Ellesmere Port, Cheshire born left half Joe Mercer was the son of former Nottingham Forest and Tranmere Rovers footballer, Joe Mercer Sr., who died following health problems resulting from a gas attack during the Great War when Joe was only 12. He first played for junior clubs Elton Green and Shell-Mex in 1929, playing for Cheshire Schools, and then for Runcorn in 1930, joining Ellesmere Port Town later the same year. He joined First Division Everton in September 1932 at the age of 18 and made his Football League debut at Leeds United in April 1933. Mainly a reserve team player for the next two years, he claimed a regular first team place in the 1935-36 season. He was a powerful tackler, good at anticipating an opponent’s moves. Mercer made 187 appearances for Everton, scoring twice and a winning a League Championship medal in the 1938-39 season, when he missed only one match. He was awarded five England caps immediately before the Second World War, winning his first cap against Ireland at Old Trafford in November 1938, his final 3 caps coming on England’s May 1939 European summer tour against Italy, Yugoslavia and Romania. He also made one appearance for The Football League.
Mercer lost out on seven seasons of football due to the Second World War. He became a sergeant-major and played in 26 wartime internationals, many of them as captain. The Everton manager Theo Kelly accused Mercer of not trying in an international against Scotland, but in reality Mercer had sustained a severe cartilage injury. Even after consulting an orthopaedic specialist, the Everton management refused to believe him and Mercer had to pay for the surgery himself. During the war Mercer guested for Chester City, making his debut in a 4-1 win over Halifax Town in September 1942.
Mercer transferred to Arsenal in November 1946 for £9,000, and made his Arsenal debut against Bolton Wanderers on 30th November 1946. Soon after joining Arsenal, Mercer became club captain. As captain, he led Arsenal through their period of success in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, helping to haul his side from the lower end of the table to win a League Championship in 1947-48. Mercer went on to win an FA Cup winner’s medal in 1950 when they beat Liverpool 2-0 at Wembley and was voted FWA Footballer of the Year the same year.
He led Arsenal back to the Cup Final in 1952, which they lost 1-0 to Newcastle United, but the following year they bounced back to win his third League Championship when Arsenal won in 1952-53 on goal average. Mercer initially decided to retire in May 1953, but soon recanted and returned to Arsenal for the 1953=54 season. However, he broke his leg in two places after a collision with teammate Joe Wade in a match against Liverpool in April 1954, and finally called time on his footballing career the year after. Mercer made 275 appearances for Arsenal in all, scoring twice.
After his playing career ended Mercer returned to football in August 1955, becoming manager of Sheffield United two days before their first game of the season against Newcastle United. Mercer was appointed to replace manager Reg Freeman who had died during the close season. As a manager, he began inauspiciously and his first season ended in relegation. The rest of his time as manager was spent in the Second Division and in December 1958, wanting to move to another club, he resigned and moved to Aston Villa who were bottom of the First Division. Although he led them to the FA Cup semi-finals he was relegated to Division Two for a second time. He moulded a talented young side at Villa and his team became known as the ‘Mercer Minors’. He led Villa to victory in the inaugural League Cup in 1961 but suffered a stroke in 1964, and was then sacked by the Aston Villa board upon his recovery in July 1964.
Despite this, his health improved and he went on to enjoy great success as manager of Manchester City between July 1965 and October 1971. In his first season at Maine Road, the club won the 1966 Second Division title to regain top-flight status. Two seasons later Mercer led Manchester City to the 1967-68 League Championship, and went on to win the 1969 FA Cup, the 1970 League Cup, and the 1970 European Cup Winners’ Cup. In 1970-71, Mercer had a dispute with his assistant Malcolm Allison, after the two men became embroiled in Manchester City’s takeover battle. Mercer supported the existing board, led by the respected Albert Alexander, while Allison supported the rival group led by Peter Swales after being promised that he would be manager in his own right.
The takeover succeeded, and Mercer was shocked to discover that his car parking space and office were removed. This led to Mercer’s departure in October 1971, he went on to become manager of Coventry City, whom he managed from June 1972 to May 1974. At the same time Mercer was also caretaker manager of the England national football team for a brief period in 1974 after Sir Alf Ramsey’s resignation. During his time in charge England won the 1974 British Home Championship title which was shared with Scotland. In total Mercer was in charge for seven games, winning three of them, drawing another three and losing one. The FA was so impressed by these performances that questions arose about the possibility of Mercer taking the job on a longer-term basis, with, as an assistant, his Coventry City protege Gordon Milne. Mercer, too, seemed open to persuasion but the FA was working on another plan, putting out feelers to the most successful English club manager available, Leeds United’s Don Revie, who eventually took the role.
After quitting as Coventry City boss, he served as a director of the club from 1975 to his retirement in 1981. He was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for services to football in 1976.
NB in the photograph Mercer stands on the right before an England wartime international with Cliff Britton (left) and Stan Cullis (centre).