If Manchester City’s greatest ever manager were still with us we’d be celebrating his 100th birthday this Saturday. Sadly, Joe Mercer died on August 9th, 1990, ironically the same date as he had entered the world, 76 years earlier.
Joe was the embodiment of everything and anything good about football and it’s befitting of his memory that the two clubs he served with the most distinction, throughout a glittering playing and managerial career, clash 24 hours later in the Community Shield.
Wembley will be the stage when reigning Premier League Champions, City, take on FA Cup holders, Arsenal at 3pm Sunday, in the traditional curtain-raiser for the new season.
It presents English football with a God given opportunity to celebrate a man who ranks among the finest ever to grace the game in this country.
He contested the Charity Shield (as it was previously known) on numerous occasions as both player and manager, winning it twice with the Gunners and once with City, so what better way to honour him than have 90,000 fans applaud and sing his name, as the giant-sized Wembley screens run footage to reflect his life and times.
Affectionately known as ‘Gentleman Joe’ it speaks volumes of the man that his nature – the kindly, caring character, adored by those who knew him – eclipses a football CV, saturated in splendiferous achievements.
I count myself as fortunate to have experienced Joe’s kindness and consideration when, as a youngster, I was preparing to go and see City play for the first time.
It was 1970 and for my sins I lived on the east coast in Cleethorpes. My Mum & Dad and sister, Susan, were preparing for our first ever ‘proper’ family holiday – a week down to London – how exciting for a seven-year old boy who’d barely set foot outside of Lincolnshire!
We didn’t have a car and foreign holidays were unheard of for the likes of the Walkers, a trip to Wales or Scotland would have seemed wildly exotic back in those days.
No, the jolly down to the capital city was excitement beyond compare, especially as it coincided with City playing away to Crystal Palace. My Dad would take me to the match on August 19th – a Wednesday night – while my Mum and Sue went to see a show in the West End.
It’s a measure of an innocence of the age that my Dad wrote to City’s manager – a certain Joe Mercer – informing him that the Palace game would be my first City match and ‘...would it be at all possible for David to come and meet you and the players at Selhurst Park?’
A couple of weeks went by before a type-written letter duly arrived back from Manchester City Football Club, which ran along the lines of;
Dear Mr Walker,
Thank you for your letter and your request for your son to come and meet myself and the players at Crystal Palace later this month.
I am sorry to say it won’t be possible on this occasion.
Obviously we want to reward David with a City win at his first match but, if things don’t go to plan, there could be some industrial language in the dressing room, not suitable for a young lad of seven-years.
Thank you for your interest in Manchester City, it’s great to hear that young David is a City Blue – long may it continue – and once again sorry for any disappointment.
Manchester City Manager
The letter was hand signed in a blue ‘biro’ by the man himself and was accompanied by a gift of a metal City badge.
It’s a relatively innocuous anecdote and possibly the norm that in those days – long before social media and the like – a manager of a top English team attended to such minutiae as part of his regular duties. Nonetheless it has stayed with me all of my life and, incidentally, City beat Palace 1-0, the winner coming from Alan Oakes.
Joe was different from most people in football in that he somehow managed a smile most of the time, even in adversity.
He achieved every domestic honour in a distinguished career which would have been even more so, but for the interruption caused by the Second World War.
In a playing career with Everton and Arsenal he won three League Championships, an FA Cup and two Charity Shields. He was the Footballer of the Year in 1950 and won five England caps before the outbreak of war in 1939.
As a manager he won the Second Division Championship and League Cup at Aston Villa, before moving onto the halcyon days on the blue side of Manchester.
As any true City fan will know, the Second Division Championship in 1966 was followed by the League Championship and Charity Shield in 1968, the FA Cup in 1969 and finally the League Cup and European Cup Winners Cup double in 1970. He was awarded an OBE in 1976 for services to football.
In many ways, Joe Mercer’s career was akin to ‘Roy of the Rovers’ stuff with dramatic highs and some depressing lows, including suffering a stroke as manager at Aston Villa.
Set against the most turbulent days of the 20th century and spanning decades of evolution and revolution in the game he loved so much, Joe’s biography makes for captivating reading.
‘Joe Mercer OBE - Football With A Smile’ http://www.manchesterfootball.org/publications.php is a beautifully crafted and meticulously researched reflection on the life of a man who illuminated football on so many different levels.
Written by the esteemed and highly respected football historian, Gary James and first published in 1993, it sold out within six months. Revised and re-published in 2010, it represents a wonderful journey through football of a bygone age and delivers a fascinating insight on genial Joe.
A lifelong Manchester City fan, the author spends up to a third of the book on the giddy era of Mercer & Allison at Maine Road. It’s far and away the most famous part of Joe’s career, but don’t let that detract from enthralling chapters with Everton, football during the 2nd World War and a spectacular career at Highbury that will forever have Joe highlighted as a truly Great Gunner.
Gary James acknowledges how privileged he was to have met and interviewed Joe and then forge long lasting friendships with his widow Norah and Joe’s son, David.
Norah died at the age of 93 in March 2013, having continued her support for Manchester City throughout her life. Her funeral was attended by City legends Mike Summerbee, Tony Book, Colin Bell and Joe Corrigan as well as Sir Bobby Charlton from City’s arch rivals.
Tragically David passed away in late 2007 after a difficult and brief battle with cancer.
The book is a triumph and thoroughly recommended to any genuine football fan, irrespective of their allegiance. It obviously holds much for City and Arsenal fans, but it’s the story of a man who transcended traditional football boundaries.
Joe Mercer was among the best of the best, not only of his generation but of all time.
It would be a travesty – a crime against football – if the 100th anniversary of his birth went unheralded by the Football Association and by two clubs who owe him so much.
The modern day rivalry between the men from The Etihad and the men from The Emirates is polarised by the influx in recent years of ex-Gooners to the blue side of Manchester. Msrs Clichy, Nasri and Sagna could all be combatants against their former employers on Sunday afternoon.
Differing business models see City and Arsenal light years apart on football finances and philosophies.
The irony of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules now sees City having to curb their spending in the transfer market, whereas Arsene Wenger has suddenly been given the combination number for the safe, as he splashes the cash to try and catch and, ultimately surpass the Mancunian 'upstarts' who now upstage their London rivals.
Putting rivalries and antagonisms aside, the two teams can serve up a showcase of the finest traits of English football, in keeping with the spirit of a man who served both clubs so well.
Respect, honour and decency, combined with good humour and a smile – that’ll do nicely for Gentleman Joe.
Let the Grandparents and Mums and Dads who attend on Sunday, explain to younger generations why Joe Mercer is more than just a name from their club’s history. Let’s hope Wembley Stadium get it right and Joe’s legacy lives on.
By David Walker
NB* JOE MERCER OBE - Football With A Smile - By Gary James - published by JAMES WARD http://www.manchesterfootball.org/publications.php My thanks go to Gary for providing such a splendid reference point, but more importantly, for writing a brilliant biographical tribute.