Gil Merrick: England goalkeeper unfairly blamed for the heavy defeats against Hungary in 1953 and 1954

Saturday 06 February 2010 01:00

When England's ludicrously misguided notion of itself as the world's premier footballing power was eviscerated by the rampaging Hungarians in the early 1950s, utterly ruthlessly and yet with a compelling beauty to all who cherished the fundamentals of the game above blind patriotism, it was the humbling task of goalkeeper Gil Merrick to retrieve the ball from his net 13 times over the course of two fearfully unequal contests.

Inevitably as a result, he was ridiculed as a scapegoat in some quarters, but such treatment was shamefully unfair to a characteristically reliable performer who was no more to blame than the rest of a shell-shocked rearguard, which included the lionised skipper Billy Wright.

In fact, Merrick deserved his status as his country's regular keeper during the first half of a decade in which all with eyes to see came to understand that England had a huge amount to learn, not only from the "Magnificent Magyars" but also from other teams who had eclipsed the nation which had given football to the world.

At club level, the tall, dapper Midlander, whose trademark was a neatly clipped moustache in an era when the vast majority of sportsmen were clean-shaven, went on to become the most influential figure in the history of Birmingham City, compiling a record of 551 competitive appearances and managing them to their only major trophy to date, garnered by triumph over their local rivals Aston Villa in the 1963 League Cup final.

At least Merrick was well equipped personally to cope with any flak which flew his way in the wake of the Hungarian debacles. He was a confident, charismatic, impeccably groomed individual, strong both physically and mentally, fastidious about his fitness and meticulous in all aspects of his work. He could be spiky on first acquaintance, but while his judgements could be hard, invariably they were deemed to be honest.

As a keeper Merrick offered a vivid contrast to his main rival for the England jersey, Bert Williams of Wolverhampton Wanderers. Where the Molineux man tended towards the flamboyantly acrobatic, Merrick was never intentionally spectacular. Invariably calm, he was adept at positional play, calculating angles of attack and working out how to frustrate opponents with the minimum of fuss.

A fervent believer in catching crosses rather than punching the ball – clearly a sound approach, but easier to suggest than to accomplish – Merrick was blessed with a pair of large, seemingly prehensile hands and exuded a reassuring presence which bred a sense of security in his defenders.

As a boy he had excelled at most sports, winning school prizes as a runner and demonstrating such cricketing prowess as a young man that he played for Warwickshire Seconds as a batsman and opening bowler. But goalkeeping was his passion; surprisingly for a lad growing up in Birmingham, his idol was Everton's Ted Sagar rather than local hero Harry Hibbs, who ultimately he would replace as the Blues' long-term last line of defence.

Nearly every night when his football-loving father returned from his shift as a sheet-metal worker in the Sparkhill area of the city, the six-year-old Merrick would throw himself into a make-believe derby clash staged in the family kitchen, with the dad representing Villa, the son Birmingham. There was little or no formal coaching, but his aptitude was exceptional and after excelling for a succession of junior teams he graduated to City as a 17-year-old in 1939, not deterred by their recent relegation from the Football League's top division although taking the precaution of maintaining an apprenticeship at the metal works.

Then came the war, but the progress of the ambitious, intelligent rookie continued apace. While serving in the Army's PT Corps he ran a gym in Oswestry, but also played more than 170 games for Birmingham in unofficial emergency competitions, helping to win the Football League South title in 1945-46 as well as making guest appearances for Northampton Town, Nottingham Forest and West Bromwich Albion.

When peace resumed, Merrick was established firmly as his club's No 1, a status he was to hold for the next decade and a half. He thrived, initially under the forthright leadership of manager Harry Storer, enhancing his burgeoning reputation as the Blues finished third in the Second Division table in 1946-47, and burnishing it when they were promoted as champions a season later, conceding only 24 goals in 42 games.

Though the Blues struggled among the elite, being relegated as bottom club in 1949-50, Merrick's personal star remained in the ascendancy and in November 1951, not long before his 30th birthday and in his home town at Villa Park, he was called up for his full international debut, against Northern Ireland. Though it proved a dismally scrappy game, he performed efficiently in a 2-0 victory and thereafter, despite his Second Division status, he consolidated his place, collecting 23 caps and missing only one England game over the next three years.

One of the highlights of Merrick's international tenure was a commanding display in what was seen as the unofficial championship of Europe, against Austria in May 1952. Inside the last 10 minutes, having made a series of fine saves and with the score at 2-2, he plucked a cross from the air, robustly fended off the aggressive challenge of centre-forward Robert Dienst, and threw out to Tom Finney. "The Preston Plumber" passed to Nat Lofthouse, who charged through the Austrian ranks to score the winner, to the uproarious approbation of a large contingent of British soldiers in the crowd, thus inscribing his name into sporting folklore as "The Lion of Vienna".

Having conceded only 15 goals in his first 13 internationals, Merrick looked secure between England's posts, but then came the Hungarian trauma; a 6-3 reverse at Wembley in November 1953, the first to continental opposition on home soil, was followed by a 7-1 humiliation six months later in Budapest, and suddenly Merrick found himself under intense scrutiny.

Perhaps as a result, he was unusually shaky as England went down 4-2 to Uruguay in a World Cup quarter-final against Uruguay in Basle, Switzerland, in June 1954 and he never played for his country again.

Back with Birmingham, there was considerable consolation as Merrick, who also made 11 appearances for the Football League, helped City to another Second Division title in 1954-55 then retained superb form as they enjoyed arguably the finest season in their history, in 1955-56. By then managed by Arthur Turner, they finished sixth in the First Division and reached the FA Cup final, losing 3-1 to Manchester City. The game is best remembered for another goalkeeper, the German Bert Trautmann, playing on with a broken neck.

After three more campaigns of competence behind a notably tight defence, in the spring of 1959 the 37-year-old Merrick stood down to become reserve team coach at St Andrew's. Twice during 1959-60 he returned to senior duty as emergency cover before formally retiring as a player, then taking over from Pat Beasley as manager that June.

By then the Blues were a poor side once more, but the dynamically industrious Merrick – who taught PT at a local school during much of his playing career, only ceasing when he became manager – was dedicated to turning them round. One of his first duties was to lead Birmingham into the second leg of the final of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, destined eventually to become the Uefa Cup. At the time it was spread over two years, and the Blues faced Barcelona in the Nou Camp after drawing their home leg 0-0. They lost 4-1 but Merrick was undismayed, guiding them back to another final of the revamped competition a year later, this time bowing out 4-2 on aggregate to Roma.

Such European adventures, however, could not mask the difficult task facing Merrick on the domestic scene and though he blooded some terrific youngsters such as wing-half Terry Hennessey, inside-forward Johnny Vincent and keeper Colin Withers, and brought in the experienced likes of schemer Jimmy Bloomfield and feisty attacker Bertie Auld, he presided over four successive relegation battles. He won all of them, albeit narrowly, and there was also the high point of lifting the League Cup in 1963, when Aston Villa were defeated by a 3-1 aggregate in the two-legged final.

Merrick's reward, however, was the sack, delivered abruptly in the spring of 1964, a decision which left him heartbroken as he believed he had laid the foundations for a successful future.

As a manager, Merrick had been a stern disciplinarian who had a sharp way with those he considered to be fools. But both his integrity and his dedication were unimpeachable, and he was a deep thinker who introduced new coaching ideas and medical improvements and was respected widely throughout the game.

Putting his disappointment behind him, he spent 35 years working as head of personnel for a leisure and household goods company in Birmingham, being responsible at one point for 200 people and maintaining his prodigious work ethic until his retirement at the age of 75.

Since then he has been honoured both by Birmingham City and their fans. Last year the club renamed their Railway Stand after him; he was the first man to be inducted into the Blues' Legends XI and he was the supporters' choice to represent the club on the Broad Street Walk of Stars in Birmingham city centre.

Gilbert Harold Merrick, footballer and manager; born Birmingham 26 January 1922; played for Birmingham City, 1939-60; capped 23 times by England, 1951-54; managed Birmingham City, 1960-64; married Jean (deceased 1998; one son, one daughter), Ivy; died Birmingham 3 February 2010.

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