Lifetime in Soccer

Did you know that two famous club managers and former England players have been linked together in soccer for decades?  Well, believe it or not they have: Stan Cullis and Joe Mercer were in the same school team in Ellesmere Port and progressed step by step to the dizzy heights of football fame.  A fine portrait of them was provided by Bill Roberts who was manager of the England schools team as well as being their schoolmaster many years ago.  He recalls, “they were both enthusiastic lads at school and quite outstanding.  So good, in fact, that they were playing for Ellesmere Port boys team at the age of 11.  Joe, even then, was a happy sort of boy and Stan a solid, determined individual.  It was pretty clear to me that both were determined to make a name for themselves”.

Stan Cullis joined Wolves in February 1934 and spent his career at Molineux, a loyal club man at every level.  He was made club captain at the age of 19 and then came a meteoric rise to national and international prominence.  A few days before his 21st birthday in October 1937 he won his first international cap, representing England in their 5-1 victory over Ireland.  At 21 he was captain of the Football League XI and at 22 captain of England.  He was poised for a great career but like so many other players he was robbed of many seasons by the war.  Coming back to top-class soccer after the war, he sustained a head injury at Middlesbrough.  This, together with the exhausting 1946-47 season when Wolves were pipped at the post by Liverpool for the First Division title, made him decide that his future lay off the pitch.  Stan was appointed assistant manager to Ted Vizard and took over as full manager of Wolves in June 1948.  Under his direction, from 1948-1964, Wolves won the League Championship three times, finished runners-up three times and won the FA Cup twice, an outstanding record.

Britton, Cullis & Mercer, England & Army football team 1944

When these two great men were asked to talk about the other from their days at school their replies make interesting reading.

Stan Cullis on Joe Mercer, “I recall that Joe regarded the ball as if it belonged to him, and whilst he wanted everybody else to pass it to him, he rarely gave a pass to anybody else.  When you passed the ball to Joe he would proceed to try to beat the opposing defence on his own and very often he succeeded

Joe Mercer on Stan Cullis, “The conversation when we were kids used to go like this;

Joe: “Why don’t you pass the ball to me?

Stan: “You want to score all the goals”.

Joe: “Well I’m the centre forward aren’t I? I’m supposed to score the goals; aren’t the inside forwards supposed to pass the ball to the centre forward?

But I could never get the ball off him - he used to look at me and go the other way”.

Stan Cullis leading his team, Wolves, out on to the pitch in 1939

Turning from one perfectionist to another, we find that the smiling Joe Mercer had a parallel career in soccer.  Joe had little hesitation in joining Everton in 1932 at the age of 18, for in those days stars such as Bill “Dixie” Dean and Warneford “Warney” Cresswell were playing at Goodison Park.  He made his debut for Everton as an inside forward against Leeds United but was converted into a wing half and this conversion proved to be the turning point in his career.  In the 1938-39 season he became established in the Everton team, making 41 appearances and collecting a First Division winner’s medal.  Joe also made his debut for England but like Stan Cullis, was deprived of his rightful honours by the war.  Joe did, however, play in 28 wartime internationals when the Britton-Cullis-Mercer half-back line won immortality, and also took the field in all three Victory internationals in 1945-46.

Everton, 1937-38

Back Row (L-R): Mr T Kelly (secretary), Britton, Cunliffe, Sagar, Gee, Gillick, T Cook (trainer)

Seated (L-R): Jackson, Geldard, Cook, Dixie Dean, Tommy Lawton, Stevenson, Dougall

Front 3 (L-R):  Watson, Jones, Joe Mercer

Transferred to Arsenal, Mercer soon put his qualities of leadership to the best advantage by captaining the side to the First Division championship.  In 1950 he reached the pinnacle of soccer fame when Arsenal won the FA Cup and Joe was elected Footballer of the Year.  Two years later Arsenal were again at Wembley but lost 0-1 to Newcastle.  But the energetic Mercer kept plugging away and was rewarded in 1953 when his club won yet another League championship.  Joe then announced his retirement but, like many other players, he could not resist another try.  Everything went well until, in a match against Liverpool at Highbury, he was unable to avoid a collision with one of his own team-mates, Joe Wade, and broke his leg.  As he was carried off the field on a stretcher he raised himself on one arm and waved to the crowd, as though in farewell to soccer.  It was, in fact, the end of Mercer as a player.

10th October 1950: Arsenal FC

Back row (L-R)
J Chenhall, R Barr, D Tilley, D Oakes, C Holton, R Marden, T Vallance

Third row (L-R)
E Stanley, D Rossiter, W Healey, D Bowen, L Davies, G Dunkley,
P Hancock, C Grimshaw, L Wills, J Gray, R Dove, F Grosvenor

Second row (L-R)
A James, G Male, K Atkinson, R Daniel, A Shaw, E Platt, L Compton, G Swindon,
A Forbes, J Kelsey, A Fields, J Wade, J Holland, E Collett, D Gripps

First row (L-R)
H Owen, J Crayston, I McPherson, L Scott, Don Roper, R Lewis, Joe Mercer, Tom Whittaker (Manager),
W Barnes, L Smith, P Goring, D Lishman, N Smith, W Milne, J E Shaw

Seated on ground (L-R)
A Milton, M Rayan, J Logie, F Cox, R Pouton, D Bennett

After his playing career ended Mercer spent a little over a year working as a journalist and a grocer. His wife's family had encouraged him to become involved in grocery during his time at Everton and, while still Arsenal's captain, he ran his grocery business from 105-107 Brighton Street, Wallasey.  Following his recovery, Joe devoted himself to the family grocery business but the lure of soccer proved too strong and when he was offered the managership of Sheffield Wednesday he was quick to accept.  He soon set about building them into a side which was to win promotion to the First Division in 1961.

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