Football: When smiling came back in fashion

After Alf Ramsey's reign came to a painful end, Joe Mercer did the caretaker's job with some style.
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The Independent Online
WHEN TONY WADDINGTON was appointed manager of Stoke City, his first congratulatory call came from Joe Mercer. "My advice is never to trust anyone in the game," the new incumbent at the Victoria Ground was told, "and when I put down this phone don't trust me either."

Rubbish, of course. Mercer was one of the gentlemen managers who helped far, far more than he ever hindered and, when the Football Association had to find someone to trust in the wake of Alf Ramsey's dismissal as England's manager in 1974, it was to "Genial Joe" that it turned.

At the age of 59, he was suddenly projected from being a successful former club manager to looking after England in what was arguably even more traumatic a time than the current post-Glenn Hoddle muddle.

A climate of crisis reigned that early summer after the removal of Ramsey, the winner of the World Cup in 1966 and creator of arguably the finest modern national side four years later. A huge void was left which Mercer was asked to fill while the FA negotiated for a successor.

He did so with a huge beam on his face, lifting the gloom almost as soon as he walked into Lancaster Gate. It was a charm offensive that owed nothing to spin doctors or PR executives, but Mercer's good instincts. He knew a sense of shock pervaded the nation in the wake of failure after a decade of England success and he deliberately chose players to alter the mood.

Alec Lindsay was a case in point. Mercer was short of a left-back and chose the good but not great Liverpool defender because of his demeanour. "He always played with a smile on his face," the manager reasoned later. "I thought he'd be a good man to have in the dressing-room."

Undoubtedly the knowledge that he was not being considered as a permanent appointment - negotiations were going on with Ramsey's ultimate successor, Don Revie, almost immediately - eradicated pressure, but Mercer could hardly be faulted for lack of boldness in his selections.

In his first match in charge, a 2-0 win over Wales in Cardiff, he made Emlyn Hughes captain and gave Leicester's Keith Weller his debut in an attacking line-up unfettered by rigid tactical restraints that also included Stan Bowles, Kevin Keegan and Mike Channon. Later in his seven-game tenure he gave Frank Worthington the first of his eight caps.

It was heady, exciting stuff that made the rest of the world regret England's absence from the 1974 World Cup finals in Germany, never mind exasperated of Exeter or frustrated of Fulham. If nothing else, it was a reminder that football could be fun after the occasional bitterness and negativity of Ramsey's final days.

In the News Of The World Football Annual of 1974-75, Frank Butler wrote: "The side played with a new freedom, without tension, and even England's most severe critics agreed the team would have done well in the World Cup."

Mercer's success in the twilight of a lengthy career was the more remarkable because he had failed as a manager many years before. The winner of three championships and an FA Cup with Everton and Arsenal as a player, he was sacked by Aston Villa in the early 60s and the impact was so great on him that he was seriously ill.

He considered retiring to run a grocery business, but was persuaded to return the game by Manchester City in 1965 where his shrewdest move was to pluck a dynamic young coach from Plymouth Argyle, Malcolm Allison, and appoint him his assistant.

It was an inspired choice. Before Allison tired of being No 2 and had Mercer quietly kicked upstairs, the older man's geniality and diplomacy became the perfect foil for the brashness and tactical innovation of the apprentice, and the championship was was won in 1968, the FA Cup a year later and the European Cup-Winners' Cup and the League Cup in 1970.

"When Joe Mercer and I were friends, no one in football could live with us," Allison recalled in his book Colours Of My Life. "I charged into situations like a bull, full of aggressive ambition and contempt for anyone who might be standing in the way. And Joe came behind me, picking up the pieces, soothing the wounded with that vast charm."

That charm could not save him from Allison's personal ambitions and Mercer drifted from his general manager's role at Maine Road to Coventry before England's call came. Picking up the pieces was precisely what he did in that extraordinary summer of '74.

His record was a respectable three wins, three draws and one defeat (2- 0 with two own goals against Scotland at Hampden Park) and three of those games were away from home against World Cup finalists, East Germany, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, before gates of, respectively, 100,000, 70,000 and 90,000.

Howard Wilkinson, who joined Sheffield United as an amateur in 1958, the same year Mercer left the club to manage Villa, and who is temporarily in charge of England after Hoddle's dismissal, would be more than happy with a record like that.

Sadly, the smile of Mercer's time was succeeded two months later by the worried frown - and a shambolic attempt to qualify for the 1978 World Cup - of Don Revie, who would lose the England job controversially after he negotiated a lucrative deal to coach in Dubai.

The closest Mercer came to the World Cup was as an ITV panellist in 1974 when he famously called Pele "Peely" and identified the tournament's outstanding player as "Jo-han Crufts". Today the media would probably hound him off the set.