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 By Simon Curtis
Jul 30, 2014

Joe Mercer's Manchester City legacy

Manuel Pellegrini hailed Manchester City's performance in a 5-1 win over AC Milan in a pre-season friendly.

There is a beautiful full page black and white photograph in Gary James's tome "Football With A Smile" that just about sums up ex-Manchester City manager Joe Mercer, whose 100th birthday would have fallen next week and about whom the book was written.

It shows a bleak Maine Road forecourt soon after Mercer had arrived at the club after an illness-ravaged spell had brought an end to his attempts to manage Aston Villa to some success. It is a typical minimalist shot of grimy post-industrial Manchester as it was: empty, barren, windswept and unremittingly grey. A couple of billboards in the background announce some wholly unsatisfactory breakfast cereal and the arrival of another tepid black and white film at the Odeon Picture Palace. The squally conditions are blowing Mercer's jacket up his back and his greying hair up in the air, but he is concentrating on holding the door an old Humber open of so his wife Nora can step into the warmth of its interior ahead of him.

He was known as "Gentleman Joe." The polite, cordial man with old-fashioned manners (even then), who -- along with Malcolm Allison -- built the greatest City side anyone in Manchester had ever seen. His partnership with Allison, a kind of good-cop-bad-cop arrangement with Allison's furious ebullience tempered and shaped by the gentle and constant mothering of the older, calmer Mercer. Allison, the firebrand tactical guru shooting off ideas from the hip that were thirty years ahead of their time (diet, dancing, balance, massage, psychological preparation, even kit upgrades based on AC Milan), would have self-combusted long before he actually did without the steady guiding hand of Mercer.

Later, when Allison returned to City for a second spell in the late seventies, this time in sole charge of team affairs, things went briskly and immediately awry. It was a salutary lesson to the City board, led at that time by the megalomaniac chairman Peter Swales (a kind of cross between Robert Maxwell, Jesus Gil and your uncle Herbert), who had insisted Big Mal was worth a second go. Without Mercer, Allison flamed out spectacularly. The steadying influence was gone and with it any chances City had of avoiding a desperate spiral that would carry them eventually into the third division.

"Joe Mercer came
We played the game,
We went to Rotherham,
We won one-nil and we went back
Into Division One"

City supporters song, to the tune of Auld Lang Syne.

Joe Mercer, a man of courage and of strong moral fibre, had been brought up on a staple of family and military values (togetherness, loyalty, bravery and trustfulness). He was captain of England during World War II and captained both his hometown side Everton and the great Arsenal side of the late 40s, afterwards being crowned Arsenal's best-ever captain in a modern day poll. Apt indeed, then, that the two sides he perhaps associated himself with most strongly should be set to play each other in the coming season's traditional opener at Wembley, the Community Shield.

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Mercer's trademark "spindle-legs" had carried him to Wembley honours too, as captain of the Gunners and England, and he would become Footballer of the Year in 1950. The victorious Arsenal cup final side celebrated in the Café Royal in London after defeating Liverpool, a venue Mercer would return to after masterminding Man City's own FA Cup final win over Leicester City in 1969. There for a second time, the television cameras of the BBC captured him in gentle unassuming conversation with anchorman David Coleman.

Joe Mercer guided Manchester City to many a trophy in the late 1960's.
Joe Mercer guided Manchester City to many a trophy in the late 1960's.

In his career as both a player and a manager Genial Joe was never far from the game's awards and prizes. He taught Man City players and supporters about self-belief and modesty and about how to deal with a sudden glorious triumph. Mercer treated them all the same way.

Certainly the period from the mid-sixties, when he and Allison picked up a bedraggled club by the scruff of the neck and hauled it back into shape, gaining a surprise promotion, then -- in the ensuing momentum -- gate-crashing the game's top prizes with a team of swashbuckling entertainers, can be seen as a magical achievement. The League title, the League Cup, the FA Cup and finally the European Cup Winners' Cup, all came to Manchester within an incredible, unforgettable four-year spell.

It is in many ways ironic that this glorious period in Manchester City's history has now been replicated almost move for move in modern times. After many barren decades waiting for something to stir in the blue half of Manchester, City followers have once again been treated to a Mercer-esque avalanche of trophies. The speed of the arrival of honours (its first FA Cup final in 30 years, its first league title in 44 years the season after, another FA Cup final appearance (lost) and a Premier League and League Cup double with two Community Shield appearances thrown in) means the present phase of City's history is slowly but surely outflanking the only "glory years" City fans of a certain age could remember.

Current manager Manuel Pellegrini's oft-mentioned target of five trophies in five years has had a grand beginning, with two landed in his debut season, but to match the exploits of gentleman Joe Mercer, both on and off the field of play, the fan-anointed Charming Man will have to keep his foot pressed firmly on the accelerator and hold onto his billowing coat tails.

Simon Curtis

Euphoric miserable Northerner, glass both overflowing and half-empty, Simon Curtis writes for Down the Kippax Steps, which according to The Guardian is the "best City blog around," and the Manchester City programme. Follow him on Twitter @bifana_bifana.