JOE MERCER, OBE
Born: Ellesmere Port, 9th August 1914 Died: Hoylake, 9th August 1990
13th July 1965 – 7th October 1971.
Continued as General Manager until June 1972
Joe Mercer was a major footballing figure prior to joining the Blues. At Arsenal Joe was regarded as one of the greatest Gunners of all time and at times during the 1950s and early 1960s they had urged their Board to appoint him manager. Fortunately for City that never happened.
As a player he won the Championship with Everton and Arsenal (twice), and also captained the Gunners to FA Cup success. He made his first England appearance shortly before the war and went on to captain his country. He was a model professional, and only stopped playing at the age of 39 when a collision resulted in a broken leg.
Naturally for a man so in love with the game he moved into management. First with Sheffield United where he inherited a team destined for relegation. Although he was unable to turn the Blades into a promotion winning side he did build a very entertaining cup fighting side.
By Deecember 1958 he realised that he had taken the Bramall Lane side just about as far as he could and he became Aston Villa’s manager. Villa were a struggling side and, inevitably, another relegation followed, but Mercer was free to push forward with his ambitious plans and within two seasons his young side had been champions of Division Two and League Cup winners.
During his time at Sheffield and at Villa he regularly hit the headlines for the bold, stylish, exciting football his sides played and many other teams showed interest in him. In the early sixties a media campaign was started to make Mercer England team manager. Mercer decided he wasn’t ready for the post and chose not to apply. In the Seventies he did become caretaker manager, putting the fun back into international football, but turned down a permanent appointment because of health reasons.
In the Sixties “Mercer’s Minors” as Villa became known demonstrated a very entertaining style of play and enjoyed several good cup runs, however by 1964 Mercer was struggling healthwise. At Villa he had taken on too much – in addition to the playing side he was also a major player in the development of a new stand – and while he lay at home ill the Villa board decided to terminate his contract. Villa’s loss was City’s gain.
After a year out of the game he joined the Blues in July 1965. His doctor had tried to dissuade him but admitted to Mercer’s wife, Norah: “He may as well die doing the job he loves, than sit at home and die of a broken heart.” Mercer decided to bring in a youthful coach and sought out Malcolm Allison, a young former West Ham player he had been impressed with at FA Coaching sessions. Allison became Mercer’s number two, and the partnership turned City into the most entertaining side of the era. Mercer said around this time: “The chance was irresistible. I knew that people had written me off. There were doubts about my health, but I had no lack of confidence about my ability. Allison was magnificent. I knew we had a chance with Manchester City. Although they were in the Second Division they were a club with a tradition and a ready-made public.”
Promotion in 1966 – and a good FA Cup run - was followed in 1968 by the League Championship. Only Wilf Wild had managed to bring this to Maine Road prior to Mercer, but Wild’s side had developed over several years whereas Mercer’s side had gone from mid-Division Two obscurity to Champions in only three seasons. The following season Mercer’s side won the FA Cup and then eclipsed this by winning both the League Cup and ECWC in 1970. The Blues were a major force and were led by a very respectable footballing figure, and coached by one of the most dynamic men in Europe. For supporters it was the most exciting period ever.
Sadly, the Mercer-Allison partnership became strained and, over the course of the next couple of seasons both men came under pressure. Allison naturally wanted full control of team affairs, Mercer understandably wanted to continue to have the final say. In addition, the Boardroom battle which eventually led to Peter Swales becoming Chairman forced the men into opposite camps. Mercer stuck by the established Board and as a result finished on the losing side. On 7th October 1971, two days after a League Cup defeat at Bolton, a three hour board meeting ended with City announcing that Allison was to be Team Manager with Mercer taking on a role as General Manager. It was clearly a compromise and one which never really succeeded.
In June 1972, after the new board of directors had removed his car parking space and taken away his office, he felt it was time to move on. It seems he was treated appallingly by the new regime who believed Allison had brought all the success on his own. Regardless of what the Directors felt, the fans recognised Mercer’s enormous contribution. Shortly after his departure the City Supporters’ Club invited him to their annual ceremony and presented him with a silver tea service. It was a touching moment for Mercer, but for supporters too it was a key moment as it brought to an end the most glorious period in the club’s history.
Joe Mercer was without question the most successful City manager of all time. City fans are well aware of the achievements of his reign, but so do true footballing legends. Sir Tom Finney, Preston’s greatest hero, recognises this: “Joe had great success at City – there’s no question about that. They were one of the best footballing sides of all time. City had gone through some real traumas before Joe. I don’t think anyone who has watched City for any length of time will ever forget that era. They will always talk about it with tremendous affection. There’s no doubt that Joe had a great influence on City and together with Malcolm Allison they put together a great side.”
At Coventry with Gordon Milne he signed some exciting players - including future Maine Road idol Tommy Hutchison - and the fun returned to his life. Then, in 1974 he took control of the England side on a caretaker basis, and again the Mercer magic succeeded. That brief period gave England fans some great entertainers - Frank Worthington was given his chance - and much enjoyment. It's a little known fact that he was asked to continue on a permanent basis but because of a painful back condition he felt it wise to stand down.
Another fact is that during the early Seventies, while still at Maine Road, Mercer and Allison were being lined up by the F.A. as Sir Alf Ramsey's replacements on a full time basis. At the time of the Maine Road take-over neither man was made aware of this, and the partnership disintegrated just as it was about to happen. From the F.A.'s perspective, Mercer had the dignified approach required, Allison had the coaching expertise. Sadly for England, the City take-over ultimately ended that opportunity.
After England, Mercer became a Coventry City director until 1981 when he returned to Merseyside to retire. He kept involved with various footballing panels - young player awards, judging Spot the Ball etc. - and made a large number of journeys to Wembley, to Tranmere Rovers (his father's old club), to Everton, Coventry, and Arsenal. Throughout the late eighties City supporters asked the club to appoint Mercer to a role worthy of his contribution to the Blues. It was suggested he become club President by some and at one AGM in particular Peter Swales said the club would approach their most successful manager. No official approach ever came from the club.
Mercer passed away peacefully in his favourite armchair in August 1990 on his 76th birthday. Since the end of Peter Swales reign as Chairman the Blues have welcomed Joe’s widow, Norah Mercer to the Club. At Maine Road a Joe Mercer Suite was opened, and in 2005 two outstanding mosaics of Mercer as City manager were unveiled on Joe Mercer Way at the new stadium.