Joe Mercer: The Arsenal Manager Who Never Was

Joe Mercer:  The Arsenal Manager Who Never Was


By John Sowman

When Arsenal captain Joe Mercer broke his leg in two places following an accidental collision with colleague Joe Wade at Highbury on 10th April 1954, most people associated with the sport assumed that he would remain in football, probably in a managerial capacity. They were not wrong. After a year convalescing and working both as a journalist and his grocery business in Wallasey, he was appointed to the vacant managership of Sheffield United.

Initially, he was no overnight success and the Blades were relegated to Division Two at the end of his first season in charge. Over the next couple of seasons Sheffield United maintained a respectable place there, settling in just below the promotion hopefuls.

In January 1958 Arsenal were beaten 3-1 by Division Three (South) side Northampton Town in the biggest upset of the FA Cup third round. The players and manager Jack Crayston suffered heavy criticism for their performance from both the fans and the press. There was immediate speculation that Joe Mercer might return to Highbury to take over the reins and the club did nothing to dispel the rumour.

At the end of the season Jack Crayston tended his resignation and within a week, it was an open secret that the job was Joe Mercer’s for the asking.

But it was not so cut and dried as people thought. After Mercer’s interview with Sheffield United’s board of directors, a statement was issued by their chairman saying that Joe Mercer had decided to remain as the Yorkshire club’s manager.

Arsenal chairman Sir Bracewell Smith felt obliged to clarify the club’s position:

“Mercer applied for the job. When I saw him he told me he had another two years of his contract with Sheffield United to run. I said he could not be considered for the job while still under contract with another club and would first have to get his release from Sheffield United. That was the situation.”

It was not the first time Mercer had been linked with an Arsenal managerial role. When Alec Stock resigned as Tom Whittaker’s assistant on 6th April 1956 after just 53 days at Highbury, the press clamoured for his appointment. Then, as he did two years later, Mercer quickly ruled himself out.

Even though he had failed to prevent United’s relegation, he had been awarded a five years contract and he intended to honour it, regardless of any offer that might be forthcoming from Highbury.

So, what conclusions can we draw from his action? Was it the size of the Arsenal salary? Almost certainly not – it was sure to have been generous. A total free hand in all playing matters then? Again, most unlikely, for no director of Arsenal had interfered with that aspect since the days of the notorious Sir Henry Norris.

One can only conclude that it was probably the withholding of sufficient funds for transfers to strengthen an obviously ailing side. If the generous release of money for transfers had been a condition for Joe Mercer’s acceptance as Jack Crayston’s successor, it may well have been regarded as a direct challenge to the authority of Sir Bracewell Smith and his board of directors – something totally unacceptable in that era. Perhaps we will never know for sure.

Extracted from   ARSENAL : THE LONG SLEEP 1953 – 1970


There’s a new detailed review of The Long Sleep now on the Arsenal History Society Site, and the book itself is available in a printed edition and on Kindle from Amazon – just click on the links below.

You might also enjoy The date no Arsenal fan will ever forget by Bob Wilson.

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