Neil Young played 334 games for City and scored 86 goals. He was a vital part of the great City team of the late 1960’s. Today marks the 5th anniversary of his death and to mark it Rob Wilson has written a very personal recollection of the man.
It has been more than five years since my dad and I pulled up to the gates of Pownall Green Primary School on Bramhall Lane South, like we did every Sunday, and saw the note. The passing of time has clouded my memory, but I remember the message: Neil Young, former Manchester City legend and my football coach, was too unwell to attend the session that week – and for the foreseeable future. Not long passed before I was journeying to Leicester City alongside thousands of others with red and black scarves hanging over our shoulders, as a tribute to him. Neil had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and we’d bought the scarves to raise money for Wythenshawe Hospital. An exciting FA Cup tie may have taken place that afternoon but a tribute to “Nelly”, as he was affectionately known, was arguably highest on the agenda. With our scarves aloft, those of us who travelled sung his name. On February 3, 2011, the upsetting news came through: Neil had passed away.
Sometimes I wonder whether that note is still hanging on the gate as a reminder of the memories preserved there. One sticks out in my mind because it was on an especially crisp morning: Neil hadn’t marked out a makeshift pitch with cones. Instead, he was stood with two footballs between his feet, a single cone placed thirty yards away. He nominated one of us to challenge him to a dribbling race to the cone. One of the younger boys stepped forward while the rest of us stood with our knees knocking in the chill. “Three, two, one, go!” Neil barked, pointing forwards. As the boy immediately scampered towards the cone as fast as he could, Neil remained completely still. After a second or two had passed, he kicked the ball hard enough for it to reach the cone before the now breathless child. “Passing gets you further than dribbling in football,” he paused for effect, “Remember that.”
Stood to my left on that cold morning was Luke Nield – a dear friend and student of Neil’s for many years before myself. “When I first joined I could barely kick a ball straight,” he told me, “but eventually he said I was the best passer of a ball he’d ever coached. Neil strived for perfection in everyone who turned up, and if you showed effort he’d continue to help you out.” Luke continued: “He noticed that I was refraining from shooting whenever I got into a decent position so I told him I wasn’t a good shooter when he asked. He very simply responded, ‘If you think you aren’t going to score, you won’t. Just try thinking this one is going in before your next shot.’ My next shot was the final kick of the game, and I scored.”
Neil’s footballing wisdom remained strong until his final days. While the body of an athlete may gradually lose its vitality, the intelligence and expertise endures. Expertise that Neil was thankfully keen to share with a portion of the next generation of young footballers from Stockport who were, for a time, united by a sense of community on Pownall Green’s playing field. Football is arguably riddled with cynicism in the present day, but at its grass roots levels it still contains so much of the sincerity that attracts so many people in the first place. The end of Neil’s soccer school represented something much larger for many of us who attended – especially Luke, who had been there since the start with his brother: “My family were all devastated and were silent for a few days. It was then that we found out from Carmen, his wife and our family friend, that he had cancer. It didn’t feel like we’d lost our Sunday football game and it didn’t feel like we’d lost a coach – it felt like we’d lost family. He was a massive part of us all.”
Now he’s a little older, Luke allows positive thoughts to fill him up whenever Neil pops into his head: “I can’t help but smile. It was a memorable period of my life and he definitely helped shape me into the person I am. I remember once, a journalist came to speak with Neil about a book on City legends. At the end of the game that day, Neil got the lads he became close with over the years to join him in a photo (below). I look shocking, but it’s a true honour to have this moment and our relationship immortalised.” It’s appropriate that the closest match to the fifth anniversary of Neil’s passing is against Leicester. His goal against them in the 1969 FA Cup final is forever synonymous with City’s black and red away strip still donned by supporters in the modern day. But away from the bright lights of the Etihad Stadium was once an exhibition of football at its most innocent and pure, and one of the game’s most patient souls oversaw the good times of so many young people.
Top row from left to right: MATTHEW NIELD (Luke’s older brother); NEIL YOUNG; unidentified.
Bottom row from left to right: CALLUM MATTHEWS, LUKE NIELD, unidentified.
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Written by Rob Wilson