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Season 2014/15

Joe Mercer OBE: Football with a Smile 1/3

  • 07 August 2014 11:09
  • Posted by @MCFC
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August 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of legendary City manager Joe Mercer’s birth.

To commemorate the anniversary, we are posting an edited version of the chapters from Manchester football historian Gary James’ biography of Mercer, “Joe Mercer, OBE: Football With A Smile” (published by James Ward, £19.95 & available as a kindle book), covering the 1967-68 League title winning season.

Greater detail is available in the book, but you can read the highlights in three parts right here on starting on Thursday.

A special exhibition of memorabilia is also on display at the Etihad Stadium throughout the month to celebrate Joe’s memory.

You can follow Gary on twitter: @garyjameswriter or on facebook:


I was looking at your match on Saturday and I think you have the best workmanlike team I’ve seen since the old days - nothing fancy, just a set of lads making it easy for themselves as it should be. Tell Mike [Summerbee] to keep getting them that way and he is a certainty for a white shirt.                       

Letter from Bill Dean to Joe Mercer, December 1967

When the 1967-8 season started, on 19 August, Joe Mercer still believed that the City side needed strengthening. Neither he nor Malcolm Allison were fully convinced that they had all the players they needed to mount a serious challenge for the League Championship. Tony Coleman was an exciting forceful player but the Blues still needed another attacker. Johnny Crossan had now moved to Middlesbrough, and Pardoe and Doyle had been pulled back into defence and midfield respectively. In the first few games of the new season Joe and Malcolm tried different combinations without really finding the true blend.

Only one point - a no-score draw at home to Liverpool - was obtained during the first three games. After that Joe tried the youngster Paul Hince at number seven. Hince had played in only one League game the previous season, when he scored twice in a 2-2 home draw with West Bromwich Albion. Now he was given his chance again for a home game against Southampton. The Blues found their goalscoring touch and went on to win five League games in a row. One of them was against Nottingham Forest. Malcolm Allison: “We were playing Nottingham Forest and Paul Hince played quite well at outside-right. In this particular game he absolutely mesmerised the Notts Forest full-back - he was running him inside and outside and totally slaughtering him. Anyway this full-back got involved in an incident and the referee sent him off. Paul Hince went, ‘Oh, don’t send him off ref - he’s easy! I’m enjoying it!’”

Mercer’s men scored 18 goals in those five wins. They played in the attacking style that had surprised Leeds the previous season. City moved up the table and by mid-September found themselves in the top five. During this run Joe gave a début to the young Stan Bowles, who scored an incredible four goals in his first one and a half games. (The half was when he came on as substitute in a League Cup tie against Leicester and scored twice.) City’s fine run ended with a 1-0 defeat away to Joe’s old team Arsenal.

The next game was another Manchester derby. Almost 63,000 poured into Maine Road to see City take on the reigning Champions. City included their new signing, goalkeeper Ken Mulhearn from Stockport County, but only because regular-choice Harry Dowd had dislocated a finger in training. On derby day, Mulhearn arrived at the ground about one and a half hours before the other players - he was so excited. Malcolm Allison spotted him and immediately realised that Mulhearn was very nervous. Allison locked Mulhearn in the medical room until the new goalkeeper had calmed down. When Mulhearn was let out, the other players thought he had only just arrived! Mulhearn admitted that he was nervous about playing in front of over 60,000 at Maine Road rather than a couple of thousand at Stockport. He says the only moments of the game he remembers are when Bobby Charlton scored his two first-half goals. City had started the game well, Colin Bell scoring after only five minutes, but with typical unpredictability went down 2-1. City were still Manchester’s second team.

Mulhearn retained his place for the rest of the season, and City returned to form. After losing 2-0 at Wolves, on 14 October, they were unbeaten in the next ten games. This great run coincided with the signing of Francis Lee.

Both Malcolm Allison and Joe Mercer remembered Lee from his games for Bolton Wanderers against City in the Second Division, and from the a Bolton-City League Cup tie in 1966-7, when Lee had scored. Joe and Malcolm went to watch Bolton’s League Cup game with Liverpool in September and the player was outstanding.

Lee was far from happy with Bolton at the time. He was unhappy with the terms of the contract offered, and disenchanted with the club. On Friday 29 September 1967, he told Bolton manager Bill Ridding that he was walking out. Bolton decided to transfer him to City without delay. The move suited the player because he had business interests in the Bolton area. It was something that Grocer Joe would have understood!

Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison travelled to Bolton to meet Bill Ridding and the player. Even at this late stage the move did not go smoothly, much to Francis Lee’s disbelief: “The next day was Friday, and I went back to Maine Road and signed. Already Bill Ridding had told the Manchester City officials that I would not get my ten per cent of the transfer fee because I had asked for a move. But even he did not bargain for the Football League reaction. I had my boots with me and was all set to move out with the team to play at Sunderland in a First Division game the following day. But the League refused to rush my registration through, and just as I thought my future had been settled Joe Mercer came out of his office to say, ‘It’s all off, the League won’t accept the registration.’ Finally, however, it was ironed out and the following Monday I signed. I remember Joe’s words. ‘I hope you will sign,’ he said when we first met. ‘We feel we’ve got the start of a good side. We are just one player short, and we think you are that player. The odd goal or two will turn us into a great team.’”

Joe was right. From the moment Lee signed, on 9 October, City were a more powerful side. A team was now in place: Mulhearn, Book, Pardoe, Doyle, Heslop, Oakes, Lee, Bell, Summerbee, Young, and Coleman.

On 9 December, the strength of that City side was there for all to see as the Blues defeated high-flying Tottenham Hotspur 4-1 in a game that has become known as the ‘ballet on ice’. Almost 36,000 witnessed a game played on a snow-covered Maine Road, and that night around five million more had the pleasure of watching it on the BBC television’s ‘Match of the Day’ programme. It was classed by many as television’s match of the season.

At first, many doubted that the game could go ahead on such a snowy pitch. The City groundstaff worked hard to make the pitch playable, but when Jimmy Greaves scored for Spurs in the seventh minute at the Platt Lane end many wished the groundsmen had not bothered. By the end of the game the City fans were ecstatic however as City tore Spurs apart. City were such an attacking side that their defence was hardly needed.

The equaliser came from Colin Bell, who, to many, remains the greatest player ever to play for City. His skill, stamina, and tremendous power has never been matched. Joe Mercer, despite his earlier doubts, was convinced of greatness by this stage: “He’s the best player since Peter Doherty, and he will get even better. He has got fantastic stamina, and this unusual combination of speed and stamina, like Matthews or Finney. Players usually have speed and no stamina, or stamina and no speed, or speed and stamina but no balance. But Colin Bell has all these. He is best when he is given free rein and coming from the deep. He is a good tackler and covers every inch of the pitch.”

During the game against Spurs, Bell’s wide-ranging skills were much in evidence. The snow continued to fall but City’s forwards mastered the conditions. Neil Young’s shot brought an outstanding save from Pat Jennings. Another Young effort hit the right-hand post. Finally, in the second half, Young crossed from the left and Mike Summerbee scored from six yards with a brilliant header.

In the 64th minute, Tony Coleman, the rogue Joe had doubts about, scored the third when he followed up a Francis Lee shot that had hit the left post. Local-boy Neil Young made it four with one from close range. The Blues continued to push forward, and shot after shot went towards the Spurs goal. In one attack Tony Coleman latched on to a pass from Bell. Coleman’s shot hit the left-hand post, and Young followed up by hitting the right-hand post.

Neil Young was an unsung hero of that City side. He ended 1967-8 as top scorer and Joe Mercer rated him as “the player with more talent than anybody else at the club”. Joe believed the only thing he lacked was confidence, something that Malcolm Allison worked on. Young was to be one of City’s most valuable players over the next three or four years.

After the game, City made all the headlines and received praise from all over the country. Among the letters Joe Mercer received was one from Billy ‘Dixie’ Dean, Joe’s one-time idol at Everton.

A United fan called Bobby Greenroyd wrote: “I am a regular Manchester United fan but after Saturday’s game your next home gate will be increased by one.”

Mr G Firth from Barnsley wrote: “I have recently had the good fortune to watch Manchester City three times in the last four weeks, and I felt that I just had to write to you and compliment you and your training staff for producing the best team in Britain.”

Others wrote in saying that if ever City were playing in their town then they would certainly go along to the game to support the Blues. Clearly, from the way neutral supporters wrote to Joe and the club in general, many people hoped that City would win the Championship. They still had a long way to go but the Spurs game proved that the Blues were capable of producing terrific results.   A couple of setbacks in the Christmas League matches were soon followed by something even more embarrassing. Third Division Reading came to Maine Road for a third-round FA Cup tie, and City were lucky to escape with a goalless draw. Fortunately, for City, they went to Reading for the replay and won 7-0, Summerbee scoring a hat trick, and were back on course for a great season. As the players left the pitch the tannoy system carried an announcement around the ground: “Ladies and Gentlemen, you have just seen one of the greatest teams England has produced in a long time.”

Peter Doherty, the great Irish inside-forward who starred for City in their 1936-7 Championship season, was at the match. He told Joe that the performance was “quite brilliant” and one of the best he had ever seen. Arthur Shaw, a former Arsenal colleague of Joe’s, was also at the game. Shaw had had little recent contact with football, but City’s display and Joe’s enthusiasm revived his love of the game. He later went on record as saying that the Reading match had turned him into a Manchester City supporter and he predicted that five of the players who played that night would go on to win international caps.

Confidence soared throughout Maine Road as the Blues put in some great performances. There were still occasional setbacks, like the 4-3 defeat at Leicester in an exciting FA Cup fourth-round replay, but City were gaining ground on United in the League. On 16 March

Mercer’s men went top of the table on goal average after annihilating Fulham 5-1 at Maine Road. In an interview around this time, Joe was asked about the secret of City’s success. He answered: “We do everything quick and simple and we’re remarkably fit. We don’t mind who comes and sees us training, or sees us playing, you know. We feel it’s a simple game and we try to keep it simple.”

City lost their next match, 2-0 at Leeds, and United took a two-point lead. No matter what the Blues did, the Reds still seemed one step ahead, and City’s role as Manchester’s second team was continually reinforced by the media. Mercer and Allison longed for the opportunity to break the United stranglehold, and their chance came on Wednesday 27 March. It was one of the most important dates of Joe Mercer’s managerial career. A City victory in a Manchester derby was long overdue.

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