Joe Mercer typified a generation of footballers who played with a genuine love for the club and an affection for the fans. From the day he first pulled on an Everton shirt in 1933 until the day on which he reluctantly handed it over to his successor Stan Bentham in 1946, his characteristic Cheshire cat grin never once left his face. All the way through his career, through good days and bad, Joe Mercer smiled, because he shared a love affair not just with Everton, but football in general.
Born in Ellesmere Port on the eve of the First World War, Mercer came from footballing stock and his father – Joe senior – had been a professional. As a youngster he played for Ellesmere Port Steelworks with Sam Chedgzoy: scouted by league clubs, Mercer senior joined Nottingham Forest (and later played for Tranmere Rovers), while Chedgzoy went to Goodison. Mercer, whose father died when he was 12, grew up idolising the Everton player, however, which marked the start of a lifelong infatuation with the club.
In 1929, aged 15, he was spotted playing as an amateur for Shell and signed for the club he supported as a boy. For the next few years he played in Everton’s junior teams and in the Central League, while his tall and skinny frame filled out. But even when he made the step up to the Everton first team, Dixie Dean teased him for his long, bandy legs: ‘Blimey, his legs wouldn’t last him one day on a postman’s round!’
Mercer made his Everton debut a week before the 1933 FA Cup Final and eight appearances in the 1934/35 season, but had to wait until Autumn 1935 before he made a first team place his own, displacing Jock Thomsen in the Everton half back line. Never noted for his athelticism, he possessed one of the finest footballing brains the English game has witnessed. Mercer, wrote the Everton historian, David France, ‘displayed intelligence, vision and guile in all aspects of his game. His precise passing and astute positional playmade the game look deceptively easy. Capitalising on his abillity to efficiently convert defence into attack, Mercer became the cornerstone of Everton’s first School of Science.’
Mercer later recounted: ‘I was brought up to believe that Everton was the best team in the World and nobody was going to beat us.’ Yet such hopes took longer to realise than he might have hoped: Everton finished his first full season – 1935/36 – sixteenth, and the subsequent two campaigns seventeenth and fourteenth. If nothing else, Everton were a team in transition, with Dean’s golden generation being ushered out and some outstanding new talent – such as T. G. Jones, Torry Gillick, Tommy Lawton and Mercer – being introduced. In the 1938/39 season, however, they suddenly clicked and won the First Diviision title in resounding fashion.
By this time, Mercer was an England international, having made the first of five international appearances against Northern Ireland in 1938. His finest hour in an England shirt came against Scotland the following April, a match England won after Tommy Lawton struck a late winner. ‘Mercer was ever in the thick of the throbbing battle,’ the Daily Express wrote of the wing half’s man of the match winning performance, ‘which, with the wind and pitiless, ceaseless rain, provided the severests of all tests of skill, stamina, and heart. Mercer had them all.’
Aged 24, an England international and league champion – a glittering career beckoned for Mercer. But like all of his generation he was cut off in his prime by the Second World War. Although he had a distinguished career in the wartime leagues and with England – with whom he formed a famous half back line with Cliff Britton and his old schoolmate, Stan Cullis – it was a poor substitute for real football. By the time the Football League recommenced in August 1946, Mercer was past his 32nd birthday.
Everton, by now, were in the grip of Theo Kelly’s egocentric management and Mercer was to be a notable casualty of the manager’s prickly style. ‘He [Kelly] wanted me to play centre half – me, a wing half who used to go diving into action, when the club had T. G. Jones, the best centre half of all in my opinion,’ Mercer later said. But a deeper rift was to open between the two men.
In an England versus Scotland victory international in April 1946, Willie Waddell of Rangers had inadvertently landed on Mercer’s leg during a challenge. Mercer struggled on gamely, though his injury stunted his efforts. Amazingly, an accusation was levelled after the game that he had not been trying, which was invariably the cause of much hurt for Mercer. The ensuing dispute ended the international career of England’s captain – a man with five full and 26 wartime and victory caps – but the sulphuric whiff followed him back to Merseyside, where there was a belief that Mercer was using his injury as an excuse for poor performances .
Mercer was devastated by the allegations and sought to prove everyone wrong, and so consulted an orthopaedic surgeon. When he recommended a cartilage operation, Everton – with whom his association spanned seventeen years – refused to pay for it. Unbelievably Mercer was allowed to pick up the cost himself.
At the heart of the dispute was Kelly and the relationship between the two men first broke down then, became openly hostile. Four games into the 1946/47 season, after Everton played Arsenal at Goodison, Mercer paid a visit to the Arsenal dressing room where he asked the visitor’s physiotherapist, Tom Whittaker, whom he knew from his England days, to inspect his bad leg. Whittaker was shocked by what he saw: the muscles around Mercer’s knee were wasted away and the knee itself severely swollen. Turning to the Arsenal players, Whitaker called out: ‘Look at this lads – you’ve been playing against only ten men.’
Mercer persevered, but the injury had cost him his fitness. Kelly’s hostility persisted, so Mercer went to meet with the Chairman, Cyril Baxter, and asked for a transfer, saying that he would quit football altogether if he was not allowed to leave. Days later Joe Mercer, who six months earlier had captained his country, was serving customers in the grocery wholesalers he co-owned with his father-in-law.
The impasse lasted three weeks when Kelly finally summoned him to the Adelphi Hotel, where Arsenal’s manager George Allison met him. A transfer was agreed and within minutes he had joined the Gunners for £7,000. ‘It was a terrible blow for me to go,’ Mercer said later. ‘Because I was so crazy about Everton.’ In a final snub, Kelly brought his boots to the Adelphi preventing Mercer – as he had Dean – from returning to Goodison to say his farewells. It was an appalling conclusion to Mercer’s Everton career, but symptomatic of the way Theo Kelly managed the club.
Written off by Everton in his early thirties, Mercer represented Arsenal until he was forty, captaining them to two League Championships and an FA Cup. In 1955 he became Sheffield United manager, a post he held for three years, moving to Aston Villa in December 1958. He won the inaugural League Cup in 1961, but after suffering a stroke in 1964 was dismissed by the Villa board. Mercer’s most auspicious managerial spell came at Manchester City (1965-72), where, in partnership with Malcolm Allison, he won the Second Division Championship, First Division Championship, FA Cup and European Cup Winners Cup. In 1972 he became general manager of Coventry City, also joining the Highfield Road board. In 1974 he was made temporary England manager between the sacking of Sir Alf Ramsey and the appointment of Don Revie.
Throughout all these achievements at other clubs, he remained an Evertonian at heart, a man who was able to boast, ‘I have five shares. . . which is more than some of the directors have!’ After retiring to Merseyside, he remained a regular visitor to Goodison until his death in August 1990.
‘We always had fun,’ he once said, ‘I probably learned more about the game at Arsenal, but I learned how to laugh at Everton.’