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Season 2014/15

Joe Mercer OBE: Football with a Smile 2/3

  • 08 August 2014 10:51
  • 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:

Chapter - ‘MARS NEXT STOP’

The balance of power which has kept Manchester United perched so long beyond the reach of their poor relations from Maine Road took a violent swing in this drama-packed derby. For magnificent Manchester City, who came from behind after a shock start that would have shattered the nerves of many sides, outplayed, outfought and out-manoeuvred the team who carry England’s hopes in the European Cup. With two points so richly deserved, if only for the relentless power of their non-stop running, they leap-frogged on goal average over United to second place in the table, and made it a three-club deadlock at the top. Leeds, Manchester City and United are all on 45 points ... a situation to set Manchester soccer fans tingling!

Ronald Crowther, Daily Mail, 28 March 1968

I was not a United fan,” Joe Mercer said later in life, “But I was a Busby fan.”  In the 1960s, the rival managers of City and United met regularly and played golf together. They even traded stories about their players. Matt told Joe about the first time he saw George Best play, his memory of the young Irish lad collecting a short corner, cutting in and bending the ball round the goalkeeper and in at the far post. Joe entertained people with occasional “stories about Bestie”. Here’s one of Joe’s favourites, told in his own words, his eyes twinkling, a smile never far away: “One day at Old Trafford, United were playing Bolton, who had hard men like Hartle and Banks who would kick the tops off your stockings. Well, Bestie went through them all like a fox in a hen run, put the ball in the net. Some young reporter in the press box said, ‘What time was that goal?’ Arthur Walmesley replied, ‘Never mind the time, what was the date?’”

When Joe and his side arrived at Old Trafford for the 78th City-United League derby, few rated their chances. After all, as United fans boasted, City had only won the Second Division Championship during the sixties while the Reds had won two League Championships and the FA Cup. Now, in 1967-8, United had a team full of stars - George Best, Bobby Charlton, Denis Law, Pat Crerand, etc - and had great hopes of becoming the first English team to win the League and the European Cup in the same season. To United supporters, the Manchester derby mattered only in so far as it would show City just how far behind they really were!

On the night of the derby, Joe took his place in the directors box, and exchanged a few friendly words with Matt Busby while they awaited the start. Sir Alf Ramsey was there, too. Over 63,000 packed into the Old Trafford stadium for what was, in effect, the Championship of Manchester.

Joe sat down as the game started, and saw City go a goal down after only 38 seconds. Tony Book realised he was responsible: “An unforgivable error on my part let in George Best early on with a mistimed back-pass. I knew I should have stopped him and what’s more I knew that had I been alert I could have stopped him. It didn’t need the groans of our fans to make me aware of what a zero rating I was getting because this was one meeting where neither side could afford slip-ups. As captain, my team-mates looked to me for example, but on this occasion it was their attitude, their example, which promptly put behind me any thoughts of getting depressed about the incident.”

At first, all the old concerns came back to haunt City fans. The first ten minutes of the game were desperate for their team. The Blues almost appeared to give up, then, just when it was needed most, Colin Bell began to control midfield, Mike Doyle won important tackles and City gradually got on top. After 15 minutes Bell started a right-wing move and then ran yards to reach the final pass and blast the equaliser past United goalkeeper Alex Stepney.

City were extraordinary that night. They pushed forward time after time, and were rewarded with a second goal after 57 minutes. Tony Coleman curled across a free-kick and centre-half George Heslop scored his first goal for City with a firm downward header.

Joe was delighted, but there was still more to come. Colin Bell, who had spent most of the evening demonstrating to the Manchester public how special he was, raced clear and headed for goal. He was hauled down by Francis Burns, and Francis Lee scored the resulting penalty. City went on to win 3-1, and the only blemish was that Bell was carried off on a stretcher with a knee injury after the penalty incident. He would miss the next four games.

The important part about the victory though, was that it had finally restored pride to

the City ranks. Now there was debate about which was the best team in Manchester. For almost all the post-war period, the answer had been obviously “United”. No wonder City fans held their heads high. Indeed, there were even poems composed about the event. One of them, ‘City’s Night Of Glory’, had eleven verses, and covered almost every incident in the game. Another, ‘The Crushing Of The Reds’, reproduced in From Maine Men to Banana Citizens, started as follows:


27th Day of March, A Wednesday night,

United they did die of fright,

Although Best scored in the first minute,

After that they were never in it.


It is difficult to stress what the victory meant to supporters of Manchester City. Joe and Malcolm understood. They had witnessed the disdain which United supporters held for City. They had assessed the discrepancy in the column inches applied to each team in the press. Now, City fans had their chance to pour scorn on the Reds. Joe would have none of it though. Although Malcolm frequently boasted about the power of the Blues, Joe controlled those boasts. He gave Manchester City the best image possible.

From that game on 27 March 1968, for the rest of Joe’s reign at Maine Road, City dominated the Manchester derby in a way that neither club had previously. United’s next League derby victory was on the last day of the 1970-71 season, when Eamonn Andrews walked on to the pitch to announce, ‘This is your life, Sir Matt Busby.’ Joe was pleased for his great friend, on a day when the result was not vital.

Joe was City’s ‘elder statesman’ who gave the club the respect it deserved. There was a special aura around Joe that gave the impression of a likeable, friendly, sincere, jovial character. Throughout his playing career he was admired for his fair-minded approach and respect for losers. At Manchester City his presence prevented the club from trying to gain revenge over United for all the insults and the ridicule endured throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s. Joe’s view was that the football should prove City’s power, not scorn.

Following the 1968 derby match, Joe and Malcolm tried to keep the side’s momentum going. It was not easy. Missing Colin Bell, they lost to Leicester and Chelsea in the next four games. Mike Doyle remembers Joe’s attempt to push his players further: “We’d got one point out of two games. From there we went to Southport for four days, and got the biggest bollocking from Mercer we’d ever had. He said, ‘The Championship is there to be won, either you want to win it or you don’t. You’ll train together tomorrow morning and then I don’t want to see you again. It’s up to you after that.’ He knew we’d get together and talk it out. One night there was me, Neil Young, George Heslop, Belly, Mike [Summerbee], Oakesy and Glyn Pardoe discussing the situation. We reckoned we could do it, and I don’t think we lost another game from then on.”

Against Sheffield Wednesday, a lucky deflection gave City the only goal of the game. At home to Everton, Tony Book and Tony Coleman scored the goals in a 2-1 victory. City were then a mere two games away from glory, but faced two difficult away games - at Spurs and Newcastle. “It’ll be like climbing Everest and K2 in one week,” said Joe.

The first game, away to Tottenham, resulted in a terrific 3-1 victory. Much like Joe’s old Arsenal side, City were an ‘all attacking, all defending’ side. One minute they packed their defence, the next they launched a six-man attack. Colin Bell scored twice and Mike Summerbee got the other.

Brian James, in the Daily Mail, stressed City’s power and claimed that their success was down to “bloody hard and selfless running”. He claimed that Spurs were “a team of much talent sparsely applied” while City were “a side of fair quality, brilliantly inspired”. James went on to say that “City’s output should be rewarded by not less than the title”.

City and United were level on 56 points, and each had one game to play. City’s was at Newcastle. United’s was at home to lowly Sunderland. United had a better goal average than City, so the Blues had to ensure a better result at St James’s Park than United’s at Old Trafford. Also, if both City and United failed, Liverpool, with two to play, could leapfrog them and win the Championship by a point. Joe knew that his players were capable, but he realised that the pressure might get to them.

For the first time all season the media seemed to realise that the Blues might just pull off the unthinkable. For a decade City had played second fiddle to United and, quite simply, were not used to the media attention. Joe was worried. He told one reporter that City were the side with all the pressure now. They were the side who had to live up to the public’s expectations. He went on to point out his great fear: “I am more afraid of my own team than I shall be of Newcastle United next Saturday. The danger is that the boys might think too much about the game during the next few days. But we just have to feel confident now that we have won at Spurs.”

Tony Book, City’s remarkable captain, who had come from oblivion to the verge of great success, admitted that “the next six days will seem like six years”. Mike Summerbee attempted to lighten the mood. When he walked into Maine Road on the Monday after the Spurs game, he couldn’t help but notice that the ground was full of photographers and reporters. For City, at that time, the attention was new. Summerbee looked at the crowd and called across to Joe in a mock serious tone: “What’s happened, Boss? Has there been an accident?”

Leading up to the final game, both City and United found themselves tipped for the title. Almost every footballing personality available gave his view. After the game at Spurs, Jimmy Greaves told Tony Book that City were the best side he had seen all season and the Blues deserved to win the title. Stan Anderson, the Middlesbrough manager, called the Blues the “team of the season ... exciting, tremendously composed.” Bill Shankly, the great boss of Liverpool, more or less conceded the title when he declared: “I regard City as favourites now. Any team that can do what they did at Tottenham must have a great chance.”

Incredibly, George Best, who was presented with the Footballer of the Year trophy the week before the season’s end, predicted that City would win the title in style: “When they came to Old Trafford and beat us, I’d only seen them a couple of times before that and didn’t think much of them. But that night we never saw the way they went. I’ve never seen a team run and achieve the workrate they did. I felt like demanding blood tests on them afterwards. They may lack United’s individual ability, but if they can keep working and running they must be in with a great chance of beating Newcastle United on Saturday. It won’t be easy, but I fancy them to do it. We at United have thrown it away by our inconsistency. We only needed a point at West Brom - and we were playing them only 48 hours after their Cup semi-final. They should have been exhausted, but they gave us a good hiding. Yet five days later we go and stick six past Newcastle. That’s what I mean about our inconsistency.”

Best went on to outline City’s virtues, and then spoke about one of City’s best players, Mike Summerbee. Said Best: “Even though he’s my mate I never rated Mike as a great winger. But at centre-forward he’s a different class. One of the best in the country. He does work for the other players that the fans don’t see. I’d like to play a game in the City attack just to see what it’s like.”

As Best realised, City were a true team. Although they had some great individuals, no player was bigger than the team itself. Sam Barkas, who had captained City’s 1936-7 Championship team, believed Joe’s City side combined to make a very good attacking side. He told reporters: “This present side is a better one than we were, and I don’t mind admitting it. There is something quite exceptional about the style of this modern City side. I can think of only two men from the 1936-7 team who could have slotted straight into this side of 1968, and they would have been the ‘Big Fella’ [Frank Swift] and Peter Doherty.” 

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