An extraordinary new chapter in the life of former Manchester City manager Joe Mercer took the football world by surprise in May 1974.
Mercer was in charge of Coventry City at the time after an acrimonious exit from Maine Road in 1971 which saw his car parking space and desk removed while he was still at the club.
But he soon found himself at the helm of another prestigious side – arguably the most prestigious in the land.
On May Day 1974, Mercer accepted the position of caretaker manager of the England national football team after the dismissal of 1966 World Cup winner Sir Alf Ramsey.
Failing to qualify for the 1974 World Cup had cost Ramsey his job. The axe fell just a few months after the hugely disappointing 1-1 home draw with Poland in which Brian Clough described Polish goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewksi as a ‘circus clown in gloves.’
Mercer was quickly into action in his new role with experienced assistants Harold Shepherdson as coach and Les Cocker as trainer. Both had been with Ramsey and knew the England set-up inside out.
Mercer’s first match was the opening fixture of the home internationals against Wales at Ninian Park on May 11th. A crowd of 25,734 saw England win 2-0 with goals from Collyhurst-born Stan Bowles, a former Manchester City player, and Kevin Keegan.
Four days later, England faced Northern Ireland at Wembley in front of 48,500 spectators. The result was another win for England, this time 1-0, with a goal from Keith Weller.
But Mercer’s 100 per cent record came to an abrupt end when England played Scotland at a ferociously partisan Hampden Park on May 18th.
More than 94,000 raucous fans willed Scotland to a famous 2-0 win. The Scotland scorer was future Manchester United centre forward Joe Jordan, while England defender Colin Todd conceded an own goal.
It must have brought back memories for Mercer. One of his five England caps as a player was won against Scotland at Hampden Park in April 1939. A record crowd of 150,000 watched England triumph 2-1 that day on a muddy, rain-soaked pitch.
After Scotland, the matches came thick and fast for Mercer as the England team played a home friendly against the highly rated Argentinian national team on May 22nd.
The result was a creditable 2-2 draw, with England’s goals coming from Mick Channon and Frank Worthington. The formidable Mario Kempes scored twice for Argentina.
Just a week later, Mercer and the England team were off on their travels – this time to Eastern Europe. Friendlies had been lined up with East Germany, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia.
Huge crowds came to every match. The 1966 World Cup winners were big news, especially behind the Iron Curtain. Each national team wanted to prove their worth against the former champions.
Mercer first took his team to the Zentralstadion, Leipzig, to play East Germany in front of a crowd of 95,000 on May 29th.
East Germany were disciplined with strong technical skills, leading to a 1-1 draw. Channon, who became a Manchester City player in 1977, scored England’s goal.
The next match, on June 1st, saw England defeat Bulgaria 1-0 at the Natsionalen Stadion Vasil Levski in Sofia. The 70,000 crowd saw Worthington score the only goal.
Four days later it was on to Beograd for a match against Yugoslavia at the Stadion Crvena Zvezda. The game was more open with both teams creating chances, much to the delight of the 90,000 fans.
The match ended in a 2-2 draw with the old firm of Channon and Keegan netting for England. Yugoslavia’s scorers were Ilija Petrovic and Branko Oblak.
And that was that for Mercer’s brief tenure as England caretaker manager! His record was played seven, won three, drawn three and lost one. England had scored nine goals and conceded seven.
Many thought Mercer had done enough to earn the England job permanently. Some suggested he could bring in his Coventry City protégé Gordon Milne as his assistant manager.
But governing body the Football Association had other ideas. They’d been lining up Leeds United manager Don Revie for some time – and landed their man on July 4th, 1974.
Mercer returned full-time to Coventry where he served as a director of the club until his retirement in 1981.