Joe Mercer OBE: Football with a Smile serialisation part three - Manchester City FC

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Season 2014/15

Joe Mercer OBE: Football with a Smile 3/3

  • 09 August 2014 14:52
  • Posted by @MCFC

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 mcfc.co.uk 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: facebook.com/garyjames4


Bell and Summerbee were struggling to be fit for the Newcastle game. They had pulled out of England’s midweek game against Spain, a game they were keen to take part in. Throughout the season Joe had been concerned about injuries to his players. Often players took part in games when they really should not have even been considered. Joe’s squad was one of the smallest in the First Division, and was certainly the smallest of the top five or six clubs in the table. In the week leading up to the Newcastle game he was asked if it was true that many of his players had played when in fact they should have been rested. He responded: “This has been true at times of Alan Oakes, Glyn Pardoe, Tony Book, and Mike Doyle, as well as Colin Bell and Mike Summerbee. There have been games in which they have gone out with pain-killing injections, games before which we have left the final decision with the player himself. It has taken moral courage for them to put the good of the side before personal discomfort and, on many occasions, to insist on playing when decisions about their fitness to do so were not easy to arrive at.”

Joe admitted that the squad was not really big enough for the long, hard race for the Championship. He admitted that the Blues had performed to a standard better than he had expected. He had always believed that it would take more than a couple of seasons to turn City from a side heading towards Second Division obscurity into major Championship contenders. The next step for Joe was to build strength in depth, although he made it quite clear to the footballing public that, at a time when professional footballers were beginning to be criticised for greed and lack of commitment, the City players gave their all: “People often talk very disparagingly about modern professionals, and try to make out that they don’t give quite so much to the job as they did in the old days. They claim that everybody today wants things easier. But never in all my long association with football have I seen greater dedication than that of these Manchester City players. In the old days, fear of unemployment was undoubtedly a motivating factor. Today, with these players, pride is the driving force - pride in their performances, pride in what they are trying to accomplish.”

Joe went on to tell the press that there would be “no hiding place” at Maine Road for any of the club’s players. Business would carry on as normal. Everybody had to be aware of how important the next few days were: “This week brings the crucial test. It requires a special quality of which Champions are made. We can’t sweep the situation under the carpet and forget about it.”

For all of Manchester the final week of the season was a tense affair. United had their pride at stake, while City had their chance to overtake their rivals. Joe was convinced the Blues could do it, and laughingly told the reporters that he had been practising the walk from Maine Road to Stretford ready for collecting the trophy from the reigning Champions: “I shall personally take great pleasure in walking down to Old Trafford on Sunday morning to pick up the trophy.”

The game against Newcastle has been documented in almost every City publication since that famous day in 1968. City appeared nervous in the opening minutes. The 20,000 City supporters there that day must have realised that, more than ever before, the team needed their backing. The City supporters roared on their side in an attempt to give jittery City the confidence and belief they needed.

Newcastle’s Scott hit the City crossbar in the third minute. Then City scored in the twelfth. Mike Doyle took a quick free-kick, and Colin Bell raced towards the Newcastle goal, swerving round full-back Frank Clark before pulling the ball back. Doyle shot towards goal and Mike Summerbee flicked the ball into the net.

As City fans celebrated, Newcastle came back. A defensive slip-up allowed Jackie Sinclair to gain possession. Sinclair fed a pass across the goal area where young Glyn Pardoe found himself facing three Newcastle players. Bryan ‘Pop’ Robson was the one who scored.

Newcastle had the control and composure that City needed. Tony Book played a true captain’s role, in the leadership style of Arsenal’s Joe Mercer, and tried to calm his players. After 30 minutes, Book saved the Blues when he cleared a header from Wyn Davies that looked a certain goal. Then, within two minutes, the Blues took the lead again.

A quickly taken throw-in by Summerbee was pushed goalwards by Colin Bell. Alan Oakes tried a shot, but the ball spun towards Neil Young who, with a typical goalscorers instinct, volleyed a glorious goal with his left foot.

It didn’t last. Three minutes later Newcastle were level again. City’s George Heslop cleared the ball, but only as far as Newcastle’s Jim Iley, the ex-Sheffield United player. Iley fed Sinclair, who scored with a fine 15-yard shot.

Although Neil Young had the ball in the net again - Francis Lee was adjudged offside - the score was still 2-2 at half-time. When the interval came, Joe and Malcolm wanted to give the players a bit of a roasting. Malcolm remembers what they saw when they entered the dressing room: “I was going to go in at half-time and give them a right going over in the dressing room. When I got there, though, I could see that they were all tensed up. So I just told them that they had had 45 minutes to get used to it, and now they had to go out and play.”

City were more composed in the second half. After only four minutes Colin Bell slipped the ball across the penalty area to Neil Young, who powered the ball in from 12 yards to give City a 3-2 lead. From then on City showed the class and style of football that had thrilled not only their supporters, but the whole of football. They were a joy to watch. Francis Lee had one effort ruled out, but he scored with a 12-yard shot in the 63rd minute, after Doyle and Bell had worked well to get the ball to him. Lee went straight to the crowd with his arms in the air. The City fans were ecstatic.

City played such exciting football that many Newcastle fans were now hoping that the Blues would win the Championship. Four minutes from time, John McNamee scored Newcastle’s third. City were still ahead, 4-3, but pressure was on. Although the last few minutes were tense, the City players were determined to keep their lead. As referee John Thacker blew his whistle, the celebrations began. The supporters chanted, “Champions, Champions”, as many of them swarmed on to the pitch to celebrate with their blue-shirted heroes.

Joe was immensely proud with the way his side had played, not just on the day but throughout the season. With Manchester United losing to lowly Sunderland, City were Champions by two points. The Blues won praise from all the nation. The newspapers viewed City’s success as being good for the game. City were stylish and a real joy to watch.

The day’s only black spot came when the BBC announced that Manchester United’s 2-1 defeat at home to Sunderland would be shown as the ‘Match of the Day’. It seemed that no matter what City did, the media would always look to Old Trafford first. That season the Blues had been featured on ‘Match of the Day’ only three times, while the Reds had appeared eight times. Out of the top nine teams that season every team appeared on the programme more times than the Champions except one, West Bromwich Albion, and they won the FA Cup.

At least the newspapers were glowing in their praise. The Sunday Mirror’s Vince Wilson highlighted the side’s strengths: “City were magnificent. A blue-coloured lightning-fast outfit refusing to change a mood which spelled only victory. Twice City suffered the agonising, stomach-turning pain of losing a goal lead when fighting Newcastle stormed back to equalise through Pop Robson and Jackie Sinclair. But City came back as only one team can - a team of Champions. These blue streaks said it with goals - four thrilling, unforgettable goals from Mike Summerbee, Neil Young (2), and Francis Lee. And for those who think City had it easy, let me say this. It is many a long week since the Magpies played so well at home. The essence of City’s win personified their whole exciting season - not a player stood out above the others. Not even Neil Young, possessor of that left foot extraordinary which struck cracking goals in each half. You can take your pick of the stars. Was it Young or George Heslop or Francis Lee or Mike Summerbee. The true answer lies with them all.”

In the Sunday Express James Mossop gave his view of City’s Championship victory: “There could be no more popular, sentimental success story. City are - were - the poor relations of the Manchester clubs. Three years ago discontented fans were throwing stones and abuse at the board-room windows. The crowds had dwindled to a starvation level of 8,000. But in an amazing spell of hard work and dedication Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison have lifted ordinary players into the Champions of the Football League. They are just a grand set of lads, mostly young, and the best all-round team in England. It is desperately difficult not to get emotional about Manchester City, about such a major success born out of honesty, bravery and complete dedication. This victory was the pinnacle of the season. An afternoon coloured with skill, blessed with fair play and above all applauded in the end by every man, woman and child in the 50,000 crowd. These people will never forget it. Many thousands of them swarmed on to the pitch in a dancing, swirling sea of blue and white at the end. They were cheering for the new champions. For 90 minutes City, the team that has won more friends than any other in a season of imaginative attacking football, turned on the style.”

On the day of City’s victory over Newcastle the Championship trophy remained at Old Trafford, where if United had been victorious in winning the League it would have naturally been brought out. However, as United lost, the trophy seemed to disappear. Daily Express reporter Alan Thompson decided to find out where the trophy was. He started questioning the Old Trafford staff: “Secretary Les Olive was under the impression that a League official had taken it earlier in the week, Matt Busby was not at all sure what had happened to it, and for a minute or two it was lost until a member of the female staff admitted that it had been locked up ‘in the vault’. You are at liberty to allow full rein to your imaginations in concluding exactly where the ‘vault’ is at Old Trafford. But the centre of the board-room table, where the League Championship Cup has stood proudly for the last 12 months was occupied by five shillings worth of flowers. Sit down the City fan who says symbolic.”

Joe Mercer arranged a friendly match against Bury for the following Tuesday night. He hoped they would be able to collect the trophy from Old Trafford, and make Tuesday a night of celebration.

The celebrations, of course started on Saturday night, both in Manchester and the north-east, where many Blues remained after the game. On the Sunday, City held a press conference at Maine Road. Mercer, Allison and Book talked to the press about their success and, of course, their hopes for the following season when they would play in Europe for the first time. All three men were laughing and joking. All three knew what it was like to have been overlooked or rejected earlier in their careers. It was a great moment for all of them. Malcolm Allison had proved himself one of the best coaches in the world. Tony Book had proved a great role model for all people starting late in any career. And Joe Mercer had proved that he was able to bounce back and manage a truly great side. After leaving Villa Joe had said that he wanted to take control of a side that were capable of beating his old side. When Joe’s City won the Championship, Aston Villa were in the lower half of the Second Division. Joe had taken City away from the struggles that Villa now faced, while at the same time, he had emulated Ted Drake and Alf Ramsey, the only men to both play in and manage a Championship-winning side. He was very proud.

At the press conference, Joe stressed that City might have to change their style for European games: “It will be more difficult next season. We have played attacking football because it has suited us, because we have been playing to our strength. But I will make no excuse if we find ourselves having to play negatively, mean and tight. Every case has got to be taken on its merits. Every team should be defensive when their opponents have the ball.”

Joe went on to talk about improvements he would like to make, and then made his prediction for how far he believed City would go in the European Cup: “The first priority is a good side. And we want a bigger staff. But I’m sure this side will survive the first two rounds of the European Cup.”

Malcolm Allison chipped in with his own view: “I think we will be the first team to play on Mars.” The next day the quote appeared in the Daily Mail under the headline ‘Mars Next Stop’.

When the press conference was over, Joe went back to his house in St Werburgh’s Road, Chorlton. The Mercers had moved there when Joe took the job at City. That afternoon Joe relaxed with Norah and David, David’s wife Joan and Joe’s two-year-old granddaughter, Susan. Joe played with Susan in the garden as well-wisher after well-wisher telephoned to congratulate him. Bill Shankly, whose Liverpool side just missed out on the championship, was the first. Then telegrams came from Matt and Jean Busby amongst others. Norah told reporters that the Sunday afternoon had been the first time he was able to rest for weeks.

On the Monday morning, it was work as normal for all the players and staff. Autograph-hunters waited for the players, the press waited for interviews, and Joe looked to the future. He told Manchester Evening News reporter Peter Gardner of his plans: “This is just the beginning of a bright, new era for Manchester City. I honestly don’t know how great they are going to be. It is impossible to sit back and logically say this side will improve. They will only improve if the attitude of mind is right. They must learn to wear this mantle of League Champions with dignity. But, most important of all, they must not consider that they have a divine right to go out and win every match just because they are the Champions. This is the start ... by no means the finish. It is the point from where we must build for the future. The more success, the bigger the demands come but there is only a certain amount that flesh and blood can take.”

No longer could the club be described as “dear old City”. From now on, opponents would say, “Oh dear, it’s City.” Joe, like everyone else connected with the club, wanted to end the unpredictability. He wanted to forge a side as powerful and respected as the old Arsenal side. He did not want a side that, as Francis Lee once put it, would “win a cup for cock-ups”.

The Championship trophy was presented to Tony Book prior to the friendly with Bury. The players then went on a lap of honour with the crowd celebrating the end of a 30-year wait. When the players returned to the Main stand side of the stadium Joe ran on to the pitch to hug Malcolm. Tony Book then gave the trophy to Joe who lifted it above his head to the roar of the crowd.

Joe returned to the directors’ box for the game. City won 4-2, with most of the excitement coming in the closing ten minutes. George Heslop was substituted and his replacement was none other than Malcolm Allison. Allison quickly threw himself into the game. He forced a great save from Neil Ramsbottom, the Bury ‘keeper, and had a goal disallowed. The City supporters chanted ‘Allison for England’, and then called for Joe to take the field. Joe sat smiling in the stand. He realised his playing days had long gone, although he probably wished he could take part on the pitch and celebrate with his players. At Aston Villa, Joe had played in friendlies, but at City he left the “guest appearance” role to his assistant. Maybe the only thing that stopped Joe was the realisation that there was not enough time for him to change into a City strip.

Celebrations continued after the game. A local reporter went in search of Joe for a quote, and found him on his own eating a bag of chips that he had sneaked out to buy. Now that’s the way to celebrate winning the Championship.


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