Football With A Smile
by Gary James
James Ward, £19.95
Reviewed by Ian Farrell
From WSC 283 September 2010
Unless there are any new revelations, legal estate challenges or hauntings to report, you might reasonably ask what the point is of putting out an updated version of a posthumous biography. Though it is coming up to the 20th anniversary of Joe Mercer's death, the first thought about this reworking of Football With A Smile, originally published in 1993, is that it's really to capitalise on the moderate publicity generated by The Worst Of Friends, the recent novel about his time managing Man City alongside assistant Malcolm Allison. But, opportunistic or not, it nevertheless comes across as a heartfelt attempt to reassess Mercer's standing 17 years on, and see his legacy given the respect it deserves. Those who've read the "faction" have a chance to read the facts.
Though Gary James is a serial City writer, this is not a quick charge through the decades followed by an exhaustive account of the Maine Road Years. It's a genuine and genuinely interesting life story, and we're on page 177 before it gets to 1965 and the birth of the Mercer/Allison partnership that would turn Second Division strugglers into League champions. His career as a heroic and hugely popular player with Everton, Arsenal and England, his wartime experiences, and his frequently unhappy spells of management at Sheffield Utd and Aston Villa are covered in great detail. It's candid in its treatment of the stress-induced stroke that ended his time at Villa and had Mercer followed medical advice and walked away from the game before the trophies and politics of City or his spell as England's post-Ramsey caretaker, this would still be a worthwhile if downbeat story.
The book is wonderfully illustrated, impeccably researched and has plenty of enjoyable anecdotes to recount. But particularly interesting are the little details that evoke a very different football world, such as Mercer first getting the Arsenal armband because regular captain Les Compton is otherwise engaged keeping wicket for Middlesex. Truly astonishing – and it's difficult to comprehend this even with an it-was-the-olden-days qualifier – is the revelation that he didn't find out that his Villa side had been relegated until some time after the end of their must-win final game, as he'd left the ground before West Brom's late equaliser to attend Billy Wright's 100th cap banquet.
This is a biography very much in its subject's image: affable, positive and generous. Joe Mercer was beloved throughout the game for his essential honesty and decency, and you can't help but feel (particularly in the aftermath of an Inter treble that will no doubt see Mourinho-ism further vindicated in the eyes of young managers) that the top end of the game will never see his like again. While it isn't a whitewash, Football With A Smile could perhaps take a more critical stance in some areas, but Joe Mercer is a man to whom you tend to want to give the benefit of the doubt.