1950: Mercer, Mercer Me
Having secured the F.A Cup in 1936, Allison`s side, taken up from the germ of Chapman`s, had begun to decline. Arsenal won the league title again in 1937-38. But the outbreak of the devastating Second World War put paid to league football for seven years. When hostilities ceased and league football resumed in the 1946-47 season, the Gunners got off to an inauspicious start and found themselves in the bottom three in November. So in November 1946, Allison made the most significant signing the club would make probably until the acquisition of Frank McLintock from Leicester City in 1964. 32 year old centre half and England captain Joe Mercer was locked in an ugly contract dispute with Everton. Mercer was a canny operator and had already set up a grocery store in Merseyside in preparation for his retirement. He was all set to call time on a glittering career.
That was until a phone call from George Allison persuaded him to carry on for just one more year. Mercer signed on a 12 month contract as captain and negotiated with the club that he could still be based in Merseyside to look after his shop. Allison agreed to let Mercer train with Liverpool during the week. Mercer stayed for seven years and only retired aged 39 due to a very badly broken leg. They quite literally had to carry him off the pitch to stop him turning out for Arsenal. His team mate Laurie Scott would tell Jon Spurling in 'Highbury- The Story of Arsenal in N5`, "Thing is, Joe didn`t need to play football anymore money-wise....he just loved the thought of playing for Arsenal." With Mercer`s steady, organising, assured presence as a captain and as a centre half, Arsenal were steered to mid table safety in that season. By the next campaign, Mercer captained Arsenal to the league title. His signing was the midwife to the tale I am about to tell. Of how Arsenal won the 1950 F.A. Cup.
In 1947 Allison retired as Arsenal manager. Having finished 13th in the league and having failed to replace the likes of Drake, Bastin and James- who had all retired, he found the strain of the job too much. Trusted Chapman acolyte Tom Whittaker took up the reigns. Having been a player, a physiotherapist and Allison`s assistant, Whittaker was both an attempt at continuity on the club`s part and a desperate resolve to cling onto the threads of their 1930s heyday. The toll that the level of expectation at the club would take on Whittaker would literally kill him. He died of a heart attack in 1956, at the age of 58, whilst still in office as Arsenal manager.
The league campaign in 1949-50 was a fairly productive one for Arsenal, finishing in 6th place. Though the compacted nature of the league meant the Gunners only finished 4 points away from champions Portsmouth. (Remember though that this was in the days of 2 points for a win). The Gunners still had some class players in their midst, with the legendary George Swindin in goal, the Compton brothers (though due to his England cricket commitments, Denis Compton only played 59 times in 16 years for Arsenal), as well as hungry strikers such as Reg Lewis and Jimmy Logie- who had lost most of their career to the war. They were marshalled by the imperious captain Mercer. However, at this time most Arsenal supporters had been accustomed to the caviar of the 1930s vintage and found fine Cumberland sausage to be too bland for their pallets.
But they did find respite from the increasingly voluminous terrace backlash in the shape of a 1950 F.A. Cup win. Arsenal earned the unique distinction of winning the trophy without ever leaving North London. The 3rd Round saw them drawn at home to eventual 2nd Division runners up Sheffield Wednesday at Highbury. The Owls gave Arsenal a tough game, their league form at this point was looking good for a promotion they eventually secured. The Gunners needed something special to break their visitors down and they found it when Reg Lewis met Freddie Cox`s left wing cross with a firm left footed volley which left the Wednesday keeper stranded. A nervy 1-0 was enough to carry the Gunners through to the Fourth Round, where they were again drawn at home to Second Division opposition, this time in the shape of Swansea Town- as they were then known.
Once again, the Gunners didn`t have it all their own way on home turf against plucky opposition from the division below. Swansea had ten full internationals on their books at this time- the likes of Cliff Jones, Medwin and Ivor Allchurch formed the spine of the Welsh national side. After a stalemate first half, Arsenal took the lead on 52 minutes when Peter Goring rose to head Arsenal`s own Welsh full back Wally Barnes` left wing cross into the net. But just three minutes later, the Swans hit back with a rasping Allchurch drive. Keen to avoid a replay in Wales, Arsenal pushed on and grabbed themselves a late winner when Reg Lewis bulldozed his way through the Swansea defence.
The 5th Round saw the Gunners drawn at home yet again to First Division contemporaries Burnley. A routine 2-0 victory was lit up by Denis Compton`s 35 yard fulminating drive into the top corner. Jimmy Logie scored the other. Winning knockout competitions often depends on the luck of the draw and as it happened, the Gunners were yet again drawn at home to 2nd Division opponents as Leeds United came to Highbury. The Welsh theme was reignited as 17 year old John Charles made an impressive full debut for Leeds. But despite a domineering performance that had the Highbury crowd checking the back of their programmes to see who this teenage leviathan was, Arsenal once again barely squeezed through with a 1-0 victory in front of a tense 62,573 crowd. The size of the crowd indicated that the supporters felt the Cup held a genuine chance of glory and Reg Lewis` first half goal accelerated that feeling.
The semi finals would contain four First Division clubs with little else in the way of distraction in the league. Chelsea, Everton and Liverpool would all finish the season behind the Gunners in the table, yet the bookmakers curiously made Billy Birrell`s Chelsea favourites. Indeed it was Arsenal`s London rivals that would engage the Gunners next in two classic semi final encounters played at White Hart Lane. Not for the last time in their history, the Gunners would have to negotiate an early two goal deficit to book their place at Wembley. Chelsea forward Roy Bentley toyed with Mercer and Compton at centre half, scoring twice in the opening 25 minutes to give Chelsea a two goal cushion. Arsenal were shell shocked but gave themselves a lifeline with a freak goal. Two minutes into first half stoppage time, Freddie Cox sprinted over to take a right wing corner- wary that he might not even have time to execute the delivery. He hit a swirling cross which became caught in the vortex of a blustery North London gale that carried the ball unassisted into the corner of Billy Medhurst`s net. The half time whistle blew instantly with the Gunners buoyed by the serendipity.
Arsenal pressed for the equaliser for the majority of the second half, with Chelsea exhausted from their first half effort. It would be another set piece that would deliver salvation on 75 minutes. This time Denis Compton took the corner. In doing so, he urged brother Les forward from centre half, who errantly ignored captain Mercer`s vain yells for him to stay back. Denis clipped a pinpoint corner which Les attacked with such vigour that he ended up unintentionally somersaulting over two Chelsea defenders as he headed goalwards. It wasn`t until he was submerged by team mates that he realised the ball had flown into the net. The following Wednesday, the sides met in a replay at the same venue and still could not be separated.
A cagey game remained 0-0 late into extra time, when Freddie Cox, an ex Tottenham winger, cut in from the right hand side past a slew of weary Chelsea bodies and smashed a shot into the roof of the net with his left foot. It was enough to put Arsenal through to Wembley to meet Liverpool- who easily overcame Merseyside rivals Everton in their semi final at Elland Road. The Final had a special resonance for Arsenal captain Joe Mercer- who had trained with Liverpool for the four seasons he had been with Arsenal. Needless to say, Liverpool did not extend that generosity to Mercer come Cup Final week!
Mercer led Arsenal out at a rainswept Wembley at the age of 36- a feat Alex James matched when he captained Arsenal to their last F.A. Cup win in 1936. Strangely, both sides opted to wear their away kit. With Liverpool sporting white shorts and black socks whilst Arsenal favoured an unfamiliar gold shirt and white shorts. Arsenal seem to have a history of starting finals slowly and this affair was no different, with Liverpool pinning the Gunners back in the opening stages. Only a masterful performance by Mercer, wilfully aided by Compton kept Liverpool at bay. That Mercer, at 36, was able to dominate an affair as high octane as this beggars belief. Bear in mind that Mercer was never the most nimble of athletes (he had "teeth like tombstones" recalled his team mate Lewis) and had spent twenty years booting heavy leather footballs and dusting himself off after some, ahem, "industrial" challenges from strikers. By now his knees were almost completely bowed. But he had the intelligence to commandeer those around him to be his legs.
Very much against the run of play, Arsenal took an 18th minute lead. A deceptive decoy run from Goring took Hughes away from the centre half position; Reg Lewis read his striker partner`s move and careered into the vacated space. Jimmy Logie picked out an inch perfect through ball, leaving Lewis with just Sidlow to beat. A task he managed consummately to make it 1-0. Liverpool were not to be downhearted though and Stubbins immediately replied with two close range headers which both flew just wide. Pool almost equalised with a carbon copy of Lewis` effort as Liddel`s slide rule pass split the Arsenal defence and found Jimmy Payne through on goal. But Swindin was out like a flash to thwart him by smothering the ball at his feet. It was a save that turned the tie.
Five minutes later, Mercer began a patient build up from Arsenal`s defence, finding midfield link man Forbes. Forbes moved the ball out wide to Denis Compton, whose cross was met by the sliding Reg Lewis to double the Gunners` advantage. Liverpool continued to attack relentlessly in search of a lifeline, but the Gunners defence held firm. They had equalled Bolton`s record of 3 F.A. Cups and had done so without travelling outside the North region of the capital. Mercer, racked with fatigue, climbed the steps to collect his medal. He shook hands with King George VI- who embarrassingly had to alert his Queen that she had in fact given Mercer a runners-up medal. A mistake she quickly rectified. Mercer showed customary class in first acknowledging his defeated opponents in his post match interview.
He also coined one of the most famous phrases ever uttered by an Arsenal player on the Wembley pitch that day when he said, "I thought the biggest honour in football was to captain England. I was wrong. It was to captain Arsenal today." It backed up Lewis` assertion that Mercer played solely "for the glory of playing for the Arsenal." The Gunners would win another league title in 1952-53, but the decline was already setting in. Haunted by the ghost of Chapman`s greatness, the club carried a crushing weight. They would lose the 1952 F.A. Cup Final to Newcastle in unfortunate circumstances and it would be 21 years before the club would lay its hands on the famous trophy again. LD.
Footage of that 1950 F.A. Cup Final still exists here.
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