Joe Mercer OBE

On Thursday a PFA plaque will be unveiled to honour a footballing legend. Joe Mercer was a hugely successful player with Everton, Arsenal and England and a trophy winning manager with Aston Villa and Manchester City. He also managed Sheffield United and Coventry City. He was acclaimed as a man who had put the fun back into English football during a spell as the England boss. He fully deserves this tribute and, if you can make it, please come along to the plaque unveiling. Back in 2004 I wrote the following piece for the Manchester City match programme which, for those Blues wondering why Joe was significant, may help to explain his importance to the club. Enjoy… it starts with the original introduction (and all references to Joe’s family etc, are from 2004 of course).

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In Search of The Blues considers the life and career of a former City great who sadly is no longer with us, Joe Mercer OBE.  The reason we have decided to reflect on Joe’s life today is that last Monday (9th August 2004) marked the 90th anniversary of the birth of the former City & England manager.  Sadly Joe passed away on the same date in 1990 – his 76th birthday. Joe was City’s manager during the Club’s most successful period, and Gary James, author of “Football With A Smile: The Authorised Biography of Joe Mercer, OBE”, provides a commentary on Joe’s lifetime of achievements.

Why is Joe Mercer so important to this Club?

Joe breathed new life into a club that was struggling to survive.  During the early sixties City had reached a critical level – one director actually suggested the Blues should merge with United! – and Joe’s appointment was one which had to succeed.  Joe brought in a highly enthusiastic Malcolm Allison as his number two and between them they transformed City from a struggling sleeping giant into League Champions, FA Cup winners, League Cup victors and European Cup Winners’ Cup winners. 

The Blues became renowned for their positive approach and swashbuckling style and Joe encouraged everyone to enjoy life at Maine Road.

Without Joe’s arrival in July 1965 it’s very difficult to see how City’s fortunes could be resurrected.

How did his partnership with Malcolm Allison work?

There have been many theories over the years of how the two men worked together.  Many people focus on their contrasting styles – Malcolm the flamboyant one; Joe the fatherly figure – but during the 1990s Malcolm answered a similar question by stating:  “we made it work because we told each other the truth, and we never really fell out.  We had a great relationship.  I enjoyed it all and I think, like Joe, those first five years were the best ever for me.  I think that fortune favours the brave, and I think that sometimes you have to be fortunate where you work and who you work with.  I was very lucky when Joe got the City job, and took me there.  And we started right from the grass roots, right from the bottom and took them to the top.  That is real achievement!”

How does Joe compare to football’s other great managers?

In 1990 Bobby Charlton said he was one of football’s most important figures and added:  “Joe was a great, great person and we don’t say that about many people.  They don’t produce people like him very often.  He was a true great, along with the likes of Bill Shankly.”

Joe’s period as City manager coincided with a number of famous managerial careers – Shankly (Liverpool), Busby (United), Revie (Leeds), Nicholson (Spurs), Stein (Celtic) – and so comparisons should be easy, however each Club was at a different phase in development and it would be foolish to directly compare.  However, it is clear however that during 1967-8 City swept aside the great sides created by his contemporaries and that the Mercer-Allison side won many admirers across the Country because of the style of play and positive attitude.  

In addition to Joe’s time at City he did have some success away from Maine Road and, of course, he managed England for a brief but entertaining spell.

Why did Joe Leave?

Initially, because of Joe’s health problems at Villa, he had anticipated being at City for only a few years.  Naturally, Malcolm was keen to manage the Club in his own right but that didn’t seem possible while Joe was still at the Club.  In 1971 Malcolm was given the role of Team Manager but Joe’s position was less clear.  Power struggles in the Boardroom and various other issues placed Joe and Malcolm in different camps and, when an offer from Coventry came in 1972, Joe felt it was time to move on.  

What was Joe’s managerial record away from Maine Road like?

His first League management role was at Sheffield United.  The Blades were struggling when he arrived mid season and were relegated (1956), however during the course of the next couple of seasons he developed a good cup-fighting side and was offered the Arsenal manager’s job at one point. 

In December 1958 he became the Aston Villa manager and again created a good cup fighting side and brought the Villa Park club the Second Division Championship in 1960.  He also guided them to success in the 1961 League Cup and took them to the final again in 1963.

Sadly, problems at Villa during 1964 caused Joe health problems.  He went to see a doctor and according to Joe some years later:  “He told me ‘It’s either polio or a stroke.’ And as I was leaving the room he called me back and said ‘What about the fee?’  I turned and said ‘well, I must be a bloody bad risk then!”

At the time Joe was also managing the England under-23s and had even been tipped as England manager (August 1962) – that proves how highly Joe was thought of as a manager prior to his phenomenal success at City.

After City, Joe won a manager of the month award at Coventry and took on the role as England caretaker manager during 1974 for 7 games.  His first game in charge saw Kevin Keegan and Stan Bowles – a former player under Mercer at City – both score in a victory over Wales.  Joe was offered the job on a permanent basis but turned it down for health reasons:  “I had the most terrible sciatica.  I was almost a cripple with it.  I was offered the job but I didn’t feel fit enough.  It was as simple as that.”

Why did he join City in the first place?

After his health problems at Villa Joe missed the daily involvement with the game.  He started to report on games for newspapers but reporting was a poor substitute for management.  In 1965 when the City approach came it was a major gamble for all concerned.  Joe was not really fit enough to take on the role immediately and the Club had to think carefully about the appointment.  Joe didn’t think about it for long.  He was desperate to get back into the game and was determined to take on the job.  He recognised the potential at the Club – a year earlier he had stressed he wanted only to take on a job at a progressive, positive club.

His family was not as enthusiastic at first but his wife Norah knew he had to take it on:  “I married a footballer.  I realised he had to go back – it would have killed him hot to.”

Who was his first signing at City?

Ralph Brand, a Scottish international who had scored 128 goals in 207 games for Rangers, was the first signing but it was not a success.  Joe’s second signing was considerably more successful however, that was Mike Summerbee.

What did Joe achieve as a player?

As a player he had enormous success.  With his first club Everton he won the League Championship in 1939 – who knows what else Everton and Joe would have won had war not intervened – while his time at Arsenal saw him win two further Championships (one as captain) and the FA Cup.  He also captained the Gunners to the 1952 final where they were reduced to ten men for a significant part of their defeat by a strong Newcastle side. 

In 1986 when Arsenal celebrated their centenary they introduced many significant and famous players from their history on to the pitch.  According to Arsenal author Keith Fisher Joe Mercer received the biggest ovation of them all.

Joe also had a great England career, and captained the international side during crucial wartime morale boosting internationals.

His popularity was so high he even appeared on magazine covers.  

How is Joe remembered outside of Manchester?

Joe is remembered as a truly great player at both Everton and Arsenal.  Both sides recognise that his contribution to their history is immense while at a national level Joe is remembered as one of the Football League’s 100 legends.  

As a manager, Joe’s record at Aston Villa is not perhaps viewed as positively as it should be, however his time at Coventry (1972-1974) is remembered fondly.  As is his period as England manager.

In 1976 he was awarded the OBE for services to football.

Which team did he support as a boy?

As a boy growing up in Ellesmere Port, Joe was an Evertonian.  However he also had a soft spot for Nottingham Forest and, in particular, Tranmere Rovers as his father, Joe Mercer Snr, had played League football for both sides.  Sadly, he passed away while Joe was still a young boy, but Joe always retained a strong feeling for Tranmere.  In later life he became a regular attendee at Prenton Park.

Did he achieve any notable milestones during his playing and managerial career?

At the age of 35 in 1950 he was presented with the Football Writers’ Player of the Year trophy and continued to play top class football until injury forced him to retire at 39.  Naturally, there were all his trophy successes as a player.

By managing City to the FA Cup in 1969 he became the first man to win both the FA Cup and the League as a player and as a manager.  The first man to surpass this achievement was Arsenal’s George Graham who had actually been brought to England by Joe when he was Aston Villa manager.

In 1970, Joe managed City to the League Cup and ECWC double – this is recognised as the first major English/European trophy double although Leeds did win the Fairs Cup and League Cup (but some leading sides still boycotted this competition at the time) in 1968.

Since Joe passed away have his family retained their love of the Blues?

Definitely, Joe’s 84 year old widow Norah is a regular attendee – she came to the Lazio game last week and is determined to be here today.  She loves the Club and is a very popular presence on match day.  She has also been to the stadium for various other activities including last season’s Hall of Fame dinner and the official opening of the Manchester City Experience in April.

Norah has been part of City life since her husband first accepted the City job.  She is also a keen member of the Merseyside CSA.

Finally, how did Joe view the game during his later life?  Did he still love it with the passion he had as a boy?

Joe tried to keep focus on the game rather than activity off it.  During the 1980s, towards the end of his life, he was asked his views on the problems of the ‘modern game’ and gave a comment which is as relevant today as it was then:

“Football is a great game.  It is all about goals, goalmouth incidents, and end-to-end attacking football.  There is nothing wrong with the game; plenty wrong with managers, players, directors, legislators, and the media.  Football has been very kind to me and I really mustn’t complain so can I leave you with this thought – The object of playing any game is for enjoyment.  If you have enjoyed it and done your best you have won no matter what the result!”

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