I was interviewed on 17th February 2021 about the great Joe Mercer for the ‘esk podcast’ – an Everton podcast. I talk about meeting Joe; about writing his biography; about Joe’s time at Everton, Arsenal, Manchester City and so on. I also tell the story of Norah Mercer insisting that Bobby Charlton phones me to apologize (it was somewhat of a shock at the time)! We also discussed Everton and City in preparation for their game that night (17th February 2021). No matter who you support it’s well worth listening to.
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I’ve posted 199 separate articles to this website so far and so, for my 200th post, I felt it was about time I paid tribute to the former Manchester City and England manager Joe Mercer for his influence on my writing.
Joe, as most reading this will be aware, was the most successful City manager of all time prior to the recent successes of Pep Guardiola. He remains the only City manager to bring a major European trophy to the club (though hopefully that will change soon!).
When I began writing my first book in 1987 my co-author told me he had been helped during his research into Nottingham Forest by Joe (Joe’s father played for Forest) and he felt that, if the book progressed as planned, Joe would possibly agree to write the foreword to our book. Sadly my co-author Keith Mellor died during the research phase of the book and the entire project looked in jeopardy.
After a while, Keith’s wife contacted me to urge me to continue with the book and she also gave me Joe Mercer’s address, suggesting I should write to him about the book.
I wrote to Joe and told him about the book Keith and I had been compiling (it was a pictorial history of City) and asked if Joe would be interested. I received a phone call from Norah, Joe’s wife, and she invited me over to meet Joe.
At that time I was about 19 and did not have a car and so I asked Norah if I could bring my dad – a passionate City fan. She of course said yes and we made arrangements.
Unfortunately, on the day of our visit, my dad’s car broke down and, knowing we could not let the Mercers down, we quickly arranged to borrow the only vehicle available to us – a white battered and bruised transit-style van. We drove to the Wirral and arrived at the Mercers’ street about 45 minutes early, so we parked up around the corner about 100 yards from their home. We had decided that we could not pull up outside a former England manager’s house in a white works van, and we believed we were hidden.
When we were due to arrive, we climbed out of the van, walked the 100 yards or so and knocked on the door. Immediately Joe, with that huge great grin of his, was in front of us. His Cheshire smile welcomed us in. He did not ask our names, he just asked us in. Within seconds Norah popped out of the kitchen and said: ‘You’ve been very naughty, haven’t you? You’ve been hiding in that van for the last 45 minutes!’ We all laughed and, as we were guided into their house, my dad and I explained about the breakdown and so on. Joe, being Joe, asked if he could do anything. Could he arrange a lift for us, or help get the car repaired. It was immediately clear to me that Joe Mercer was a wonderful man and his wife Norah was a terrific woman.
Can you imagine if we’d have said yes to Joe helping us? What would our neighbours back in Manchester say if we’d have turned up with Joe Mercer in the hope the footballing legend could get dad’s car fixed?
We spent a good couple of hours with Joe and Norah that day and Joe even offered to let us stay to watch the football on television. We had to return to Manchester, but it had been a wonderful afternoon.
The highlight in many ways was Joe taking us in to a room where he kept his scrapbooks and memorabilia. The ball from the 1950 FAC final was there and he brought it over to show us. It was an incredible experience and Joe was so interested in my book plans. He agreed to write the foreword – an incredible gesture – and his words in my first ever book remain by far the best part of that publication.
I saw Joe several times after that, with perhaps my fondest meeting coming the day after Arsenal had defeated Liverpool in 1989 to win the League title. The former Arsenal man was particularly lively that day and spent some time talking about the Gunners, George Graham, and even his own time training at Anfield. It was superb and I remember Norah telling us: ‘George has been on the ‘phone.’ It felt like we were part of something special and when Norah talked of George she just assumed we’d know straight away it was the Arsenal manager and not another George from down the road.
It’s worth pointing out here that George Graham had been brought to England by Joe when he was the Aston Villa manager and so that 1989 Arsenal title success meant a great deal to Joe. A success for his former club and by a former pupil of his. Of course, the fact Joe was a proud Evertonian helped too! I was delighted for Joe and, while at this time in my football supporting life I would ordinarily have preferred Liverpool to have beaten Arsenal that all changed that weekend. The joy and excitement the Mercers demonstrated for Arsenal was clear and I realised just how much the Gunners meant to Joe.
After the delays and various other issues, my first book came out in April 1989 (why we didn’t wait until June I don’t know!) and the trip in May to the Mercers had been to give Joe a couple of copies. They offered to pay – I couldn’t believe it.
By that time I had already started work on my second book and I also knew that I wanted to write something specifically about Joe. I reasoned with myself that Joe’s book would wait until after my second book The Pride of Manchester was complete. The Pride of Manchester was a history of the Manchester derby co-written with Steve Cawley. Steve & I were quite fortunate in that, thanks to the connection with Joe, we also managed to ask Matt Busby to write a foreword too. To have the two men who were, by some way, at that time the two most successful managers of the Manchester clubs write our foreword and introduction was incredible. We were eternally grateful.
The Pride of Manchester was due out in August 1990 and then I planned to get working on a book on Joe Mercer’s years at Manchester City. Unfortunately, technical issues meant that the Pride of Manchester was to be delayed by a few months and, as the new football season would mean at least one derby match would be played before the book came out, we decided to delay it a full year and include the 1990-91 season. That would also mean my Joe Mercer idea would have to wait.
Sadly, the last time I last saw Joe was on 31 May 1990 when I went through the wording of his contribution to The Pride Of Manchester. Joe had been suffering with Alzheimer’s for sometime and by this stage it had clearly developed significantly. I realised that day that Norah must have been under tremendous pressure, yet somehow she got on with looking after Joe. It must have been extremely difficult for her but, as she had proved throughout her life with Joe, Joe’s happiness was vitally important to her.
On Thursday 9 August 1990 the suffering ended. Joe was celebrating his seventy-sixth birthday with his family. He relaxed in his armchair after an enjoyable day and then passed away peacefully.
Over the months and years that followed I continued to visit Norah as often as I could. My idea of writing a book on his time at City still floated around in my head but I was disappointed that I hadn’t managed to publish it before his death. The delay to The Pride Of Manchester really upset me but I knew that it couldn’t have been helped.
When the time was right I visited Norah and mentioned the book idea. Norah, being as wonderful as ever, said: ‘Only do it if you want to. Don’t do it for me or for Joe. Don’t go to all that trouble unless you want to for you.’ She was pleased that I wanted to do it but genuinely did not want me to go to any trouble. I told her it would be a honour and she told me she would help however she could.
Over the next couple of years I spent a lot of time at Norah’s. Often Joe & Norah’s son David would arrive – another wonderful member of the family – and he used to laugh about ‘the old fella’ while Norah would tell me wonderful stories of how she met ‘Cheeky face Mercer!’
It was a wonderful period and Norah used to always bring out the sandwiches or a bowl of Scouse for me and my girlfriend. One day I arrived at her house and she insisted on pouring me a beer. As she brought it in she whispered to my girlfriend ‘watch his reaction’ and then she handed me a silver tankard. I looked at it and it was the 1961 League Cup Final tankard Joe had been given for guiding Villa to success. Inside was my beer! I tried to persuade her to put the beer into a regular glass but she insisted. It was the first (and so far only) time I have drunk from a major footballing award.
Early into my research for the book I realised that a book simply on Joe’s time at City wouldn’t do him justice. No matter how significant that period was for City or in my life as a fan, it was still only a small fraction of what he had achieved in his life. I soon decided that if I was to write a book on Joe it had to be his full biography. My publisher Julian Baskcomb – always keen on creating quality books – encouraged me to write the full story no matter how many words.
In the end the book was published in December 1993 and contained approximately 110,000 words (almost double the standard biography size at that time) and hundred of photographs from every stage of Joe’s life. A few weeks before it was published I gave David Mercer a full copy of the text to read. I’d agreed with him and Norah that they’d see the text shortly before it was published and, if there was anything significant, I’d change it.
David phoned me within 24 hours of receiving the text and had read every word. He phoned me and told me that I had captured his father perfectly. He became somewhat emotional when we discussed the book and, for the first time ever, I felt my writing mattered. I knew that I’d been fortunate in being able to write about a truly wonderful and marvellous man, and that the support of Norah & David had made this a great experience for me.
All these years on Joe Mercer, OBE: Football With A Smile remains the book I am most proud of; the book I enjoyed writing the most; and the book that I always want to aspire to with my new material. I remain ever grateful to Joe, Norah, David and the family for allowing me the opportunity to first meet Joe and then to write the book. I updated it in 2010, adding material from various parts of his life.
I continued to meet Norah over the years. David would usually pop in while I was there and we’d chat about ordinary things. Occasionally, Norah would say things like: ‘I told Jimmy about the book last week’ and I’d be thinking ‘Jimmy?’ then she’d say something else and it’d be obvious it was Jimmy Hill. Once during my research I arrived at her house and she told me ‘I phoned George and told him he must talk to you about Joe. Here’s his number.’ I was handed a piece of paper with Norah’s writing on reading: ‘George Graham’ and then his direct office number at Highbury. I contacted George and he set up an interview for me in his office.
The week before we launched Joe’s biography I was sat at home one evening when my telephone rang. I answered it. The voice on the other end said: ‘Hello Gary? It’s Bobby Charlton here. I’m sorry I can’t come to the launch. I’ll be in Kuala Lumpur then. I called Norah to tell her but she told me I must call you to apologise, so I’m really sorry I can’t make it. Is that okay?’
Me: ‘Er, yes. Thanks for letting me know.’
I came off the ‘phone and couldn’t get it out of my head that Norah had ‘told’ Bobby Charlton to call me and apologise. Even more impressive is the fact that he did! Norah was brilliant but if she told you to do something you did it, no matter who you were!
Around the time of City’s move to their current stadium I became involved in a few projects at the club on a freelance basis. One was setting up the initial museum and another was the erection of the Mercer mosaics on Joe Mercer Way. I won’t go into all the discussions and stories connected with that here, but one of the areas that I contributed to was the selection of the images for mosaic artist Mark Kennedy to recreate as mosaics. I spoke with Norah about the options and showed her a few I’d shortlisted that I’d used in the book.
We agreed that one had to show Joe lifting a trophy at City – the League Championship was chosen – and the other ended up a view of Joe from the back looking out towards the Kippax from the Maine Road tunnel. Although I loved that photo (it came from Norah’s collection and became a major image in my book) I wasn’t certain Norah would like a back view of Joe. I was wrong. As soon as she saw it she said ‘That’s it! That’s Joe! Look at his bandy legs! There’s no mistaking those legs.’
When we did the reveal Norah and David came of course and Norah thanked Mark Kennedy for capturing Joe so superbly, although she did say to him ‘That one with the trophy is okay; but this one with his bandy legs… that’s Joe!’
Sadly, in the years that followed first David and then Norah have died. Both were wonderful people who supported my work and trusted me to tell Joe’s story. They demonstrated what a wonderful family they were and – to me this is extremely significant – their warmth matched Joe’s. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that throughout Joe’s time at City and for the following decades City were often described as ‘the friendliest club’. Joe set the tone and direction for the club. He was a great ambassador for Manchester City (and the other clubs he was involved with).
Joe helped establish the Manchester City that many City fans fell in love with.
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On this day (21st January) in 1967 the Blues played the Reds in the first Maine Road derby following City’s promotion in 1966. City had lost the Old Trafford derby 1-0 in September 1966 but had high hopes they could get something out of the return match.
The following article provides the background story to the Maine Road derby, a report, and film of the scenes around Maine Road that day (Mercer, Allison & Busby all appear; plus there’s film of fans outside the ground and then trying to climb into the Main Stand from the area behind the then still open Main Stand/Scoreboard End corner).
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A short while ago (this was written on 13 March 2013) I heard the news that Norah Mercer, the widow of former England captain and manager Joe Mercer, had died this morning. She was 93 yesterday.
I first met Norah in 1988 when I was researching for a book on the Manchester derby. Joe had agreed to write an introduction to the book and I was invited to the Mercer home to talk with Joe. Unfortunately, on the day the car my father and I were supposed to be travelling in had a few problems and we ended up using a white transit van to get to their home.
As we arrived at the end of their street we started to worry. We were about to park a transit van outside the house of the greatest Manchester City manager of all time. Not only that but we were about 45 minutes early. We couldn’t pull up outside Joe Mercer’s house 45 minutes early and in a transit van! We decided to park near the junction of the neighbouring road – where we could see the Mercer house – and wait in the van.
At the appropriate time we climbed out of the van, walked up the Mercer road and knocked on their door. Joe came out with a big beaming smile and simply said “come in”, then Norah appeared from the kitchen wagging her finger at us and saying “you’ve been hiding in that van for 45 minutes! No need for that you should have pulled up outside.” From that moment on Norah made us feel welcome and in the 25 years since has been a wonderful friend.
Throughout her life Norah supported Joe wonderfully. Today people often talk of footballers’ wives – often for the wrong reasons! – but back when Norah and Joe first became a couple it was unknown for a wife to become known by supporters. However, Norah’s support for her husband was such they she played a marvellous part in every period of his career from the moment her father helped Joe get to Goodison Park in the early days of his career; through the highs and lows of an amazing playing career with Everton, Arsenal and England; on to managerial ups and downs at Sheffield United, Aston Villa, Manchester City, Coventry City and that great spell as England boss; and on to retirement, illness and so on. Joe passed away on his 76th birthday in 1990 but Norah continued to show interest in football becoming a regular at Manchester City and a frequent visitor to Joe’s other clubs.
When Joe passed away in 1990 I asked Norah if I could write a biography of her husband. Her response was typical: “Only if it’s not too much trouble for you.” Too much trouble? After what Joe had given football, and in particular my team Manchester City, I felt we all owed him something, but typical of Norah she wanted to make sure I wasn’t taking on too much, or doing it for the wrong reasons.
With Norah’s support – and also great assistance from her son David – I wrote the biography over the following three years but, most significantly, I also spent many days at Norah’s listening to her views on football and life, questioning her on odd snippets of information, marvelling at her photo collection, and generally enjoying every minute. Typically my visits would include Norah insisting I had something to eat – I really didn’t want to intrude too much but soon realised that Norah was always such a welcoming figure. She was also keen to meet my own family and my girlfriend (my wife since 1992) was as welcome as I was and became someone else looked after by Norah.
On one occasion when I was researching Joe’s Aston Villa material Norah insisted I have a beer. When she brought the drink in she nodded to my girlfriend and then gave me the tankard – Joe’s League Cup winning tankard from his days at Villa! I was petrified that I was going to damage it.
Norah was born in Liverpool in 1920 and was the daughter of a popular grocer, Albert Dyson, on The Wirral. Albert was a passionate Evertonian and had various contacts at the club. As Albert’s business was based in Ellesmere Port inevitably he came into contact with a young Everton player called Joe Mercer. Joe and another player were invited to the Dyson home for tea one day. The other player couldn’t come but Norah did meet Joe for the first time: “Old cheeky face Mercer came! At the time I was 11 and Joe was 17 and he treated me like a sister.” Around six years later a relationship began to develop between the two of them and Norah became an intergral part of Joe’s life.
In March 1941 Joe and Norah became engaged and on 3rd September that year they married with Everton’s TG Jones the best man. Norah explained to me fifty years later that the honeymoon was cut short by a day so that Joe could play for Everton: “We left early Saturday and he played Saturday afternoon. So that’s how our marriage started… with football! And that’s how it went on.”
Norah was knowledgeable about football herself. In fact some of Joe’s teammates teased him that Norah knew more about the game than he did! She played her part in all the big moments of his career: “Playing for Everton meant a great deal to us all because we were all Evertonians, but I suppose the greatest moment in his pre-war career came when he was selected to play for England. He was at our house when it came through on the radio – no one ‘phoned you then to tell you you’d been selected.
“He was delighted. We all were. It was such a honour to play for England. It made us all so proud. When he played at Hampden in one of his first internationals Joe’s mum came with me and my father to watch him. That meant everything and Joe was named the Man of the Match (England won 2-1).”
The couple were, of course, separated for significant periods during the war years. It was a difficult time for all, but once the war was over it also looked as if Joe’s footballing career had come to an end. Joe became a grocer like his father-in-law, but he often admitted it was a poor substitute for playing football. Then a chance came to join Arsenal and arrangements were made for Joe to train on the Wirral and travel to Highbury for games. Whenever possible Norah would travel, together with their young son David, to London for games. She was, of course, present at all the landmark moments of Joe’s career with the Gunners: “I went as often as possible, and of course we had David by then. If I didn’t go to games I’d be waiting for him up here after the game. He used to catch the 5.30pm from Euston and arrive back to The Wirral around 10.30. We lived near the line then and I used to look out for the train. Of course, Joe often fell asleep and would end up at the end of the line! Once he said to a guard ‘why didn’t you wake me?’ and the guard said ‘because of what you did to my team today!’ Arsenal must have beaten his team.”
Once Joe’s playing career ended he moved into management with Sheffield United, Aston Villa and then Manchester City. As football management required a much closer presence the family moved whenever Joe’s career took a different course. Norah, for her part, tried to ensure everything ran smoothly for Joe and David. She also played her part as a welcoming aspect at each of the clubs. In 2003 she told me: “I used to come to all the games of course, and both before and after the match would be with the wives of the directors, visiting officials, and even the referee’s wife in the Ladies Room. We were all told who the referee’s wife was and we tried to make her feel welcome, although for some ladies it all depended on how well her husband had refereed the match!”
Norah supported Joe fully throughout his managerial career, especially during some difficult periods at Aston Villa and the final days at Manchester City. Norah, talking to me in 2003: “He didn’t want to leave City but felt he had no choice. He obviously wanted Malcolm to succeed and he did not blame him, but the new directors could have sorted it out properly. Once the takeover had happened and the new directors came on board (1970-72) the club had changed. It wasn’t really until Franny returned to the club (1993/4 season) that efforts were made to invite me and others back. Of course Joe had passed away by then, but I was delighted to be asked to games. That invite has carried on ever since and it is great to feel part of the club again.”
Joe passed away in 1990 after suffering with Alzheimer’s. Norah did all she could during that period to ensure Joe was comfortable and she insisted on looking after him, even during some very difficult days.
Norah continued to attend games at City from 1994 through to the present day. She also came to the ground for other activities and functions over the years, including the unveiling of the Mercer mosaics in 2005. That day she was accompanied by her son David, but sadly, a little over two years later he passed away after a struggle with cancer. Life must have been difficult once more for Norah.
Away from football Norah tried to play a part in her local community. For many, many years she worked in charity shops on The Wirral. In fact, when I went to see her once when she was in her late 70s she told me that earlier that week a man had stolen a handbag from someone inside the shop and that Norah had chased after him. Only losing him when he jumped on a waiting train at the railway station: “if that train hadn’t been there I’d have caught him!”
On another occasion when she was approaching ninety she told me of her upset at being “made redundant!” The charity had decided to stop using volunteers and had employed younger permanent staff instead. I’m pretty certain that few permanent staff would have had the same level of dedication and determination that Norah had.
I once asked her about her family’s interest in football: “It’s changed so much since Joe and I first met. Throughout his career I supported him all the way. To Joe football was the most important thing. The people… the money… the grounds even change, but Joe used to say that the game itself doesn’t need to change. Football is a great game and that’s what mattered to Joe. I often joke that football was everything to Joe. When he met me it was football then me. When our son David was born it was football, David, then me. When our granddaughter Susan was born it was football, Susan, David, then me! Football was always number one and we all knew that. Football was Joe’s life.
By 2009-10 I had become a little frustrated that the Mercer name was not often remembered outside of the clubs Joe had been involved with and so I decided to update and revise my biography of Joe, but first I asked Norah’s permission. Just like twenty years earlier she said “Are you sure? Will anybody be interested? Don’t do it unless you feel it’s worthwhile.” “Joe Mercer: Football With A Smile” came out in April 2010 and I made sure that the book explained Norah’s continued presence and interest in football – to me it’s a shared story. It was the least she deserved.
In September 2009 I included an interview with Norah in the Manchester City match programme. In that piece I asked her about present day City and ended the piece with a simple question: Looking to the future, who would you like to win the League?
Her response: “After City you mean? Well, the top four would have to be City, Everton, Arsenal and Liverpool, but apart from City as champions I’d best not say which order.” In 2012 she got her wish and, most significantly, she was there when City defeated QPR to lift the title for the first time since Joe’s side had in 1968.
My thoughts are with her granddaughter Susan and the rest of her family.
“When I heard the team I said two prayers. One of thanks to the Scots for leaving me out, and one on behalf of Adam Little who had taken my place. I knew then we’d do well to get away with less than five goals against.” So said Bill Shankly referring to the selection of the England team to face Scotland at Maine Road in October 1943.
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