Bertie Mee

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The Independent Online

Bertram Mee, footballer, physiotherapist, manager and administrator: born Bulwell, Nottinghamshire 25 December 1918; played for Derby County 1937-39, Mansfield Town 1939; managed Arsenal 1966-76; OBE 1983; married (two daughters); died London 21 October 2001.

He never claimed to be a football expert, and some of his closest colleagues compared him to Captain Mainwaring of Dad's Army, but during his reign as Arsenal manager Bertie Mee scaled one towering soccer peak of which most of the game's household names could merely dream.

In 1971 he became only the second boss of the 20th century to guide his club to the coveted League and FA Cup double, thus following in the exalted footsteps of his friend Bill Nicholson, of Tottenham Hotspur, 10 years earlier. A delegater supreme who relied heavily and openly on the excellence of coaches such as Dave Sexton and Don Howe, Mee was a stern disciplinarian and a magnificent motivator whose inner steel was concealed beneath an unassuming demeanour.

In fact, no hint of slackness was tolerated as he pursued his frequently stated purpose of "stopping mediocrity being perpetuated", his punctiliousness straying towards pomposity at times, but always he retained the respect of the football men around him.

Mee's double achievement was all the more remarkable in that he transformed the under-achieving Gunners after being promoted from the role of club physiotherapist, a route taken by a previous Highbury boss, Tom Whittaker, but nevertheless an extremely unusual one.

Though he had been a professional footballer before the Second World War, Mee's left-wing exploits for Derby County reserves and Mansfield Town had been overwhelmingly inconsequential. He went on to guest for Southampton and appear for the Army Wanderers side in the Middle East during the conflict – in which he served in the Royal Army Medical Corps – but the injury which caused his retirement as a player at the age of 27 was not greeted with widespread consternation.

For a dozen years from 1948 Mee worked as a rehabilitation officer for disabled servicemen and then, having become a specialist in football injuries and organised treatment courses for the Football Association, he replaced Billy Milne as Arsenal's physiotherapist and trainer in 1960. In this role he flourished, proving a fearsomely hard but impeccably fair taskmaster to sidelined players who knew they could never take the slightest liberty with the dapper, rather fussy, ultra-efficient newcomer.

However, for all his success in that position it was a shock when Mee was handed the massive task of replacing Billy Wright as manager of a club in turmoil in 1966. Though the former England captain had not been an unmitigated flop, he had failed to lift the Gunners above mid-table.

Mee, who accepted the job for an initial trial period before making the arrangement permanent in March 1967, began shrewdly by choosing Dave Sexton as his coach. Then, having a clear image of the side he wanted, he wheeled and dealed on the transfer market, bringing in the likes of the defender Bob McNab from Huddersfield and the forward George Graham from Chelsea, and nurturing talented youngsters such as the strikers Charlie George and Ray Kennedy.

For the players, it was a stimulating but challenging time. Mee knew he had the rudiments of a successful side but was aware, also, that in certain cases there was a lack of the dedication and pride indispensable to big-time winners. Thus he delivered a metaphorical boot up the backside of those who needed it, while employing more subtle psychology where he deemed it suitable. He established stringent ground rules; standards were set and maintained; prima donnas were out and workaholics were in; preparation was meticulous; swearing, which he abhorred, was frowned upon.

The loss of Sexton to Chelsea in 1967 was a blow, but he was replaced successfully by Don Howe and gradually Arsenal inched towards mightiness once more. There were crushing disappointments along the way, notably League Cup Final defeats against Leeds United in 1968 and at the hands of humble Swindon Town in 1969.

But a year later a Gunners side skippered by the inspirational Frank McLintock lifted the club's first major trophy for 17 years when they beat Anderlecht of Belgium over two legs in the European Fairs Cup Final. Mee, a studious avoider of personal publicity, seemed almost embarrassed by the praise that triumph attracted, but even more elaborate bouquets were on the way.

In 1970/71 his superbly organised and ultra-functional but deceptively talented side confounded those who declared that Don Revie's brilliant Leeds United were unassailable, and pipped the Yorkshiremen to the League title by a single point after an attritional springtime during which they had ground out one narrow victory after another.

Appropriately enough, the prize was claimed with a 1-0 win at White Hart Lane, the home of Arsenal's north London rivals Tottenham Hotspur. Then, five days later, Arsenal came from behind at Wembley to defeat Liverpool 2-1 in the FA Cup Final, thanks to a spectacular injury-time winner from Charlie George. McLintock was chaired aloft brandishing the famous bauble and, contrary to all expectations at the start of the season, the Gunners had won the double.

To put that in perspective, it must be understood that, in that era, the double was an elusive, almost hallowed target which had been reached only once in the 20th century and then by a team of universally acknowledged magnificence. It provoked a certain chagrin in many quarters that Mee's combination – perceived as worthy but dull by many pundits and rival fans – had pulled it off.

Having done so, Arsenal seemed to have laid the foundations for a lengthy spell at the summit of the domestic game, but somehow it never happened. Although they reached Wembley again in 1972, they lost a dour final to Leeds and after finishing as First Division runners-up to Liverpool in 1973 they declined alarmingly in the League.

Perhaps, despite putting on a brave public face, Mee was stung by criticism that his team was boring and therefore was induced to break it up more rapidly than was necessary. Arguably the key error was dispensing with the ageing but fierily determined McLintock, who proved he was not a spent force by excelling for several years in the top flight with Queen's Park Rangers, and also the sales of Graham and Kennedy seemed perplexing.

The upshot was that the Gunners spent two seasons flirting with relegation before Mee, hurt by the growing barrage of brickbats and no longer enjoying his work, resigned to give way to Terry Neill in 1976. After a short sabbatical, Mee returned as assistant manager of Watford in 1977. Taking charge of scouting and youth policy, he was of inestimable help to the Hornets' young manager, the future England boss Graham Taylor, and later Mee served as general manager before retiring in 1986 to become a director until 1991.

Ivan Ponting

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