It was 1946. The war was over! To celebrate, the 32-year-old Everton wing-half Joe Mercer decided to pack in football. Having lost most of his career to the hostilities, he'd made plans for the quiet life as a grocer on the leafy Wirral instead. But before he could button up his brown overcoat and wedge himself behind the counter, Arsenal came calling. His repressed passion for football piqued, Mercer agreed to join the London club, with the condition that he remained a Merseyside resident, training locally during the week and travelling south only for matches. Arsenal happily agreed to the terms, mainly as the manager George Allison was sure the player had a few more years in him, but also because Mercer promised to take down a couple of bags of groceries – scarce fancies during heavily rationed times, procured from pals in the trade – every match day. Tee hee, giggled Arsenal's players every Saturday, now for a feast.
A feast of trophies, that is. Mercer's arrival coincided with a hot streak of success. After a slow first post-war season getting back into the swing of things, Allison was replaced by Tom Whittaker, whose superannuated side – also starring Les Compton (35) and Ronnie Rooke (36) with occasional cameos from cricket's Denis Compton (30) – sauntered to the second championship of the new era. Two seasons later, Arsenal reached the FA Cup final. They faced Liverpool, who, sure enough, were Mercer's weekday training pals back up on Merseyside. This being an era before football began to take itself way too seriously, Liverpool continued to allow Mercer – the captain of their Wembley opponents – to train at Anfield, even lending them a young Jimmy Melia as a training partner.
Liverpool and Arsenal were much of a muchness – both had oscillated on the peripheries of the season's title race, without quite getting involved – but the Merseyside reds arrived at Wembley looking a bit straggly. Bob Paisley had been controversially dropped, despite scoring in the semi-final against Everton, and having his name printed in the final programme. Young striker Kevin Baron was forced to spend the night before the big game on a bunk bed in the ballroom of the team hotel, the result of a cock-up with the booking. And manager George Kay was under the weather, suffering from the stress and nervous exhaustion that would force him to retire a year later and contribute to his death in 1954.
Arsenal, collectively, had the cooler, clearer heads. They whiled away the hours before the game freely gambling, using the phone installed in their changing room to place large wagers on the horses with their turf accountant of choice. At half-time, Denis Compton kicked back and enjoyed a restorative whisky. With a clear tactical plan in place, the old men of Arsenal bossed the game. Liverpool never shook free of their shackles, and were cannily picked off, Reg Lewis scoring in the 17th minute of each half to seal as comprehensive a 2-0 as you're likely to see. Mercer was a major influence.
"Arsenal won by superior strategy," the Guardian's Old International – the ill-fated Donny Davies – reported. "They took note of Mercer's ripening years and fading stamina and turned these into positive advantages. Mercer stationed himself well downfield, only slightly in front of Walley Barnes and in close touch with Les Compton. This meant that Mercer could move quickly to Compton's aid if danger threatened down the centre, or to Barnes's aid if Payne showed any signs of becoming troublesome on the wing. Moreover, this disposition of forces not only puzzled Baron and Fagan, the Liverpool inside-forwards, by its unconventionality, but it sealed the middle against frontal attacks and it also left Scott, Arsenal's right-back, free to concentrate on his one overriding task – to harass and impede Liddell."
And to think some say in-depth tactical analysis is a new-fangled internet thing.
Mercer, having lifted the Cup in 1950 for Arsenal, went on to win another title with the Gunners in 1952-53, pipping Tom Finney and Preston North End on goal average by nearly 0.1 of a goal. Having nearly won the Double the previous year, coming third in the league and runners-up in the Cup, Arsenal had proved themselves to be one of – in fact, probably the – team of the immediate post-war period in England. Not bad after that aforementioned false start in 1946-47, when the team restarted league football as a thoroughly mid-table outfit.
Liverpool, however, flew out of the blocks after the war. (Sorry, chronology fans.) They prepared for the new 1946-47 season in the USA, where there was no rationing, by gorging themselves senseless on cream, fat, sugar and lard. A bulbous Liverpool bobbed back over the briny with plenty of strength to draw on over the long winter ahead. They were not fancied to win the league: reigning champions Everton, Arsenal, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Manchester United and Stoke City were all ahead of them in the pundits' pecking order. Initially, they were so inconsistent – they followed up a 7-4 win over Chelsea with a 5-0 defeat at Manchester United – that they earned the nickname Crazy Gang. But here's the benefit of all those pre-season Stateside snacks: they put a strong run together in the new year, and with two games to go, were a point off the top, just behind Wolves, United and Stoke. Two wins, and who knows?
Liverpool travelled to Highbury for the first of their remaining games. Arsenal were faffing around in mid-table, but Liverpool were severely depleted: the captain Phil Taylor, star man Billy Liddell, and the dependable Bob Paisley were all unavailable. What's more, manager George Kay had – and this is quite outrageous by today's standards – opted to bugger off on some scouting mission or other, rather than encourage his team over the final hurdles.
Kay missed quite an affair. With just over 20 minutes of a goalless match left to play, Arsenal went ahead through Ian McPherson, who literally was a flying winger, having been decorated with a Distinguished Flying Cross during the war for his heroics with the RAF. Liverpool's title hopes looked a lost cause, but then the most amazing thing happened: the directors of the club, watching from the stands, had a quick chat among themselves and did what the absent Kay should have been doing. They made a tactical change.
It wasn't rocket science: Bill Jones was simply thrown up front. But his presence caused panic in the Arsenal defence. Within a couple of minutes of the change, Liverpool were level, Jackie Balmer heading home from a corner. Then, with 11 minutes left, Robert Priday wheeched a cross-cum-shot into the area, and Walley Barnes put through his own net.
The most dramatic of victories, and one which sent Liverpool on their way to the title. They still had to win at Wolverhampton Wanderers, for whom a draw would be enough for the championship. Liverpool won 2-1 through Balmer and Albert Stubbins, and when fellow title hopefuls Stoke City failed to win their game in hand at Sheffield United a fortnight later – a fortnight later! – the prize was theirs.
While Arsenal went on to enjoy consistent success during the next few years, Liverpool's world slowly unravelled after their title win. Their 1950 FA Cup final appearance excepted, the seven seasons following that championship campaign charted a steady decline towards relegation. And while a late-season game at Highbury in 1947 had gone a long way to Liverpool winning the division, another in 1954 all but saw them drop out of it after a 49-season run.
The game would be real fin-de-siècle stuff in more ways than one. First, the demise of Liverpool. It had been on the cards all season, with most of the team's old guard having left but not been adequately replaced. They were effectively a one-man team, and even that man – Billy Liddell – could barely deliver any more. Stranded at the bottom of the table with five games of the season left, Liverpool were not relegated when thrashed at Highbury, thanks to two goals from Derek Tapscott and another by Don Roper, but the jig was up: six points from safety, with notably worse goal average, and only eight points left to play for. They went down the following week, out of the top flight for the first time since 1906.
Only three goals – not a bad result for the visitors, who had shipped five in two of their last three meetings – but this had been a thrashing, because for an hour, Arsenal played with only 10 men. They were reduced due to a heartbreaking and effectively career-ending injury to … Joe Mercer. "Few who were at Highbury will forget Mercer's farewell wave to the crowd as he was carried from the field with two bones of his right leg fractured," reported the Manchester Guardian. "The Arsenal and former England international half-back had planned to retire from senior football on the eve of the FA Cup final, when he was to have captained Old England against Young England. It was a poignant end to the playing career of professional football's happiest warrior, and more so because he was accidentally injured by a team-mate [Joe Wade]."
It was all change. Mercer would be off to win trophies in management, at Aston Villa and Manchester City. Arsenal had, unbeknownst to them, just begun a 17-season trophy drought. And Liverpool would have to get even worse before they would get better. Here comes Bill!
Bill Shankly's Liverpool, as the reigning champions, were the natural choice to launch the BBC's groundbreaking new highlights programme on the opening day of the 1964-65 season. Kenneth Wolstenholme – still nearly two years away from achieving immortality – stood pitchside at Anfield to introduce the very first Match of the Day. With She Loves You, followed by Hippy Hippy Shake, blaring in the background, Wolstenhome emceed: "As you can hear, we're in Beatle-ville!" And with that, a broadcasting institution was set on its way.
The BBC certainly lucked out, picking a superb game to open their new series. Liverpool were under strength – both Ian St John and Alf Arrowsmith were out – while Arsenal ("This could be their year," suggested Wolstenholme) welcomed their new signing Don Howe. The home side went into a two-goal lead through Roger Hunt and Gordon Wallace, and Phil Chisnall "threatened permanent damage to Simpson's spine" with a "tremendous drive", according to Eric Todd in this paper.
But Billy Wright's side came back at Liverpool. Todd, who appears to have been suitably refreshed for the start of the new season, tells the story. "Over the years, football reports have incorporated such classic phrases as 'end to end play ensued', such a team 'came in with a wet sail in the second moiety', 'it was thrust and parry all the way', and 'this was a match of two halves'. The last of these conforms with the laws of the game, of course, but is meant to imply that one side dominated the first half, and the other the second. In that sense, there could be no more apposite description of proceedings in which Liverpool and Arsenal took turns in holding the mastery. The outcome was a thoroughly absorbing match, and Arsenal had the almost unique experience of shaking Liverpool and the Kop to their very foundations …
"Arsenal were as good as beaten. Then for no apparent reason – other than the black cat that raced around the ground – Arsenal discarded their inhibitions and adopted the open, skilful style that had seemed to be Liverpool's perquisite. The mantle of infallibility worn earlier by Wallace and Hunt now descended on George Eastham and Geoff Strong. Howe nearly played Peter Thompson out of the game, and the magnificent John Snedden attained even greater heights. This was the Arsenal of old." Arsenal were rewarded with two goals in 45 second-half seconds, Strong and then Joe Baker drawing the Gunners level. But with time running out, Wallace cut inside from the left, and battered a low bouncing effort into the bottom right corner. "It's there!" screamed Wolstenholme. "Wallace has scored! Oh what an ending! What an ending to a magnificent match!" The Kop engaged in some syncopated clapping. "That's a fine cha-cha-cha rhythm," noted the commentator, just before the final whistle blew.
"Phew, well I'd call it the match of the century, I don't know about Match of the Day," puffed Wolstenholme pitchside after the final whistle. Colour analyst Walley Barnes – he of the late own goal in 1947 – veered awkwardly into shot to agree that "match of the century is probably very right". Sadly, nobody who went to Anfield that day would have been able to hear these Cholmondley Warneresque jolly japes. BBC2 had only been on the air for four months, and was only available in the London area. An estimated audience of 20,000 watched history being transmitted – less than half of the day's 47,620 attendance – and viewers in Liverpool would have to make do with either The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, a western on BBC1, or ABC's western Sugarfoot. Today's multi-channel world of wall-to-wall tat suddenly doesn't seem so oppressive.
Up until 1980, the longest FA Cup semi-final in history was a three-game marathon between Liverpool and Sheffield United in 1899. The Blades would settle that tie in the third match, 1-0, after draws of 2-2 and 4-4. Eighty-one years later, Liverpool broke their own record, with a little help from Arsenal, although once again they would be left to wonder why on earth they'd bothered with all the effort.
The opening match of what would become a 420-minute saga, at Hillsborough, was a complete non-event, if you don't count Arsenal's Brian Talbot hitting the bar with four minutes to go. "We just can't seem to get any fluency into our game when we play Arsenal," sighed Bob Paisley afterwards. The genial Liverpool manager might have been making a fair point, although Liverpool weren't playing particularly well in general. Chasing the title, they'd just lost two of their last four games, including a defeat at Old Trafford which had allowed Dave Sexton's Manchester United back into the title race.
Liverpool bucked up in the replay at Villa Park, and were the dominant side. David Fairclough gave the Reds the lead, but Alan Sunderland equalised. The teams were forced to return to the same stadium 12 days later (and after one league meeting at Anfield between the two sides, which naturally ended in a 1-1 draw). In the third Cup game, Arsenal took their turn to be the stronger team; after a pre-match which saw a fan rush on to the pitch and drop his kecks in the centre circle, the Gunners went one up after 13 seconds through Sunderland, only to let the game slip deep in injury time, Kenny Dalglish saving the day for Liverpool. The FA mooted a penalty shootout, but Liverpool threatened to walk off. Their stance was approved by Arsenal, with both teams telling the FA that they weren't interested in penalties should the upcoming fourth match be drawn either. "I don't believe the FA are entitled to change the regulations in the middle of a competition," said the Arsenal chairman, Dennis Hill-Wood. "To introduce them," added Paisley, "would be like locking the stable door after the horse has bolted."
The row was by the by. Arsenal won the match, at Highfield Road, by a single goal, capitalising on a mistake by Ray Kennedy. Before all the matches, Paisley had warned his men to watch out for the late runs of "Osborne, the lad from Ipswich". Each time, one of his players had corrected their boss, pointing out that he was in fact referring to Brian Talbot. "Aye," Paisley would reply. And yet the wise old man would be proved right: it was indeed Talbot who bombed in from deep to head home the winner.
Two days later, Liverpool faced Aston Villa, needing to win to see off United in the title race. They were so knackered after their FA Cup marathon that training on Friday constituted nothing more than a short stroll. Nevertheless, the side regrouped to thrash Villa 4-1 at Anfield, a game famous for Avi Cohen scoring for both teams. Arsenal, meanwhile, went on to lose to Second Division West Ham at Wembley, and ended their 70-game season – they had also lost the Cup Winners' Cup final – empty-handed.
In which Liverpool, thanks to the roaming hands of Stéphane Henchoz and the twinkling toes of Michael Owen, came in with a wet sail in the second moiety.
• For 1989 Michael Thomas fun – because the Joy of Six has mentioned it before – click this link here