Uncle Joe's 36-day stint as caretaker brought a smile back to the face of English football after failing to make the 1974 World Cup
In December 1981 the Observer ran Hugh McIlvanney's elegy for Muhammad Ali after the great fighter's career-ending defeat by Trevor Berbick in the Bahamas under the headline "The king who went out on a dustcart". Most recent accounts of the sacking of Sir Alf Ramsey as England's manager on 1 May 1974 adopt the same tone, summoning a mixture of regret and indignation at such shabby maltreatment.
When reading the statement put out by the Football Association's international committee, under the imperious influence of Sir Harold Thompson, to announce the 1966 World Cup winner's dismissal, one concedes the validity of their disgust.
"Committees of the FA, which have been considering the future of English football," it read in Kremlin-apparatchik charmless prose, "have examined some aspects in detail and progress has been made. At a meeting on 14 February the executive committee set up a sub committee with the following terms of reference: To consider our future policy in respect of the promotion of international football. Following meetings, a unanimous recommendation was submitted to the executive committee that Sir Alf Ramsey should be replaced as the England team manager. The recommendation was accepted unanimously by the executive committee." Colin Crompton could not have put it more mellifluously.
And yet this sense of disservice is revisionist. Since April 1972, when Günter Netzer had orchestrated West Germany's 3-1 evisceration of England at Wembley in the first leg of the European Championship quarter-final, it had become quite common to read that Ramsey had outlived his usefulness. The away leg, a 0-0 draw for which the manager had picked Arsenal's Peter Storey and Leeds United's Norman Hunter in midfield, was littered with so many England fouls that the correspondent of the biggest selling newspaper of the day, Alan Hoby of the Sunday Express, wrote: "I felt embarrassed and ashamed by the Englishmen's violent, ugly methods."
After the draw with Poland in 1973, Ramsey lingered for six months while England's absence for the first time from a World Cup finals tournament that they had deigned to enter sank in. The Poland game provoked a withering editorial from Foul magazine. "Dirty defensive play was actually programmed into the English tactical plan before the match began … so when we say that Alf must go, it's not purely because we want to see England's football lifted out of the sterile unimaginative rut … it's not because English supporters would like to see wing-halves and flank forwards given a chance to establish themselves before they become extinct … it is because the whole idea of using illegal tactics as a defensive ploy to cover for the inadequacies at the back, and to incapacitate the opposition from keeping our forwards out, is sickening and a travesty of the way football should be played."
The motive, then, was perceived as just even if the FA's method was typically ignominious. Ramsey's employers kept him hanging on for two more matches after the conclusion of the World Cup qualifying group, a 1-0 defeat at home by Italy to close 1973 in which Bobby Moore won his last cap and a 0-0 draw with Portugal in Lisbon the following spring when the manager, perhaps keen to indicate conspicuously that he was demonstrably not yesterday's man, sloughed off his hidebound reputation and gave debuts to Phil Parkes, Mike Pejic, Martin Dobson, Dave Watson, Stan Bowles and Trevor Brooking. His attempt at rejuvenation, however, was in vain. The FA had come to its decision even before England took the field at the Estádio da Luz.
Thompson had, according to Brian Glanville and Leo McKinstry, borne a grudge ever since Ramsey had asked the FA chairman to extinguish the cigar he was smoking at the breakfast table in the team hotel after the players had complained about the fumes. "Sir Alf's fate was sealed from that moment," wrote McKinstry. Thompson, the vice-president of St John's College, Oxford, had been enraged by Ramsey's lack of deference.
There is something hilariously hypocritical about Thompson's concept of respect and his behaviour towards England's managers. Ramsey – who was knighted in 1967, a year before Thompson – was insulted by the committeeman's insistence on always referring to him by surname alone. At an official dinner in 1976 when Don and Elsie Revie were sitting next to Thompson, Ramsey's eventual long-term successor objected to his employer's supercilious schoolmasterly form of address. "When I get to know you better, Revie, I shall call you Don," Thompson pompously said. In a brilliant but reckless reply, Revie said: "When I get to know you better, Thompson, I will call you Sir Harold."
Analysing Ramsey's sacking and the part prickly relations between the two knights played in it, Glanville wrote: "Thompson was surely right, but probably right for the wrong reasons." The FA settled Ramsey's £7,200-a-year contract, paying the 54-year-old a lump sum of £8,000 and granted him an annual pension of £1,200. By comparison, when Revie was appointed he told the FA the salary might just pass muster in Division Three but First Division managers were on considerably higher wages. After negotiation, Revie and the FA settled on £25,000 a year, slightly higher than the top-flight average but much less than the £50,000 signing-on fee plus £31,500-a-year deal Everton had offered Revie in the summer of 1973. That 240% increase on the England manager's salary was symptomatic of a governing body that had exploited Ramsey's sense of duty and it was how the FA treated him as a man rather than as a manager that drew most censure.
For years at formal briefings Ramsey had treated criticism with contempt and adopted a brooding aloofness that conveyed his impatience and scorn. Informally he could, said David Lacey, "be an engaging conversationalist if caught in the right mood and at the right moment". The public, though, who were dependent on the filter of the media and the bear-baiting derision of ITV pundits such as Malcolm Allison and Brian Clough, could be forgiven for wanting a respite from Ramsey's defensiveness and taciturnity. The leading candidates to replace him – Leicester's Jimmy Bloomfield, Coventry's Gordon Milne, Gordon Jago of QPR, Burnley's Jimmy Adamson and Bolton's Jimmy Armfield – all offered the opportunity of a generational shift and most of them an affability alien to Ramsey. It was too late, though, to conclude negotiations with any of them or their clubs before the Home Championship and the summer tour, so the FA resolved to appoint a caretaker and chose the epitome of cordiality and benevolence, luring Joe Mercer out of semi-retirement as the general manager of Coventry City to hold the fort.
The contrast with Ramsey was marked at his first press conference. "His humour has fluttered happily about the stage recently vacated by the serious monologist," wrote the Observer's Peter Corrigan. "Kind words and patted backs have added gaiety to the atmosphere and we are near the realisation of the worst fears of those who equate his temporary appointment as England team manager to Uncle Remus doing holiday relief for Genghis Khan."
At the age of 59 when he agreed to take the post, Mercer had spent the past 43 years in football, first as an attacking wing-half with the Everton side who won the title in 1938-39 before losing the cream of his career to military service during the second world war, then winning two more league championships as Arsenal's captain in 1947-48 and 1952-53. After a year spent running his grocery business on retirement, he was appointed manager of Sheffield United, moving to Aston Villa following three and a half seasons at Bramall Lane.
At Villa Park he built a competitive and talented young side who were dubbed, given the fad for alliterative nicknames such as Drake's Ducklings and the Busby Babes, the Mercer Minors. He won the first League Cup with Villa in 1961 but was sacked in July 1964 after returning from a sabbatical he had been forced to take to recover from a nervous breakdown. Although he was advised by his doctor to forgo completely the stresses of management he applied for and was appointed Manchester City's manager in 1965 where, in tandem with Allison, the visionary coach he hired as soon as he got the job, he almost went through the card in trophies – Second Division title, Football League championship, FA, League and Cup Winners' Cups.
His contribution to City was commemorated in the Kippax tribute still sung at the Etihad to the tune of Auld Lang Syne: "The Stretford End cried out aloud: 'It's the end of you Sky Blues.' Joe Mercer came. We played the game. We went to Rotherham, we won 1–0 and we were back into Division One. We've won the League, we've won the Cup, we've been to Europe too. And when we win the League again we'll sing this song to you: City, City, City." Note the lack of any mention for Allison there. By 1970 the coach was exasperated at the perception that his influence was inferior to Mercer's and agitated to succeed his boss. After a couple of years of politicking, with the two men aligned to battling boardroom factions, Allison got his way and Mercer was stripped of responsibility for the first team in October 1971. "I still believe I have a lot to offer," he said. "I'm a tactician not an administrator and don't really see myself as a general manager." But a general manager he became, seeing out the season in which City's title bid stalled after the signing of Rodney Marsh, before leaving for Coventry to mentor Milne.
Anyone who thought that, at his age and with his mobility restricted by chronic sciatica, Mercer would be happy to take his role literally by doubling up as the team's protector and maintenance man was quickly disabused. "I have given a lot of thought to my task," he said, "and psychologically I have to make sure that the loyalty these players gave to Alf lives on for the next manager. Anything I add to the excellent organisation Alf left behind must be a natural extension of it. Tactics, after all, are there as a base from which players can express themselves naturally."
The squad at his disposal had been picked by Ramsey 12 days before his sacking was announced. Mercer's demand that the 20-strong selection expressed themselves naturally and his instruction at their first gathering were the fundamentals of the philosophy he adopted for his 36 days in charge. "Let's all at least bloody smile, eh lads?" he said to them.
For his first match against Wales at Ninian Park, Mercer opted for a three-man forward line of Mick Channon, Stan Bowles and Kevin Keegan, the latter winning only his third cap in three years, oddly all against Wales. Leaving out Martin Peters and thus breaking the chain with 1966, Mercer had said that he would select players of quality and verve and was true to his word. Wales, who hadn't scored a goal for 364 days, were easily outplayed but, paradoxically for David Lacey given Mercer's emphasis on attack, the defence, and Colin Todd in particular, deserved most credit. Although Bowles opened the scoring in the first half, it gave a misleading gloss to an otherwise disjointed contribution from the QPR attacker. More significantly was the identity of the second scorer, Keegan with his first for England after sticking out a foot to meet David Nish's cross. "Having sacked the producer and thrown away the script," wrote Lacey in the Guardian, "England could hardly have hoped for more than a series of impromptu sketches and if this was the sum of their ambitions they were not to be disappointed."
Expected to experiment four days later against Northern Ireland at Wembley, Mercer picked the same team, again awarding Emlyn Hughes the captaincy, sticking with three of Derby County's back four and issuing Keegan with another licence to roam. But it was the player best known to Mercer, Manchester City's tireless midfield dynamo Colin Bell, who had the greatest impact by establishing dominance in midfield thanks to his tenacity for winning possession and his powerful, surging breaks upfield. Keegan, too, managed to reproduce some of his trademark club darts behind the full-backs but was too often let down by the service of a team that sent in too many crosses for one without an orthodox centre-forward, centres that Pat Jennings easily thwarted. Mercer resolved this after 55 minutes, "at a stroke", he said, by replacing Bowles with Leicester City's Frank Worthington who was deadly in the air, a quality his misleading reputation as a flick-obsessed showman has obscured. Fourteen minutes into his debut Worthington rose beyond the far post to direct a header from Channon's cross towards his club-mate Keith Weller who nodded the ball past Jennings in a goal conceived at Filbert Street.
Two games for Mercer and two victories with enough grounds for optimism to keep his smiling face in the papers appended to his anointment as "Uncle Joe". But the real test was still to come, England's five-match run as jilted warm-up man for teams who had qualified for the World Cup in West Germany. Scotland came first but before the caretaker faced his first traditional Hampden Park reception, he had to deal with Bowles, who had absconded from the team's Welwyn hotel two nights before the game to go to the dogs at White City. Asked by a reporter who spotted him whether he intended to return to fly to Scotland the next day, he said: "No." He later rang Mercer to apologise and issued a statement saying: "I left the England party yesterday because I was sick and depressed. It has always been my ambition to play for England, particularly at Wembley, and no one can know how I felt when I was taken off." Mercer accepted the apology, saying: "It's sad isn't it?" then told Bowles there was no way back under his management.
Worthington started against Scotland in Bowles's place, with Peters in for Keegan and Norman Hunter for the injured Roy McFarland, but England failed comprehensively on a sodden pitch to match Scotland's flexibility, the pace of the rampaging full-backs Danny McGrain and Sandy Jardine and the central midfield control seized by Billy Bremner and Davie Hay. They were 2-0 down after 30 minutes and, though Dave Watson's introduction at half-time to replace Hunter and end the experiment with two No6s at the heart of defence, stemmed the Scottish tide, the nearest England came to goals were rare headers from Peters and Worthington. Lacey, citing Harold Pinter's The Caretaker, highlighted the team's lack of fluency: "England did not play badly in their makeshift mundane way; but in the hands of their caretaker they have become a team of Davises, each with an idea of how to get to Sidcup, none with the means, on his own, of putting the operation into practice."
Argentina's visit to Wembley on the Wednesday night following the defeat at Hampden Park was their first since the ill-tempered World Cup quarter-final in 1966 that is for ever linked with Antonio Rattín's sending-off and Ramsey's excoriation of England's opponents as "animals". So raw were Argentina's wounds that they agreed to stop off en route to West Germany only if an Argentinian refereed the game. This precondition proved crucial.
With Nish injured, Hughes moved to right-back where he was partnered, on the opposite flank, by his Anfield team-mate Alec Lindsay. Keegan, Channon and Worthington were given the opportunity to impress up front, with the graceful Brooking, after a long campaign by Glanville, at last given the role of midfield creator to dovetail with Keegan's clever exploitation of space. England went ahead seconds before half-time, Bell rolling a pass behind Argentina's defence for Channon to race on to, round the keeper and score. As the players trooped off for half-time, Hughes pushed his counterpart, the captain Roberto Perfumo, in the midst of an argument, only for his other counterpart, the right-back Rubén Glaria, to end the row by smacking Hughes in the face. Remarkably the referee, Arturo Iturralde, chose to ignore this and Argentina defused the situation by replacing Glaria for the second half.
England's slick passing and movement made another inroad 10 minutes after the break from a corner won when Worthington latched on to Brooking's excellent penetrative pass. Keegan took it short and when the ball was clipped into the penalty area it bounced up in front of Bell who smashed a shot against the underside of the crossbar and left Worthington to turn the ball in with an acrobatic flick of his left foot. Mario Kempes got one back four minutes later, steering home his shot from 15-yards after Peter Shilton had palmed out a cross to his feet. But with only a minute of the match remaining and England looking more confident and commanding than they had done for more than a year against such good opposition, Kempes struck again. Having taken too much time to control René Houseman's cross, Kempes was tackled by Hughes, seemingly fairly. But such was the flourish with which the centre-forward threw himself to the turf, the referee, Kempes's countryman, was persuaded to award a penalty despite the England captain's impassioned protestations. The crowd clearly thought Kempes had dived, booing him as he ran up to take the penalty, continuing after he smacked it past Shilton and building to a climax moments later at the conclusion of the match. Yet despite conceding an undeserved draw, England's spirit, coherence and occasional flamboyance suggested the players were beginning to break the bonds of caution and rigidity.
Mercer flew with the squad to Leipzig for the first leg of their tour, where they took on East Germany, who would defeat their neighbours, hosts and eventual winners, West Germany, in the group stage of the World Cup. After playing in all four of Mercer's games, Keith Weller's international career ended with him being dropped for Martin Dobson who won his second cap, this time in front of a crowd of 100,000 at Zentralstadion.
With Worthington, Keegan and Channon again selected up front, as they would be for all three games in eastern Europe, England picked up where they had left off against Argentina, tearing the East Germany defence apart and beating a tattoo on the woodwork, hitting the bar and a post twice each. The movement of the front three caused havoc, creating opportunities for Dobson, Brooking and Bell to shoot as well as repeatedly carving out chances for themselves. And yet they fell behind in the second half to Joachim Streich's goal 24 minutes from time. It took 90 seconds for England to rally, Channon equalising direct from a free-kick with a scorching shot, and though a draw was disappointing given their excellence and ebullience, Mercer was heartened by the performance. "We hit the woodwork more times than a team of lumberjacks," he said ruefully. "An old-fashioned manager and old-fashioned posts."
In the Observer Corrigan noted that the caretaker had been treated to a bottle of champagne after the match to celebrate England's exhilarating display. "The cork popped with such force it hit the ceiling and rebounded into the company. 'Christ, we've hit the post again,' Mercer said." With a spirit of adventure restored to the side, one shy FA official told Lacey: "I haven't enjoyed a game so much for years."
Keeping the same lineup for the match in Sofia against Bulgaria, England came away with a 1-0 victory that flattered their hosts. Again the interchanging of Keegan, Worthington and Channon flummoxed the opposition and, with Bell, Dobson and Brooking sharing an ability to find the front men, England destroyed the Bulgarian defenders' positional discipline. Worthington scored by beating the offside trap before calmly finishing when one-on-one with the keeper but it was Channon's marauding running and deft manipulation of the ball that enchanted the crowd.
Apart from a problem over accommodation in Sofia, eventually sorted out when the squad was given the press's hotel and the journalists each given three bottles of beer to compensate for their relegation for a night into inferior digs, there had been no hitches on the tour. All that changed the morning after they had defeated Bulgaria when they arrived at Belgrade airport. Keegan, like the rest of the squad, was not wearing his England tie or blazer, a sartorial lapse with unpleasant consequences. While waiting for his luggage he sat down near the baggage carousel while a couple of his team-mates messed about on the conveyor belt. Keegan was promptly arrested by Yugoslavia's border police and taken to a back room, where he was punched, kicked and truncheoned before being charged with sexually assaulting a stewardess, a further assault on a guard, disturbing the peace and causing an obstruction. The players refused to abandon him to his fate and FA officials, British embassy staff and Mercer eventually persuaded Keegan's captors that he was innocent and should be released.
Keegan, battered, bleeding and shaken, was not, however, spooked by his experience when he took the field. Keeping an unchanged side for the third game in succession England once again impressed, this time as much for their fortitude as their new-found attacking adroitness. Channon put them 1-0 up from a corner before Yugoslavia had hit their stride, spurring the hosts to up the ante with some sublime, inventive passing and intelligent runs. They equalised before half-time and took the lead when Brane Oblak hit a thunderous 25-yard shot past Ray Clemence in the second half.
England, less assured than they had been during the preceding three games, attempted to gain a foothold back in the match by using Channon's pace to try to stretch the opposition defence but they were too canny and too often ushered him down culs de sac. Throwing on a substitute for the first time since Hampden, Mercer sent on Malcolm MacDonald for Worthington and after 10 minutes the replacement found Keegan, who scored England's second with a thumping diving header. At the death MacDonald bullocked through the offside trap only to spurn the chance to win the match by snatching at his shot and England ended the tour with a creditable draw.
And that was the end of Mercer's mission. The FA was so impressed by the friendly atmosphere he had fostered that questions about the possibility of Mercer taking the job on a longer-term basis, with his Coventry protege Gordon Milne as the straight man in the double act, were not immediately quashed. Mercer, too, seemed open to persuasion but the FA was working on another plan, putting out feelers to the most successful English club manager available, Leeds United's Revie, which ultimately proved fruitful even if Lancaster Gate subsequently had grave cause to regret its choice.
Mercer went back to Highfield Road, thanked for putting the smile back on the face of English football during what Glanville vividly called his "beguiling interregnum" . Moreover he had established a platform for more free-wheeling talents in the side, a sadly short-lived achievement as far as Worthington was concerned but one which benefited Keegan and Channon. Just as importantly, though it proved ephemeral, was giving England their dignity back on the eve of a World Cup at which they would be bystanders. It had been all very well for England to refuse invitations to the World Cup before the second world war but one must emphasise how deep the sense of humiliation felt was by the realisation that they were too damn ugly to attend the global television party.
"I didn't want this bloody job in the first place," Mercer had told the players, naturally with a smile, at their first meeting. By succeeding at restoring their reputation, however briefly, the reluctant caretaker did more than keep the house in order. He gave them a blueprint for renovation that was disastrously ignored when the caution and anxiety he had temporarily banished returned with a vengeance.