Gary Bell makes a landmark appearance for the Bluebirds during their Championship crunch clash with Birmingham City at Cardiff City Stadium on Saturday (3pm).
The 70-year-old former City defender makes his 400th appearance for the club – as a matchday hospitality host.
Jimmy Scoular was the manager who first brought Gary to Ninian Park more than half a century ago and he remains a big part of the club, working alongside another ex-player, Derek Brazil, in the hospitality suites.
Gary spent eight years playing for Cardiff, winning seven Welsh Cup winners medals, competing in Europe competition and playing in one of the biggest matches in the club’s history when they defeated Real Madrid 1-0 at home.
Defender Gary went on to play for Hereford United, Newport County and Gloucester City, but he stayed loyal to the Bluebirds, loves working on matchdays and is highly popular among supporters.
Gary and Derek Brazil will be together today, keeping fans entertained in the suites before, during and after the match against Birmingham giving out team news, chatting about Neil Warnock’s selections, tactics and far more.
Halesowen-born Gary is a lifelong West Bromwich Albion fan, although he clearly has an awful lot of affection and love for the Bluebirds after such a long association with the club.
He remembers a particular home fixture for City against today’s opponents Birmingham when he found himself marking their 16-year-old star forward Trevor Francis, who went on to be the first £1m transfer between British clubs when he joined Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest.
The fixture was on September 5, 1970 and two first half goals by John Toshack earned Cardiff a 2-0 win.
”Being from the West Midlands I always took a close interest in the big clubs around that area – West Bromwich, Aston Villa, Birmingham, Wolves,” says Gary.
“My dad would regularly send me the local Saturday evening football paper, the Birmingham Sports Argus and I knew about Trevor Francis because he was getting impressive reports playing for Birmingham’s reserves.”
Substitute Francis replaced Johnny Vincent, who signed for Cardiff from Middlesbrough two years later, and Gary said: “When he came on against me I had a brief word with him telling not to be nervous and play his natural game.”
The future England international never forgot those early words from Gary and recalled in an interview for a Blues’ match day programme: “Gary Bell talked me through the second half with words of encouragement, and it left a big impression on me.”
More than 22,000 spectators were at Ninian Park and the Bluebirds team was: Frank Parsons, Dave Carver, Gary Bell, Mel Sutton, Don Murray, Brian Harris, Ian Gibson, Brian Clark, Bobby Woodruff, John Toshack, Peter King. Sub not used: Ronnie Bird.
To mark Gary’s landmark 400th hospitality suite appearance, dai-sport look back at a few of his Bluebirds memories:
March 10, 1971: European Cup Winners Cup quarter-final first-leg
Cardiff City 1, Real Madrid 0.
Scorer: Brian Clark.
The Bluebirds lost 2-0 in the return at the Bernabeu, but that home win remains one of the great matches in more than 100 years of club history.
Bell says: “I can remember the euphoria among the lads and around the city when the draw was announced. Dear me! Not only were the great Real Madrid team coming to play at Ninian Park, we were going to play at the Bernabeu.
“What a fantastic draw. I’d seen Real Madrid on the television, but had never even dreamed of playing against them.
“There was a huge clamour for tickets. Everybody wanted to see the great Real Madrid. The week before the game was absolutely mad, but as the match got closer we felt better and better about playing Real Madrid.
“There was a nervous tension in the group, but we knew we were a good team and could give a good account of ourselves. Jimmy Scoular kept everybody’s feet on the ground. He made sure it was business as usual.
Jimmy told us we could beat Real Madrid and everybody played their part in a fantastic victory. An occasion never to be forgotten.”
The Spanish club made a presentation to Cardiff players after their second leg match at the Bernabeu and Gary still has his gold watch.
He also took home the number four Real Madrid shirt worn by Jose Martinez, the Spanish international nicknamed Pirri.
“Players didn’t swap shirts in those days, but one of our party asked politely if it was possible for us to have a shirt and they took us down to their kit room and we were given one each,” said Bell.
Signing for Cardiff City:
Gary grew up in a family of Baggies fans, cheering on the stars like Ronnie Allen and Ray Barlow in the 1950s.
Bell said: “A lot of my relatives were West Brom fans and still are. I used to watch Albion regularly, particularly during the 1950s, when they were a powerful top level club
“I remember them winning the FA Cup in 1954, beating Preston 3-2, and finishing runners-up to Wolves in Division One.”
He started his playing days with Halesowen Town as a teenager and was invited to train with West Brom’s young players.
“That was a dream come true,” says Bell. “Their manager, former England international Jimmy Hagan, signed me as an amateur and I was only paid travelling expenses to training sessions.
“I would play in the club’s A team on a Saturday morning and watch the first team in the afternoon if they were at home.”
Bell, though, was not offered a contract by Albion and when West Midlands League Lower Gornal Athletic, based near Dudley, approached him he put hopes of playing for his favourite club behind him.
“Perhaps West Brom thought I wouldn’t make the grade, but then Fred Whittle, who was manager of Lower Gornal, knocked on my door one evening. I was 17-years-old and he offered terms of £6 per match plus £2 for a win, £1 for a draw.
“I’d left school by then and was working in a Halesowen steelworks. The Black Country was a heavy industrial area and there were plenty of jobs for school leavers. I asked my dad what I should do – sign for Lower Gornal or stay with Albion as an amateur.
“My dad said stay with West Brom in the hope they’d take me on, but I took the decision to move.”
Cardiff spotted Gary playing for Gornal and he made the switch from working full-time at the steelworks and playing part-time football to sign for the Bluebirds. He moved into digs in Canton.
He learned his trade under Scoular and said: “Training was exceptionally hard. He would take all the training himself and wouldn’t delegate on or off the pitch. He demanded 110 per cent effort every day and would tell us off for the smallest thing.
“But if anybody outside the club criticised us he would be the first to defend us,”
Today, Gary works as a Cardiff City Stadium hospitality host and says: “I really enjoy that work, it keeps me involved,” he says. “Lots of fans remember me from my playing days so there’s always plenty of banter going on.”
Cardiff played Wolves at Ninian Park. The Bluebirds lost 7-1 and he conceded two penalties.
“Jimmy Scoular told me not to worry about it and he’d keep me in for the next game, against Chester,” recalls Gary. “But we lost that 5-0!”
Thankfully, things improved drastically and he went on to make 265 league and cup appearances.
Heading in from a penalty:
Gary is one of the few players to have headed a penalty into the net. He did it against Hull City in 1973, joining former Everton and England centre-forward Dixie Dean plus ex-Arsenal and England captain Eddie Haploid in the record books for the same feat.
Gary’s spot-kick was saved by goalkeeper Jeff Wealands, but he couldn’t hold on and the ball looped into the air. Cardiff’s full-back stayed calm and headed into goal.
Many record books list the goal as Bell (pen).