Football: Smiling Mercer's shining example

Norman Fox explains how a past caretaker can inspire Keegan
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JOE MERCER, England's only previous caretaker manager apart from Howard Wilkinson, was nearly 60 when he was made the offer in April 1974. Unlike Kevin Keegan, who is still in his late forties and could change his mind, Mercer was adamant that he would "just hold the reins for a few weeks". He also said he would tell the players to go out and enjoy themselves. Keegan took him at his word.

Keegan had won his first international cap in the previous difficult year for England. Sir Alf Ramsey's pounds 7,500-a-year job was under threat. The press and some Football Association committee men had condemned him for the tactical errors which led to the country's failure to reach the 1974 World Cup finals. There was no doubt, though, that he was undermined by the Football League, who refused to give him sufficient time with the players, and by the sense of anti-climax following the 1966 victory.

Some of the younger players found him difficult to take. "I was never at ease with Ramsey," Keegan said, "but I know he could relax some players. He was a players' man. Everyone listened. What he said was always common sense, but you couldn't say he was humorous." Mercer, though, "made going on tour seem like a holiday".

Mercer's friendly uncle attitude hid a lot of serious homework and practical experience both as one of England's most under-estimated half-backs and as a successful club manager. After breaking a leg while playing for Arsenal in the Fifties he had drifted out of football and back into his grocery business, but he was invited to manage Sheffield United, whose chairman had admitted: "I know damn all about this game and the committee know less."

He was quickly appraised of the average director's lack of patience when, after losing his first match in charge but drawing the second, one of them remarked: "You've made bloody little difference." For all of his reputation for encouraging skill, the basis of his success at Manchester City was the forming of a rock solid defence.

He had been "promoted" to general manager of Coventry City when the FA called him up while they waited to get the man some of the selection committee really wanted, Don Revie. On his first day at Lancaster Gate he was asked whether he had an appointment and, typically, his instant reply was: "Yes, for seven matches." The seven began with a home international against Wales at Ninian Park and included a draw at Wembley with Argentina, a win over Bulgaria and draws with East Germany and Yugoslavia, all of whom had qualified for that year's World Cup finals.

As a manager who loved to see players express their skills, he decorated his squad with such rare talents as Duncan McKenzie, Frank Worthington, Trevor Brooking, Stan Bowles, and the Leicester City player Keith Weller, who won all four of his caps under Mercer. But there was a practical aspect. Dave Watson, Emlyn Hughes, the exceptional Derby defensive partnership of Colin Todd and Roy McFarland and the tireless Colin Bell were also included.

By giving only one player, Weller, a debut he took care not to be too dramatic with the changes from the last team chosen by Ramsey. His concern was as much the psychology as the personnel. He said that England players never seemed to smile when they came on the field. That soon changed. Keegan recalled the period under Mercer as being "one without any strain". He added: "He told us we wouldn't be in the squad unless we could play... he just told us to go out and play."

Mercer impressed with his ability to discipline with a twinkle in his eye. He had to persuade the squad not to go home after Keegan was beaten up by guards at Belgrade airport. He said they had to stay and prove their point against Yugoslavia on the field. They drew 2-2, Keegan himself scoring.

In Mercer's opening match in Cardiff the unpredictable Bowles scored his first and only international goal after 35 minutes. Until that point Mercer had seen Wales dominate. Suddenly, though, Todd's ability to break down the opposition's attacking moves came into play. He made a clever interception and quickly played the ball to the willowy Channon who Ramsey had omitted - to England's cost - against Poland in Katowice. Channon diverted it wide to Weller whose shot was blocked by Phillips. Bowles nipped in to score. Roberts had to head a fiery shot from Bell off the line before Keegan added the second goal... not one he particularly remembers but it guaranteed that Mercer's short time in charge began successfully. His only defeat was particularly painful for a proud man since not only was it by two goals at the hands of Scotland at Hampden Park but both were deflected in by England players.

England (v Wales): Shilton; Nish, Pejic, Hughes, McFarland, Todd, Keegan, Bell, Channon, Weller, Bowles.