Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Sunday July 22 2012
When ruminating over the finest signings the club has ever made, last time out I focussed on Cliff "The Boy" Bastin, whose 178 Arsenal goals were a huge part of Arsenal`s dominance of the 1930s. This week I will be looking at a signing that almost single handedly kept Arsenal at the top table of English football just as the visage of our 30s glory was beginning to fade. A team suffering the ravages and debt of war, whose former greats had aged and retired. A man who, like the club he was signing for, seemed to be past his best and in need a lick of paint metaphorically speaking. But his performances and leadership would keep the Gunners operating as a top class outfit, just as decline loomed.
Joseph Mercer was born in Cheshire just before the First World War broke out. His father, Joe Senior, was a professional footballer who carved out a career at Nottingham Forest and latterly Tranmere Rovers. Mercer Snr. was a player at Tranmere when Joe Junior was a young boy and the son grew up with a big fascination with the game, becoming a devoted Tranmere Rovers fan. Like his father, Joe`s tall frame and bandy legs lent themselves to defensive duty and Mercer became a talented full back. He was picked up by Everton in 1932, at the age of 18. Mercer became a regular by the 1935-36 season and won a league championship medal with the Toffees in 1938-39, when the Merseyside club deposed the decade`s powerhouse, Arsenal.
Like so many of his era, Mercer lost seven years of his professional career to the Second World War. Mercer served as a Sergeant Major as Europe was gripped by conflict. He played wartime internationals and it was within these parameters that he fell out with Everton. During a wartime international with Scotland, Everton manager Theo Kelly accused Mercer of not trying. But the Everton man was suffering a knee cartilage injury. The Toffees medics checked him out and refused to believe him, so Mercer paid for his own surgery to correct the problem. Once hostilities had ceased, Mercer, a canny operator, began to plan for his retirement. He purchased a grocery store in Wallasey so that he could easily make the transition into a paying profession when he finished playing.
By the beginning of the 1946-47 season, life had become uncomfortable for Mercer at Everton, with the breakdown in trust souring his relationship with his manager. Mercer, now 32, was ready to retire from football with his grocery store making good money. Meanwhile, in North London, the dominant force of English football in the 30s, Arsenal, were struggling badly. By now, most of the stars of the 30s had retired and the war years had robbed the club of a smooth handover transition. The new East and West stands had been built in the 30s at large expense, but the suspension of league football for seven years and the subsequent lack of gate receipts, as well as an incendiary bomb that fell upon the North Bank roof in 1943 saw the club cradling crippling debts. They simply didn`t have the money to replace the quality they had lost with requisite talent.
Whittaker was effectively running team matters with Allison near retirement. He still believed in the side; he had bulldozer forward Ronnie Rook and the prolific Reg Lewis upfront. Jimmy Logie was a fine creative midfield player, in Laurie Scott and Denis Compton the Gunners still boasted talent. (Not least in Kevin O`Flanagan. A midfielder, who also played rugby for Ireland, played off scratch in golf and was a qualified doctor). But by November 1946 they had slid to the unfamiliar position of 21st in the league table. The manager felt his side lacked defensive organisation. A great amount of faith had been placed in Wales`s captain and full back Wally Barnes- faith he would repay in his Arsenal career. But he was still returning from a career threatening knee injury and Whittaker felt he needed an older head alongside him. With Parker, Male and Hapgood all gone, Arsenal`s backline lacked experienced marshals. Having heard about Mercer`s troubles, Whittaker, with Allison`s consent, made lines of enquiry and found Theo Kelly in receptive mood. So much so, that Kelly brought Mercer`s boots to negotiations so that he wouldn`t come back to the training ground for his goodbyes!
An initial offer of £6,000 was accepted by Everton but Mercer himself needed to iron out a few conditions. The offer had been for a 1 year contract but Mercer wanted to go on running his grocery store in Wallasey. So Allison let him and a deal was struck whereby the 32 year old would spend the week training with Liverpool and travel to London for games. Thinking that the deal was only likely to be for the rest of the season, the club were untroubled by the arrangement. Mercer would play for Arsenal for seven years in total. He had been a roaming wing half, but Whittaker explained that he wanted Joe to sit and instruct the defence. With his bandy legs and knobbly knees, Mercer had never particularly been blessed with pace. That Mercer managed this transition into a centre half and commanded his defence so effortlessly despite not training with his colleagues was testament to a fine football brain. I spoke in an earlier article about Charlie Buchan and the parallels are intriguing. Both came to the club at the twilight of their careers and both were allowed to maintain their entrepreneurial pursuits in their localities.
There had been some cynicism amongst his new teammates with regards to his age and the generous deal he had struck with the club. But he immediately made his presence known by regularly dishing out sweets from his grocery store in the dressing room. This in a period when rationing was still in operation. His effect was so profound that Arsenal won his first 6 games and he was immediately made captain. He helped steer the club to a comfortable 13thplaced finish in 1946-47. Secretary Bob Wall would describe his mission as "To take the team by the scruff of the neck and make them do a thorough job of work." In the summer of 1947, Whittaker replaced the retired George Allison as manager and offered Mercer another year. The 33 year old didn`t particularly need the money with his grocery store paying him well enough, but he accepted anyway. Laurie Scott would tell Jon Spurling years later, "He just loved the glory of captaining Arsenal." As a result, Arsenal paid Everton another £2,000. Whittaker purchased another nippy full back, 25 year old Don Roper for £10,000 from Southampton and centre half Archie McAuley was signed from Brentford. Whittaker had the rearguard he wanted, all cajoled and organised by the calm, authoritative head of Mercer.
In 1947-48 Whittaker`s side roared out of the blocks, winning their first six games. They went top of the 1st Division on August 29th and did not spend a single second of the season any lower. Mercer`s continued inhabitancy in the North West proved to be an advantage as all but three other teams in the Division played in excess of 150 miles North of Highbury. Mercer was a fine, ball playing centre half and said to be a huge inspiration on the young Bobby Moore. Arsenal confirmed their status as First Division champions with a 0-0 draw at Fratton Park on April 21st, 1948 and Mercer lifted his first trophy as Arsenal captain at the age of 34. His influence on the side was plain for all to see, with Reg Lewis telling Jon Spurling, "He was an inspiration for us all on how to conduct yourself on and off the pitch."
Whilst lodging in Liverpool had been an advantage for Mercer in the 1947-48 season, he would clock up notably more miles in the 1949-50 season as Arsenal achieved the unique distinction of winning the F.A. Cup without leaving London. The Gunners finished 4 points off of Champions Portsmouth in the league that year, yet still finished 6th due to the compressed nature of the top 6. But Sheffield Wednesday, Swansea City, Burnley and Leeds were all swotted aside at Highbury in the F.A. Cup, before defeating Chelsea at White Hart Lane in the semi finals. The final pitted Mercer against his chums from Liverpool. Obviously, for the week running up to the final, the Anfield club temporarily removed their courtesy for allowing Mercer to train with them. But two goals from Reg Lewis and a man of the match performance from Mercer was a fine way to cap the season. Arsenal wore yellow for the first ever time and Mercer, who had that week been named as Football Writers` Player of the Year- the oldest player ever to win the award at 36- illustrated, not just his defensive acumen, but his suitability as a club ambassador as he warmly thanked the Liverpool team for their hospitality towards him and their class in defeat.
Arsenal again made the F.A. Cup Final in 1952, but this sojourn would be more ill fated for Mercer and his team. Roper, Barnes, Holton and Daniel all went off injured at Wembley, in the days before substitutes of course. The Gunners finished the match with seven men and succumbed to an 85th minute winner from Newcastle`s Chilean international George Robledo. Mercer once again demonstrated his inspirational oratory skills post match with a quote that has become etched into Arsenal folklore. "I thought the biggest honour in football was to captain England. I was wrong. It was to captain Arsenal today." With such rhetoric ringing in their ears, Mercer and Arsenal indulged in one last hurrah together.
Mercer had held Arsenal together and would do so for one final geyser of glory. Arsenal won the league in 1952-53 by 0.010 of a goal. Arsenal were left requiring a win over Burnley at Highbury in May 1953 to snatch the league title. Mercer actually scored an own goal after 6 minutes to give Burnley a shock lead on a pitch sodden by torrential rain. But he didn`t put a foot wrong thereafter, with Forbes, Lishman and Logie giving Arsenal a 3-1 lead. The heavens opened again at half time, turning the pitch into an unctuous peat bog. Billy Elliott grabbed a goal back for Burnley on 50 minutes and the Gunners merely defended for their lives for the final 40 minutes. Bearing in mind Mercer was 38, having taken twenty years of hobnailed striker`s boots, cartilage operations, heavy laced leather footballs and muddy pitches, cajoled and organised his defence to keep the Clarets at bay for forty nervy minutes. So nervy were they that manager Tom Whittaker retired to his office for a brandy for the final ten minutes. Mercer would later confide in his autobiography that his legs gave for good that night and that he never again operated as a top class footballer.
Nevertheless, Mercer had captained Arsenal to another league title and had initially announced his retirement in May 1953. But a desperate Whittaker pleaded for one final year from his captain and Joe acquiesced. He collided horribly with teammate Joe Wade in April 1954 in a home match with Liverpool. As he was stretchered off, Mercer waved to the Highbury crowd. He had a compound double fracture of his leg. He knew the game was up. He never played again. Whittaker was racked with guilt over the injury having persuaded the skipper to play on for one final year. Typically of the man, Mercer cheerily dismissed his manager`s apologies, assuring him it had been his decision to keep playing.
Arsenal weren`t able to replace Mercer until they picked up a fiery young Scot named McLintock over a decade later. The club did not win honours again until 1970. Mercer continued in the game with a fine management career that came to echo his playing career. In his book "Arsenal from the Heart" club secretary Bob Wall claims Mercer had been sounded out about replacing Jack Crayston as Arsenal manager in 1958. But eventually the club settled on 30s goalkeeper George Swindin. That Swindin and Mercer were the main candidates tells you everything about the club`s desperate attempts to reconnect with its past. Mercer managed Sheffield United instead and then took the Aston Villa job in 1960. He won them the inaugural League Cup in 1961, but suffered a stroke in 1964. Upon his return from hospital, he learned that Villa had sacked him. His managerial career appeared to be over, just as his playing career appeared to have ended in 1946.
But Mercer never shirked a challenge and took the Manchester City job where he coached them to success as yet unparalleled by any City coach. They won the Second Division title in 1966, the First Division title in 1968, the F.A. Cup in 1969 and the League Cup and Cup Winners Cup in 1970. He then served on the board at Coventry City until his retirement in 1981. Mercer suffered from Alzheimer`s in his later years and died in his 76th birthday, sitting in his favourite chair, on 9th August, 1990. For a centre half to play to such a level until the age of 40 in such a bruising era of primitive facilities is a remarkable achievement. Mercer inspired because his football brain burned bright long after his limbs had slowed. But it wasn`t just his quality as a defender that marked him out, it was his ability to inspire as a captain. He was earning more money in groceries than football during his time at Arsenal. But he loved the lustre and kudos of captaining a great club like Arsenal. He was unabashedly proud, it sustained him and he sustained the club. That aura rubbed off on his teammates. Bob Wall would say in his autobiography in 1969, "Joe Mercer must surely be Arsenal`s bargain deal of all time." LD.
Date:Sunday July 22 2012
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