If stirred by their captain's call to arms, the horse players in Arsenal's line-up were not inclined to disagree with the odds that had been laid against them.
Mercer was taking out a team stricken by illness and injuries. Welsh international Ray Daniel wore a protective covering over the plaster cast that encased a broken wrist; Jimmy Logie, his right thigh strapped could barely conceal a limp; Doug Lishman, like Logie, not long out of hospital hadn't completely shaken off the effects of blood poisoning. Cliff Holton, the only fully-fit centre- forward available to Arsenal's manager, Tom Whittaker, was turning out in his first FA Cup tie.
Speaking last week from Johannesburg, his home for more than 30 years, Alex Forbes, the Scottish international who was at right-half for Arsenal said, "Things got so bad I imagined us turning up at Wembley in an ambulance. Even Arsenal fans among the gamblers I mixed with in those days were betting against us."
Arsenal's troubles began after defeating Chelsea in a replayed semi-final to set up a possible championship and Cup double 19 years before their north London rivals Tottenham Hotspur became the first club to achieve it this century.
Playing three games in four days over Easter (in those days a feature of the League programme) Arsenal were left counting their wounded. First Daniel, who broke a wrist in collision with Stan Mortensen at Blackpool on Good Friday. At Bolton, the following day, Daniel's veteran deputy, Leslie Compton, pulled a muscle. Forty-eight hours later (and the present crop of players complain of strain!) Logie was badly hurt against Newcastle at Highbury when Arsenal also lost Arthur Shaw, their third centre- half in successive matches.
A 3-1 defeat at West Bromwich with five reserves in the team left Arsenal with the task of winning 7-0 at Old Trafford to gain the League title ahead of Manchester United. Whittaker conceded in a telegram to Matt Busby - "All at Arsenal send sincere congratulations on a worthy championship success."
In an autobiography Tom Whittaker's Arsenal Story published shortly before his death in 1956, Whittaker went over the trials that quickly followed. "Up in Newcastle my rival manager and old friend, Stan Seymour, in a radio interview, was saying: `All these stories about injuries from Highbury may be just a trick by Tom Whittaker to put us off our guard.' Oh Stan, if you only knew what went on at Highbury in those desperate and disappointing weeks."
Forty-six years on, Forbes, now 73 and together with goalkeeper George Swindin and outside-left Don Roper one of three members of the 1952 team still living, recalls fear of an epidemic in the dressing-room. "When Jimmy [Logie] followed Doug Lishman into hospital we began to wonder about conditions in the treatment room, something that hadn't occurred to us before because they were supposed to be the best."
Whittaker, formerly the club's physiotherapist, ordered all equipment to be removed and sterilised. Training refuse was immediately burned. "One joke was that a sign should be painted on the dressing-room doors to show where the dead could be picked up but the seriousness of the situation didn't escape us," Forbes recalled.
Bought from Sheffield United for pounds 12,000 in 1948 after making five of 14 appearances in Scotland's colours, Forbes was both skilful and hard, his balance a reminder that he could have made a name in ice hockey. A key figure when Arsenal defeated Liverpool 2 -0 to win the FA Cup two years earlier he approached the 1952 final worrying about his great pal Logie.
It isn't the benefit of hindsight that persuades Forbes to think that Logie should not have been sent out against Newcastle. "He was a sick man, really sick. There was a hole in his leg where the poison had been drained and by rights he should have still been in hospital. I'm sure it couldn't happen today but things then were a lot different. There was only the championship and the Cup to play for and without Jimmy, who was a brilliant inside-forward, we had no chance of beating Newcastle."
One night in the sweet long ago Forbes told of Logie's disappearance from Arsenal's dressing-room at Wembley before the 1950 final. "We were out of the tunnel and almost onto the pitch when he trotted out," Forbes recalled. "When we lined up for the presentations I heard his voice. `Alex,' he shouted, `it got beat, Alex.' We'd backed a dog in the 2.30 and Jimmy had sneaked into the ambulance room to get the result. The wee man was nerveless but in 1952 I wept for him."
Arsenal's run of bad luck (hundreds of suggestions including lucky charms and potions had been received at Highbury) continued into the final. After only 18 minutes Wally Barnes was crippled when attempting to block Jackie Milburn. With Roper moving to right-back the Welshman limped on to the wing, but it was soon obvious that he could not continue, leaving Arsenal (no substitutes then) a man short for the time that remained.
It became known as one of their finest hours. Daniel carried on bravely despite a fall that again broke the partly knitted bone in his wrist. But, in truth, Arsenal were down to nine men. "By then Jimmy [Logie] was knackered," Forbes recalled. "He could hardly stand up and was sent to play on the right wing."
With just 20 minutes left, Newcastle's manager, Seymour, grew restive. Turning to Reg Davies, a young Welsh inside-forward and future international recently signed from Southend United, he said, "This isn't good enough. If it isn't settled today you'll be selected for the replay."
The words were hardly out of Seymour's mouth when Arsenal almost went ahead. "I think if Lishman's header had gone in instead of bouncing off the bar we would have pulled off the impossible," Forbes said. "As the ball went over I saw Jimmy's shoulders slump as he trudged wearily back to touchline."
When George Robledo ended Arsenal's gallant resistance with a header that went in off the inside of an upright Forbes was on the floor. "Because I already had a Cup winner's medal, losing didn't seem so bad and I was relieved that there wouldn't be extra time. Then I felt a tug at my collar. It was Joe Mercer pulling me up, shouting that we could still save the match."
When it was over, Seymour stood to shake Whittaker's hand. "Tom, ours is the cup," he said. "Yours the honour and the glory."Reuse content