Matchdays with Mercer

Can you imagine a player today travelling to the ground on the bus on a match day, walking down the road with fans, happy to chat about having the “best job in the world”. The thought of that happening today is about as possible as Sepp Blatter admitting, well, anything. The last person in football who admitted using public transport to get to a game was laughed out of town as crazy. Whilst Christian Gross may have thought the way to warm to the Spurs fans and media was to produce his travel card at the press conference announcing his arrival back in 1997, most saw that the guy really didn’t get English football.

But back in the Seventies it was common practice not only for players, but also for managers to use public transport, or even their own bike to get to home games. One man who believed it was humbling to travel in such a way was Joe Mercer.  Whilst manager of Manchester City in 1971 Joe gave an interview to Football World magazine explaining his match day routine.

“Home game Saturdays mean I can sleep in late, with the wife bringing me a cup of tea around 9.30am before I get up and have breakfast. Like my players I can eat what I want when we have a home game so I usually have a large English. Then if it is nice I will do some work in the garden. As I only live two miles from Maine Road I can hop outside at lunchtime and catch the bus if I do not feel like driving.

Lunch around midday is pure habit. Professional footballers everywhere are eating steak, fish or eggs on toast. There isn’t a vegetable to be seen and liquid isn’t encouraged. If they are travelling away then the coach will stop for the meal before resuming its journey with the smokers in the team banished to the back seat”

Football clubs today with their food nutritionists, dieticians and performance coaches would suffer cardiac arrest and the thought of players eating such things pre-match.  But interestingly enough clubs didn’t have squads anywhere near the size of the ones today.

Mercer didn’t believe in pre-match team talks so when the players were changed he left the match instructions to his assistant Malcolm Allison whilst he  went and took his place in the Directors Box for the game. Even the pre-match warm up was a five minute kick about, almost a three-and-in for those who were interested.  Alcohol in the form of a hip flask was often passed around the changing room to “take the edge off the nerves”, normally administered by the physio who was was normally “qualified” by being a former player, and owning his own sponge.

When the match started Mercer sat in a world of his own, blocking out the noise of the clubs.  He had no way to communicate down to the bench apart from sending a note down via one of the members of staff. He did not take any notes, preferring to memorise his half time team talk.

At full time he would be in the dressing room, giving a few words of encouragement or reprimand whilst players sipped tea or lemonade before he went back into the Directors Lounge for cigars with the club owner.  His work for the day was done. No requirements to go to a press conference, talk to the media or pose with sponsors.  About an hour after the game he would make his way out of the ground, signing a few autographs for the young boys playing football in the car park before he would meet his wife.  If it had been a good day then it would be Steak for dinner in a restaurant in town; a defeat and it would be fish and chips in front of the TV at home.

How times have changed.  What would Joe make of football today, with nutritionally balanced energy bars, two way radios with headsets and press conferences with 100 journalists from around the world. Oh, and chips with curry sauce at the Chippy.

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