Willie Bell, combative Leeds United footballer who became a Baptist minister – obituary

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Willie Bell, left, marks Chelsea's George Graham in 1966 - Jimmy James/ANL/Shutterstock
Willie Bell, left, marks Chelsea's George Graham in 1966 - Jimmy James/ANL/Shutterstock

Willie Bell, who has died aged 85, was a fiercely competitive Scottish defender in the Leeds United team who were serial contenders for honours under Don Revie during the 1960s, although he devoted his later life to Christian ministry in the United States and England.

One of his colleagues in a notoriously aggressive Leeds side, Norman Hunter, described Bell as “one of the true hard men – he never flinched or blinked, just went in”. In America, where he coached “soccer” at a Baptist university for 21 years, he was renowned as a genial, softly spoken character who put “serving the Lord” above even his own family.

William John Bell, who was born in Johnstone, Renfrewshire, on September 3 1937, would make 260 appearances for Leeds between 1960 and 1967, scoring 18 goals. He was signed as a midfield player by Revie’s predecessor as manager, Jack Taylor, from the Glasgow amateur club Queen’s Park, where the future Sir Alex Ferguson was a team-mate.

Bell in 1960 with his Leeds teammates Eric Smith, left, and Don Revie, who would soon become manager at Elland Road - Colorsport/Shutterstock
Bell in 1960 with his Leeds teammates Eric Smith, left, and Don Revie, who would soon become manager at Elland Road - Colorsport/Shutterstock

On leaving school he had pursued an engineering apprenticeship and intended to make it his career. Two games for Scotland’s amateur international team enhanced his reputation, and when Leeds made their approach he decided to turn professional.

Bell played only five times in an unimpressive first season. Revie, who replaced Taylor, converted him to left-back, a position to which his tackling ability and aerial strength were better suited. He became a model of consistency, contributing to Leeds’s rise from the relegation zone of the old Second Division to being runners-up in both the Football League and the FA Cup in 1964-65.

While Bell’s displays in Revie’s rearguard went largely unsung, he was selected for Scotland’s matches against Portugal and Brazil in 1966. At Leeds, Terry Cooper was emerging as a fine overlapping left-back and early in 1967-68 Bell accepted a £40,000 transfer to Leicester City.

Leeds United, 1964, back row, l-r, Billy Bremner, Paul Reaney, Gary Sprake, Jack Charlton, Norman Hunter, Willie Bell; front row, l-r, Johnny Giles, Don Weston, Alan Peacock, Bobby Collins and Albert Johanneson - PA/Alamy
Leeds United, 1964, back row, l-r, Billy Bremner, Paul Reaney, Gary Sprake, Jack Charlton, Norman Hunter, Willie Bell; front row, l-r, Johnny Giles, Don Weston, Alan Peacock, Bobby Collins and Albert Johanneson - PA/Alamy

Having captained his new club, he was again marginalised by a fast-rising talent, David Nish, who went on to represent England. In 1969 Bell joined Brighton & Hove Albion, of the Third Division, where his interest in coaching was encouraged by the manager, Freddie Goodwin.

The pair moved to Birmingham City in 1970, Bell retiring as a player to become Goodwin’s No 2 before succeeding him as manager in 1975. In his one full season at the helm, 1976-77, they finished 13th in the top flight, but five consecutive defeats at the start of 1977-78 prompted his dismissal. He resurfaced with third-tier Lincoln City but another poor start, in 1978-79, brought a second sacking.

“I sat down then and thought ‘What have I done with my life?’” he said in 2017. “That day I said: ‘The Lord is my saviour’. My priorities changed completely. It was the Lord, my family, and then the game.”

In 1979 Bell moved his family to California to work with the Campus Crusade for Christ. There he was head-hunted by Liberty Baptist College in Lynchburg, Virginia. His aim was to “build a team that would represent the Lord”.

Referee Ken Burns, who has just disallowed a Leeds equaliser against Chelsea in their 1966-67 FA Cup semi-final at Villa Park, is assailed by Bell and his teammates, l-r, Jimmy Greenhoff, Billy Bremner and Johnny Giles - Patrick Larkin/Daily Mail/Shutterstock
Referee Ken Burns, who has just disallowed a Leeds equaliser against Chelsea in their 1966-67 FA Cup semi-final at Villa Park, is assailed by Bell and his teammates, l-r, Jimmy Greenhoff, Billy Bremner and Johnny Giles - Patrick Larkin/Daily Mail/Shutterstock

Within what became Liberty University he was known as Bill Bell. Drawing on his faith and what he termed “biblical principles” he coached the Flames, the students’ team, for 21 mainly “winning” seasons.

He and his first wife Mary believed they had a “calling” to spread the gospel among prisoners, returning in 2001 to live in Yorkshire and set up a ministry called Within the Walls. Earlier that year he was ordained a minister by the Shenandoah Valley Baptist Church.

They went back to Lynchburg in 2013 to be near their family and take the project into South Carolina’s prisons. His autobiography, The Light at the End of the Tunnel, was published in 2014 under a third identity, William Bell.

Willie Bell was married to Mary for 63 years and had three children. She died in 2021. In 2022 he married Pat, who survives him.

Willie Bell, born September 3 1937, died March 21 2023