Football: Mercer aspires to keep the faith

FA CUP COUNTDOWN: Chesterfield boast a rich tradition in goalkeepers but the present incumbent will venture into unchartered territory when he plays in Sunday's FA Cup semi-final. Phil Shaw talked to Billy Mercer, and (below) presents a brief history of the club's custodians
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The greatest in Chesterfield's long line of fine goalkeepers, Gordon Banks, ended his career with a winner's medal in the World Cup but not the FA Cup. The latest, Billy Mercer, feels embarrassed to be mentioned in the same breath, yet he could finish the season with the prize that eluded a legend.

Mercer's trophy cabinet offers a true measure of Chesterfield's achievement in reaching the FA Cup semi-final, as well as the stakes for which the Second Division club are playing against Middlesbrough next Sunday. The solitary item on display was awarded for being an unused substitute in a glorified friendly called the Steel City Challenge. It is a loser's medal.

Not that the 27-year-old Merseysider is acquainted solely with the unglamorous end of the spectrum. Having started late as a keeper at the age of 14 - "No one else would go in goal at school," he explains - Mercer recovered from the blow of being released from Everton's YTS programme to earn a contract with Liverpool.

Suddenly the self-confessed Kopite and trainee metal worker was working daily with Messrs Dalglish, Rush and Hansen. When Bruce Grobbelaar was injured and Mike Hooper took over he played 30 reserve games, while a loan to Rotherham brought League experience at 19.

"I was assured there was no way they'd let me go," Mercer recalls, "but when I came back Kenny Dalglish told me the clubs had agreed a fee. I was struggling to hold back the tears in his office, though with hindsight my career would probably have stalled if I'd stayed."

After five years a knee injury had cost Mercer his place when Dave Bassett rang asking him to join Sheffield United's tour of Australia. "I thought it was the Rotherham lads pulling my leg. I was going 'Yeah, sure', but it was for real and I signed when we got back.

"The trouble was that I couldn't displace Alan Kelly, who's easily the best keeper I've worked with, and in my last three months there I went on loan to Nottingham Forest."

An eight-game stint as cover for Mark Crossley culminated in a visit to Wimbledon. "It looked as if Frank Clark was going to put me on when Mark got a whack on the head, but it never happened."

So to Chesterfield, which is to goalkeepers what Newcastle is to centre- forwards. Mercer did not realise the richness of the legacy until their Cup run. Then, between the sweet defeat of Forest, when he skippered the side, and the quarter-final wrangle with Wrexham, Saltergate welcomed its most distinguished old boy.

Banks could could not believe the size of Mercer (6ft 2in) compared with the custodians of his day. In one respect, however, his successor is a throwback to the 1960s. His distaste for the multi-coloured leisurewear that currently passes for kit prompts him to sport a plain green sweater. "I even cut the collars off. It's only a game after all, and I'm not a flash keeper."

Not flash? After coming under the wing of the elastic eccentric? "You've got to remember I also worked with Alan [Kelly], who's the complete opposite to Bruce. He's a textbook keeper and that's how I'd like to be.

"I've got great respect for Bruce. It takes a lot to perform consistently well at the highest level, where every error is magnified. The most important thing about goalkeeping is to forget your mistakes, which the top guys are never allowed to.

"I'd love to have Bruce's confidence, but I think everyone would have a heart attack if I played like him! I met him again when we played at Plymouth, and when they came here we were about the only ones not involved in the famous punch-up. He was sparko on the ground and I was up the far end."

Mercer, who has kept 20 clean sheets this season, acknowledges that Sunday is more than "just a game". Old Trafford is one of a handful of grounds he has never visited, but there will be one familiar face among Middlesbrough's exotic talents. Craig Hignett was a colleague in Liverpool's second string; their families have even holidayed together.

"We know Juninho and Ravanelli are world-class attackers, but they've also got weaknesses we can exploit. We really fancy ourselves in a one- off match. I keep reading how they think they got the best draw possible, but we're going to chase them all over that pitch. They won't enjoy that."

From the crooked spire to the twin towers would be the ultimate Cup romance. Billy Mercer has projected even further ahead. Chesterfield against Liverpool in the Cup-Winners' Cup: with dreams and aspirations like that, who needs a cupboard full of medals?

A CENTURY IN SAFE HANDS: CHESTERFIELD'S WEIRD AND WONDERFUL GOALKEEPERS

GORDON BANKS

Born Sheffield, 1937. The man who became "Banks of England" and Pele's nemesis was spotted playing for Millspaugh Steelworks and Rawmarsh Welfare. Signed by the Spireites on a wage of pounds 17 a week when he finished National Service. His reputation grew during Chesterfield's run to 1956 FA Youth Cup final, a 4-3 defeat by Manchester United. Sold to Leicester for pounds 7,000 after 26 games, later to gain a World Cup winner's medal alongside the Busby Babe who scored against him 10 years earlier, Bobby Charlton.

JIM BROWN

Born Lanarkshire, 1952. A Chesterfield rarity - a keeper they bought, and twice at that - Brown first arrived from Albion Rovers in 1972. Capped once by Scotland after leaving for Sheffield United. Playing for Washington Diplomats alongside Johan Cruyff he became the first keeper to score in the North American Soccer League. Repeated the feat from 96 yards against Stockport on returning to Saltergate, where he is now commercial manager. Substitute in 1995 play-off final win at Wembley - aged 43.

CHARLIE BUNYAN

Born Chesterfield c.1865. Died 1922. Ironically, Saltergate's first goalkeeping legend owes his status to being on receiving end of Preston's record 26- 0 rout of Hyde in the FA Cup of 1887, though he reportedly performed heroically. On joining Chesterfield in 1892 he combined playing with running a nearby pub, and gained further notoriety for Schmeichel-like attacking forays. Sacked after conceding a goal while still upfield, he later helped organise the 1912 Stockholm Olympics and coached in Belgium, where he died.

SAM HARDY

Born Chesterfield, 1883. Died 1966. Recruited by the Spireites from local team Newbold White Star, Hardy conceded six against Liverpool in 1905 but performed so defiantly that he was promptly bought by the Anfield club for the then-substantial sum of pounds 500. His style was unspectacular but he eventually gained 21 England caps - spread over 13 years - as well as making 550 League appearances and earning FA Cup winner's medals with Aston Villa in 1913 and '20. Owned a hotel in Chesterfield after retiring.

RAY MIDDLETON

Born Co Durham, 1919. Died 1977. When still combining goalkeeping with his job as a miner, Middleton insured his hands for pounds 2,000. Joined Chesterfield from Washington Church and made 250 appearances either side of the war, while running a grocer's shop and being involved in the town's Labour party. Won four England B caps, and later became the only player to be a Justice of the Peace. Played in the club's last great FA Cup run, 47 years ago, when they reached the fifth round by beating... Middlesbrough.

STEVE OGRIZOVIC

Born Mansfield, 1957. Hardly established with the Spireites (16 games) before Liverpool whisked him away for pounds 75,000 in 1977 as cover for Ray Clemence. The ex-Notts policeman (and colleague of ice skater Christopher Dean) gained European Cup medals as an unused substitute but made just four appearances before joining Shrewsbury. A useful cricketer, he once helped Shropshire beat Yorkshire. In 13 years at Coventry has been an FA Cup winner and scored (to delight in Chesterfield) at Sheffield Wednesday.

JOHN OSBORNE

Born North Derbyshire, 1940. After converting from midfield with Netherhorpe and Barlborough Colliery Miners' Welfare, Osborne became renowned for brave goalkeeping that bordered on the reckless. Sold to West Bromwich Albion for pounds 10,000 in 1967, he kept goal in the FA Cup final victory over Everton a year later and played 312 consecutive matches. Nicknamed "The Bionic Keeper" after having a plastic joint inserted in a damaged finger, he later worked as commercial manager of Worcestershire cricket club.

ALAN STEVENSON

Born Chesterfield, 1950. Stevenson played cricket for Derbyshire Seconds and also represented his county at table tennis. After pounds 50,000 switch to Burnley in 1972 (the British record for a keeper was pounds 65,000) he won 11 caps at Under-23 level, once coming on as a substitute striker. Played several seasons in what is now the Premiership and was tipped to follow Banks into the national team. Freed when two games short of the Lancashire club's post-war record, he later became commercial manager at Hartlepool.

SIGNIFICANT OTHERS

Chesterfield's Arnold Birch holds the League record for a scoring keeper, netting five penalties in 1923-24. Before giving way to a teenager named Banks with a Teddy Boy quiff, Ron Powell played a staggering 284 successive games. Newcastle made Steve Hardwick their most expensive keeper in 1976; the pounds 80,000 fee was also the Spireites' record sale. And while neither Bob Wilson nor John Lukic played for the club, both were born, bred and learned their trade in the town.

Additional material: Stuart Basson

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