The strange tale of how Man City conquered Europe – 50 years on

According to popular legend, Manchester City’s celebrations of their first and – so far – only European triumph exactly 50 years ago involved star striker Francis Lee dancing on a piano, wearing only his underpants.

After talking to Lee, it turns out that particular tale is only partially true but there were plenty of unusual elements to City’s success in the 1970 European Cup Winners’ Cup final which were completely factual.

They include why the game gave commentary wizard Barry Davies his big break at the BBC, how a downpour ruined the night in Vienna for City’s WAGS but did not prevent the players from partying – and why the victorious Blues threatened Uefa with a European boycott afterwards.

And what is undisputed is that a club so often derided by rival fans for having “no history”, let alone any track record in Europe, were ahead of some now established Champions League giants when it came to pioneering success on foreign fields.

City’s 2-1 triumph in Austria against crack Polish side Gornik Zabrze meant they brought home a continental trophy to go with their domestic silverware before the likes of Liverpool (1973 Uefa Cup) and Juventus (1977 Uefa Cup).

Even the mighty Barcelona (1979 Cup Winners’ Cup) had to wait another nine years for a Uefa-sanctioned title to go with their wins in the Inter City Fairs Cup, which would evolve into the Uefa Cup but was an independent invitational competition, initially only open to cities hosting international trade fairs, for many of the years when Barca dominated it in the 1950s and 60s.

Franny’s Grand Slam

Pep Guardiola’s current City side are well known for collecting trophies, with eight arriving in the past three seasons alone, but in Lee’s day they also had a ferocious appetite for silverware.

Under the genial Joe Mercer and his innovative assistant Malcolm Allison, an all-English City side with an exciting attack-minded style had won every domestic competition going in the previous 24 months, and they were far from finished.

“In that 1969-70 campaign, I used to talk to the other players about ‘Franny’s Grand Slam’,” Lee explained. “I had the attitude that we should try to win everything we took part in.

“We were going down to London on the train for a league game near the start of the season and in the middle of playing cards when Glyn Pardoe said ‘look, there’s Wembley!’

“I said ‘get used to the view, because that is where we are going to do the Grand Slam this year’.”

Lee was half right. He had wanted the quadruple but had to settle for a unique double instead.

While City suffered defeat by neighbours Manchester United in the fourth round of the FA Cup and slid down the league table after Christmas, they made it to Wembley in March where they beat West Brom in the League Cup final.

Not many people would get to see them add the Cup Winners’ Cup to their haul a few weeks later, however.

The forgotten final, missed by millions

On the same evening City played Gornik, the infamous FA Cup final replay between Chelsea and Leeds was screened live by both BBC One and ITV, with 28.5m people watching – still the fifth-biggest audience for any event in British television history.

There were only three TV channels in the country at that point – BBC Two being the other – so City had to settle for a highlights show late that evening, instead of being the main event. Barry Davies was sent to Austria to provide the commentary.

“I was trying to work out this week why the hell I was doing that match,” Davies told BBC Sport. “That answers the question.

“I had only joined the BBC the previous September so in normal circumstances I would not have got a European final.

“The Cup Winners’ Cup was a big deal at the time. Not as much as the European Cup of course, but even so it was considered a very important trophy. I am surprised the final was played the same night as the FA Cup final replay.”

As well as Davies, at least 4,000 City fans had made the 1,000-mile journey to Austria too.

At the time, it was the biggest away support that an English club had taken abroad – but the total crowd in the vast 90,000-capacity Prater Stadium was a disappointing one.

With Poland behind the Iron Curtain, only a handful of Gornik fans were given visas allowing them to attend, and some horrific weather deterred all but the most hardy neutrals.

“The thing that everyone who was there will remember from it was the horrendous conditions that the match was played in,” added Davies.

“The rain was torrential and it was non-stop, but there was no roof on the stadium, in fact there was no cover anywhere at all with the exception of the commentary box that I was in.

“So I do remember there was a very small crowd, and all of them got absolutely drenched very quickly once the rain started. At least half of them were City fans, and despite the weather they were a good bunch.

“City had a really fine side at that point too of course. I knew a lot of them because of my time working for Granada (regional ITV in the north-west) in 1968, when they won the title.

“Mike Summerbee, who missed the final because he was injured, was a lovely player. Colin Bell was a class act and I was big fan of Franny’s as well.”

‘The score did not reflect City’s dominance’

It was Lee who was the star of the show on this particular night, ably assisted by Neil Young on the left flank.

Young swept home the rebound to put City ahead in the 12th minute, after Lee’s shot had been spilled by the Polish side’s keeper, Hubert Kostka.

Then Lee doubled City’s lead from the spot just before half-time, after Young had been taken out by Kostka as he ran in on goal.

“Neil played very well that night. That foul on him was so bad the keeper would have been sent off twice these days,” added Lee, who despatched his penalty with typical conviction.

Gornik replied midway through the second half but City held on for the win, comfortably.

“We were very confident, we were a good side and we always thought we would win,” recalled Lee. “It was raining very hard and there were puddles on the pitch but we knocked it about well and we created several chances.

“The guy who was marking me was called Jerzy Gorgon, and he was as big as Desperate Dan, but I still did pretty well against him.

“We were 2-0 up by half-time but it could have been three or four by then. They scored a good goal to pull one back in the second half but the final score was not a true reflection of what the game was about.”

The celebrations that carried on and on

This was a night to remember for City’s players, but maybe not for their partners.

“The thing that stands out in my mind is that there was a Uefa banquet afterwards for the team and the officials, and the players’ wives were all there too,” Davies added.

“The weather during the day was quite nice so they had got themselves ready before the match but, like everyone else, they had no shelter from the rain at the stadium.

“By the end of the game they were a bedraggled bunch and I felt so sorry for them when I saw them.”

That did not seem to affect City’s celebrations for long, however.

“It was very late when we got back to the hotel because Uefa put on one thing and another, and then all our wives were there which slowed things down a bit,” added Lee, who had turned 25 on the day of the final.

“But their hair was still bedraggled after dinner and they did not want to come out, so us lads all went out on our own.

“It was my birthday the same night, so I had a lot to celebrate, then we eventually got back to Manchester about 4pm the following day and we went out and had another celebration dinner there. That got rid of Thursday night too – it went on and on.

“It was some time on Friday before I got home, and I had not been to sleep since before the game.”

As for the story about Lee dancing on a piano in Vienna, which Allison used to tell?

“Yes, I was on top of the piano while our chief scout, Harry Godwin, was playing away,” explained Lee.

“But I was sat on it not stood up, and I was giving them a song or two – not dancing. I would definitely have been fully clothed as well, because I was not one for walking around without my trousers on.”

‘Our name is on it and history can never erase it’

City’s then vice-chairman Frank Johnson evidently did not enjoy Vienna as much as Lee and his team-mates did.

Johnson threatened to pull the club out of Europe the following season because of Uefa’s choice of venue for the final, and complained they had lost money on the tie because of the small crowd.

“That is typical of the old directors’ view of looking at it,” said Lee, who had a place in the boardroom himself when he was City’s chairman between 1994 and 1998.

“I don’t think it mattered if you lost money or made money – we won the trophy, which was an important trophy in Europe, and it made a big difference to the reputation of the club.”

The Cup Winners’ Cup no longer exists but was held for 39 seasons before being absorbed into the Uefa Cup – now itself known as the Europa League – in 1999.

City got as far as the semi-finals when they defended their title in 1970-71, losing to eventual winners Chelsea.

The last four is as far as they have got in any European competition since, when they reached the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2016, and their immediate hopes of going any further are uncertain.

Guardiola’s side beat Real Madrid 2-1 at the Bernabeu in the first leg of this season’s last 16 before the coronavirus put all forms of elite football on hold, but Uefa has banned them from Europe for the next two seasons and City are waiting on the outcome of an appeal against that decision.

“Of course European success is important for what City are trying to achieve now,” added Lee. “But it was the same for us.

“I am proud of what we did, and the way we did it. Our name is on the trophy and history can never erase it.”

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