Joe Mercer: the England manager that never quite was

Joe Mercer: the England manager that never quite was

It took not much more than a month in mid-1974 for the feel-good factor to return to the England national football team. A feel-good factor that was sorely required in the wake of the failure to qualify for that year’s World Cup finals.

By the time of the October ‘73 draw at Wembley against Poland, a result that ended hopes of England’s participation in West Germany, there had long been an escalating resentment in many quarters towards the continuing managerial reign of Sir Alf Ramsey.

The crest of the 1966 World Cup winning wave had begun to recede in León at Mexico 70 when a two-goal lead with just 20 minutes remaining against West Germany in the World Cup quarter-final was allowed to slip away. Ramsey’s perceived belligerence in being held accountable for that particular loss made him enemies, not just within a questioning British sports media, but also the corridors of power at Lancaster Gate.

When England lost to West Germany again two years later at Wembley in the first leg of the European Championship quarter-finals, the resentment which up to that point had mainly bubbled under the surface simply erupted. The gloves were off and Ramsey’s England had to deliver. Of course, Poland had other ideas.

With Ramsey unwilling to step down from the manager’s position voluntarily and the wheels of FA motion grinding slowly into action, it was six months before the axe fell on England’s World Cup-winning manager, in what was one of the most protracted sackings in football history. Even after the decision to sack Ramsey had been made in the February of 1974, it still didn’t become public knowledge until late April, during which time Ramsey had overseen a friendly in Lisbon against Portugal, with the condemned man apparently unaware of his fate having already been sealed.

While a front of shop search for a successor to Ramsey was acted out by the FA, they had internally at least, identified their man. Leeds United’s Don Revie was at the top of the wanted list. Yet, with a new manager realistically not being able to take the reins until the start of the following season, it meant the FA had to find a stop-gap replacement to take charge of an intensive programme of end of season friendlies, which they had perhaps originally envisaged Ramsey taking charge of.

British Championship games against Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland would be followed by a high-profile encounter at Wembley with Argentina, before culminating with a three-game East European tour to face East Germany, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia. A seven-game span, which would include five nations that were World Cup bound.

Enter Joe Mercer, England’s caretaker manager. It was arguably the greatest missed opportunity.

Mercer had been in the running to succeed Sir Walter Winterbottom in 1962. Having sought assurances of being allowed all-encompassing control of on-field matters from a set of FA directors that were only slowly relinquishing their mandate to dictate from the boardroom, added to demands of a higher salary than the one on offer meant it would be a further 12 years before Mercer got the job – on a temporary basis.

Publicly, Mercer immediately distanced himself from taking the job on a full-time basis, passing off the concept almost as if a ludicrous idea. Yet, whether or not he felt the same privately was another matter altogether. Mercer was blessed with the kind of gregarious spirit of personality that the stiff-upper-lip and upwardly mobile Ramsey was incapable of. He had the press pack that had tormented Ramsey for so long, eating out of his hand.

Mercer revelled in a return to the spotlight. He was still brooding over the way he’d been sidelined at Manchester City – from league title, FA Cup, League Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup successes to an administrator’s role – enabling his assistant Malcolm Allison to assume complete control of team affairs as part of a boardroom power struggle. Mercer had eventually left Maine Road for a return to the dugout at Coventry City. When the FA came calling he jumped at the opportunity.

Despite the projected short nature of his tenure in charge, Mercer was still thrown a succession of stereotypical problems all England managers encounter. Before a ball was kicked in anger he had already been dispossessed of the services of a senior member of his squad. Alan Ball would be unavailable due to a broken leg sustained playing for Arsenal. He also had to confront issues surrounding another of the ‘Boys of 66’. Martin Peters had worn the captain’s armband in Lisbon, as he had back in October at Wembley against Poland. Working under a remit of looking to the future, Mercer would initially omit Peters from his starting line-up.

Mercer began with a 2-0 win over Wales at Ninian Park. With the countdown clock on his time at the helm already running he was bold from the start, implementing a 4-3-3 formation which included not just Kevin Keegan, a player Ramsey had been reluctant to field despite his rich form at club level with Liverpool, but also the mercurial talents of Stan Bowles and Keith Weller of QPR and Leicester City respectively. The shackles were well and truly off. Mercer was rewarded with goals from both Keegan and Bowles.

Four days later at Wembley, an unchanged England made heavier weather out of Northern Ireland, with Weller scoring the only goal of the game. Bowles, having looked lost in the wide open spaces of the cavernous Wembley environment, was brought off during the second half, replaced by Frank Worthington, yet another player of natural flair. The change worked and England looked much more fluid. Bowles was devastated. He would later walk out of the squad hotel without permission and head to the dog-track, pursued by reporters.

Read  |  Don Revie: the forgotten master of English football

Bowles, having succumbed to an outburst in front of the reporters that he wouldn’t be travelling to Glasgow for the Scotland game, had backed himself into a corner and given Mercer an unwanted problem. When Bowles phoned Mercer to apologise for his actions he found a sympathetic ear, but one that also wouldn’t allow him to return to the squad. Mercer’s stock had risen again.

Mercer was soon dealt another blow, with Roy McFarland suffering a serious achilles injury that would keep him out for most of the following season. It was under such circumstances that England walked into the Hampden Park bear-pit. With the enforced changes in mind, Mercer also opted to take Keegan out of the firing line, bringing back Peters and changing his formation to a more containment-minded 4-4-2.

It would be a chastening experience. Having initially held their own, England conceded two deflected goals and then did well not to see the margin of defeat widen as Scotland took full control. In front of a celebratory capacity crowd, Scotland headed off to the World Cup finals with a win against the auld enemy, while England were left to lick their wounds.

Four days after the loss to Scotland and Mercer’s, England were back at Wembley to face Argentina. With the back line rearranged, a return to 4-3-3, with Keegan back in the starting line-up and the introduction of Trevor Brooking to replace Peters – whose appearance against Scotland proved to be his last in an England shirt – all helped provoke a much-improved performance.

Argentina, with their last game against England having been the volatile 1966 World Cup quarter-final, had only agreed to play the game if it was officiated by an Argentine referee. At one point it had even looked like the game wouldn’t take place until the FA relented to the demand. England dominated for large periods of the game and Worthington hit his stride, scoring one and playing a part in another for Mick Channon. The game ended frustratingly, however, when Argentina equalised with a contentious late penalty. Despite the final result, it had been a promising performance.

Mercer now looked towards the tour of Eastern Europe and the finale of his spell in charge. It was here that Ray Clemence was given a run of games to challenge Peter Shilton for the goalkeeper’s position. Worthington continued to thrive in tandem with Keegan and Channon, and with an unchanged line-up for all three games Mercer’s side gained in cohesion.

Returning home unbeaten was a fine achievement, with a win in Sofia against Bulgaria to go alongside the draws in Leipzig and Belgrade. The trip to Yugoslavia was inclusive of an altercation at Belgrade airport for Keegan with some over-zealous members of the airport security team, which left him bloodied and shaken. For Keegan to put the incident aside and chip in a goalscoring contribution speaks volumes of the will of the players to be a part of Mercer’s team.

With Revie still to be announced as the new manager, Mercer was still regularly pressed on whether or not he’d have a role to play at the FA beyond the summer. He continued to play the suggestion down, citing a sciatica problem and his age as drawbacks, but it is widely believed the FA briefly considered a two-tier set-up with either Mercer as head coach, with a younger assistant in a similar fashion to what he had at Manchester City with Allison, or to appoint an up-coming coach with Mercer operating as a mentor. Mercer’s protégé at Coventry City, Gordon Milne, was mooted as a serious contender for either role, while Bobby Robson’s name also surfaced some eight years before he eventually got the top job. Mercer, it is thought, genuinely grew to want the job.

Of course, the FA instead turned to Revie, the high-profile candidate. Revie had just led Leeds United to the League title, setting a then record 29-game unbeaten run from the start of the season within the process. The theory was sound, but the practicalities were flawed. Revie was an entirely different character to Mercer and he struggled greatly with the part-time job of international management.

While Revie at first stuck to the template Mercer had devised, it was soon jettisoned. Worthington, who clicked under Mercer, bombed under Revie and the flair element decreased very quickly. Revie made sweeping changes on a game-to-game basis and the cohesion that Mercer had garnered was allowed to go to waste. His homely methods of creating a close-knit collective, inclusive of the much-derided carpet bowls, went down like a lead balloon for many of his players.

After a good first year in charge, thing quickly soured for Revie. Qualification for the last eight of Euro 76, at one point in the palm of his hand, was lost. Then came the calamitous bid to reach Argentina 78. By summer 1977 Revie was heading towards national ignominy and eventually the UAE.

While it’s impossible to say how things would have panned out under Mercer had he got the job on a permanent basis, it’s hard to see how it could have worked out any worse than what occurred under Revie. The feel-good factor, the continued embracing of flair and a less scattergun approach to team and squad selections might have plotted a path to smoother waters, however. Mercer was certainly at a stage of his career where he wanted a hands-on, yet perhaps not day-to-day, role to play in the game. The England job in this respect would have suited him perfectly. Instead, he returned to Highfield Road.

When Revie walked away after the summer 1977 tour of South America, an acclimatisation tour in preparation for a World Cup his country was clearly not going to be playing a part in, the FA again looked to a caretaker manager in the shape of the experienced Ron Greenwood. Once more the option of employing another higher-profile, yet explosive candidate was there, just as it had been in 1974. However, having learned their lesson when opting for Revie over Mercer, the FA this time chose the safer Greenwood ahead of the people’s choice that was Brian Clough. Greenwood and his successor Robson both suffered at times for ‘not being Clough’. In reality, it was the FA’s experience with Revie that stopped Clough getting the job many felt should have been his.

For Mercer, his temporary role and the missed opportunity of him obtaining the job on a full-time basis was somewhat lost amidst the rancour of Revie, Greenwood, Clough and Robson. Mercer is the great ‘what might have been’ when it comes to the England job, not just for himself but perhaps for Clough too. The FA may well have been more receptive to appointing Clough had it been in succession to an extended spell in charge for Mercer.

As it was, the safe pair of hands that was Greenwood must have been gratefully grasped by a beleaguered FA in 1977. If only they’d been blessed with a degree of foresight three years earlier.

By Steven Scragg. Follow @Scraggy_74

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