hart Lane, he introduced an exciting and attacking Spurs side that achieved unparalleled success before or since his tenure. Perhaps, he is best known for becoming the manager of first team in the 20th Century to win the League and FA Cup double as well as the first ever UEFA Cup tournament in 1972.

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Then, there’s Leeds United’s Don Revie. Another man who is considered the best manager of his clubs’ history, who was also managing in this illustrious period. His attention to detail tied steel and style to make his Leeds side a major force domestically and in Europe. He attracted some critics for the robust style of play that his team displayed, but is certainly adored by all Leeds supporters. He won two league titles, the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, FA Cup and League Cup. He was also appointed England manager in 1974, replacing World Cup winning Alf Ramsey.

Although not involved in this title race, it’s important to also mention Everton’s influential manager during this period – Harry Catterick. Throughout the 1960s, Catterick accrued more top-division points than Revie, Busby, Nicholson, Shankly, Mercer or anybody else. It is hard to say that he was not one of the greatest managers of the era, his league successes speak for themselves, winning in 1962-63 and 1969-70. Catterick was a great manager who had a distaste for the media and was a quiet man. This means his whole career has, to many, been lost in history.

Manchester City ran out eventual winners and their main man was Joe Mercer. The Merseyside-born Mercer joined City in 1965 and brought with him Malcolm Allison as his number two. He took his side from mid-table fodder in the Second Division to First Division champions in just three seasons. The next season brought with it the FA Cup, the following campaign was a League Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup double. His impact on the side was obvious and he had transformed his team into a powerhouse at home and abroad. It was the most exciting time in City’s history and the famous match against Tottenham came during a campaign that established him as one of the greatest managers in England.

The fact that all six of these men were managing at the same time, as well as Arsenal’s Bertie Mee who certainly deserves a mention, further illustrates the grandeur of Manchester City and Joe Mercer’s achievements that season. The ‘Ballet on Ice’ was a meeting of two men from this list and shows the magnitude of the game and the importance surrounding it. All this is regardless of the weather conditions, which is why it has become so well known.

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At Maine Road, the ground was frozen solid after snowfall on the morning of the game which presented a very treacherous surface that was only going to get worse. Manchester City’s side was widely regarded as one of the most exciting in the country at that time, possessing players such as Colin Bell, Francis Lee, Mike Summerbee and captained by Tony Book. Francis Lee, signed from Bolton for £60,000 in the summer, entered the game in hot form after scoring 5 goals in 8 games.

The Spurs’ side was equally stocked with legendary players. Dave Mackay, Pat Jennings, Terry Venables and Jimmy Greaves all starting on that day in a game refereed by David ‘DW’ Smith. Smith had inspected the ground twice before kick-off and decided it was fit for play, a decision that would be highly unlikely in today’s age. Before the game, BBC’s Kenneth Wolstenholme called City ‘the most exciting team in England’.

Manchester City’s keeper, Ken Mulhearn, wore tracksuit bottoms for the game (who could blame him) and stopped Tottenham’s Frank Saul early on. Alan Oakes had a shot from distance for City that was expertly tipped over the bar by Jennings soon after. Jennings was visibly hurt after diving on the frozen turf, something he would endure much of the rest of the game. Tony Coleman continued the City pressure going close soon after.

The 36,000 frozen supporters didn’t have to wait too long for the first goal of the game, but it came at the wrong end for many in attendance. Venables stood over a free kick, not far out from the edge of the box, his effort on goal took a deflection and found the feet of Greaves who poked the ball past the floored keeper, just six minutes into the match. Greaves kept his feet well to score his first goal in six games.

Considering the conditions, both sides were playing extraordinarily good football. Mike Doyle and Francis Lee paired up well on the right side for City as they sought an equaliser and again came close to scoring. They continued to pepper the Spurs goal with shots and Neil Young again came close after some good build up play. The Manchester City team were a relentless tide of attack, coming forward all the time but Spurs were hanging on, for now.

Coleman drilled a low cross in from the left, a short period of goalmouth pinball followed before Bell drove the ball into the back of the net. There were 18 minutes on the clock and Bell had equalised which certainly would have helped the supporters forget about the snow.

The passing, ball control and dribbling on display from City was remarkable given the hazardous conditions. They continued to move the ball around and create chances at will. Jennings was frustrating the City side who couldn’t score past him, Young’s first-time volley on the edge of the box being the latest effort stopped in the first half.

Before the two sides headed out for the second half, the snow turned to sleet making conditions even worse for the supporters and players alike. Young began one of the first attacks of the second half. He whipped in a deep cross for Summerbee who ran across his defender and looped a superb header into the goal, City were deservedly ahead 2-1. Summerbee scored with a chance that didn’t look likely to end in a goal but the forward delivered a fantastic header.

Young continued to terrorise the Spurs defence and had a 30-yard piledriver thunder off the bar. For all the hard work of Jennings in the Spurs’ net, Mulhearn was just a spectator in the City goal in a day that was probably best to be busy as a goalkeeper. City continued to push to extend their lead and the whole side seemed to be on hand to have attempts on goal.

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The next attack began with Lee deep in his own half, carrying the ball and playing a superb one-two with Summerbee before he had a shot on goal from an impossible angle. Lee’s shot rebounded off the post to Coleman who fired the ball into an empty net to make it 3-1 for City. Twenty minutes into the second half and another example of superb football by Manchester City saw them stretch their lead.

After a long time without reprieve, Tottenham and Greaves finally managed to launch another hopeful attack, but to no avail. Another City bombardment was started by Bell as he dispossessed the Spurs defence before Young picked up the ball and put Bell through on goal. Jennings again thwarted the City attack before Young bundled the ball into an empty net. The score now stood at 4-1 to City. Manchester City’s top scorer had put them further ahead 15 minutes before the end of the game.

City had two further opportunities to take the lead, striking both posts and producing more beautiful football before the referee blew the final whistle. A great performance by Manchester City saw Bell, Summerbee, Coleman and Young reply to an early Tottenham goal by Greaves. Mike Summerbee was awarded the Man of the Match for his performance. Manchester City were on fire as Tottenham were left frozen in disbelief of the footballing performance they had just been on the bitter end of.

The game was a comprehensive victory and illustrated the title winning prowess that Mercer’s side possessed. Much attention was given to the display, not just because of the beautiful football but the conditions in which the performance was made. Attention turned to how the City players were so graceful on the Maine Road ice.

There were rumours that the Tottenham players were clamouring for the game to be postponed and were upset that the referee had allowed it to go ahead. The juxtaposition to this was the City side raring to go in their dressing room, particularly given the role of their captain.

Much credit was given to the skipper, Tony Book. He had seen the conditions of the pitch prior to kick off and remembered a tip from a former coach during his youth team days. His former coach had told him once during a snowy encounter, that if the top layer of leather was removed from the studs then the grip would be improved. This was because of the nails that held the studs in place could dig into the icy turf better and provide extra grip. All the players followed his advice, and this certainly provided a major edge over their Tottenham counterparts. As this was a time before referees inspected boots and studs pre-match, they were able to get away with the trick. Book also noted that this was the performance when he first knew that City had a great chance of winning the league that season, and the best in his seven years at Maine Road.

First goal scorer, Colin Bell, confirmed that Book had passed on this information to the squad pre-match. Bell also noted the impact of Jennings during that game. His role of keeping the flying Citizens at bay was certainly notable. The Northern Irish stopper was renowned for having huge hands. His hands were certainly kept warm by Bell and the rest of the City side on that day. Tottenham were by no means a poor side, and had it not been for Jennings it would have been a lot worse that day.

Early in the game, City defender Glyn Pardoe launched himself into a big tackle against an apprehensive Joe Kinnear. That illustrated the difference in the two sides on the day. Spurs were clamouring for a postponement whereas the City side, with Book’s clever tactical advice, were fired up and ready for a big game and an opportunity to display their attacking talents.

Although Tony Book is attributed a lot of praise for his footwear advice, Mike Summerbee afforded a lot of praise elsewhere. The Man of the Match on a terrific team display, stated that the managing alliance of Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison had made the difference pre-match. He said, “We were not worried about ice as he had us believing we could walk on water”. They played on a pitch that was a giant sheet of ice but with the words of their manager, coach and captain ringing in their ears, they went out with an attitude to enjoy the game despite the conditions, and that is certainly what they did.

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Spurs’ manager Nicholson was quick to praise the City players post-match. He said: “It was incredible. One team wanted to play and the other didn’t. It was one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen. While we slipped and slithered around, they played as though the conditions didn’t exist. They just ignored everything but their work and under the circumstances, they are the best team we’ve met this season”. Had Nicholson knew of Book’s word of advice to his teammates he may not have been so willing to dish out the praise that he did.

The whole City team helped to deliver one of the greatest team performances that had ever been witnessed by any City fan present that day.

Evidently, the weather in December 1967 was rather bleak. There was a spell of northerly winds across the UK from the 6th to the 10th of December 1967. This brought heavy snowfalls with as much as 43cm over parts of northern Wales, up to 23cm across the West Midlands as well as some heavy snowfalls along the south coast. This led to many football games being called off during that weekend.

As this was a much different period, there were only so many matches televised and only one game on Match of the Day each weekend. As the games started to be called off, the matchup at Maine Road was the standout of the five remaining fixtures and so the media raced to cover this as their main game. The meeting of the two managerial greats, partnered with frosty conditions, made it the clear match of the day.

Had the media not been present and the game not shown on Match of the Day that evening, then it is likely that the game would have melted away from significance. However, the fact that they were present and commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme was able to wax lyrical about Mercer’s men, this meant that the whole nation was able to see how well City had played.

The game was ultimately named as the ‘Match of the Season’ by Match of the Day for the 1967-68 season. Indeed, it was the only time that the TV cameras headed to Maine Road that season. This is something that is incomprehensible in this day and age that the eventual league winners would only have one home game broadcast on TV during the season. The major reason that this game is so widely regarded is that it was the only real example of the ability of that City side and this, partnered with the conditions, made it a noteworthy example of Mercer’s magnificent men.

Manchester City ended up pipping rivals United on the final game of the season and were set to become the League champions. A dramatic 4-3 victory away to Newcastle combined with United losing 2-1 at home to Sunderland was enough to put them top.

United had been five points clear at one point but found it difficult to juggle a European Cup campaign with the pursuit of the League title. As the season headed to a close with only two games remaining, City were top on goal difference and Leeds were a point behind with a game in hand. Revie’s Leeds blew their chance of league glory as they lost their unbeaten home record on the final home game of the season. Shankly’s Liverpool defeated them with two late goals through Chris Lawler and Bobby Graham.

Mercer’s shrewd business in the build up to that successful season had seen him secure the signatures of Francis Lee, Colin Bell and Mike Summerbee. However, it was homegrown Neil Young who shone the brightest that campaign with 19 goals. Club captain Book was the only ever-present player that campaign and he proved to be another inspirational acquisition by City. It was Malcolm Allison who touted Book as he had coached him at Bath and Plymouth, and this proved to be another crucial cog in City’s title winning machine.

Busby’s United did of course go on to win the European Cup that season and will remember the campaign as one of success. Regardless of this, they were still pipped on the last day by their neighbours, something which was of course repeated 44 years later with Sergio Aguero’s title winning goal against QPR.

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Despite this last-day City win and United loss, Liverpool still had one last chance to win the title as they played in the mid-week after City’s final game. Liverpool had just beaten Nottingham Forest 6-1 and had to travel to 20th place Stoke City who had managed to avoid the drop by one point. However, Stoke pulled off a great shock as John Mahoney and former City player Peter Dobing scored in a 2-1 win that secured the title for City.

City were the toast of England as Joe Mercer secured the Championship trophy. They needed a lot of help in the final weeks with Revie, Busby and Shankly stuttering in their title pursuits. The game against Nicholson in December showed that Mercer and Allison had instilled a desire within their players, as well as great ability, to battle through the harshest conditions and come out on top. The ‘Ballet on Ice’ became the perfect personification of this conquering side being able to keep their cool in all conditions.

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