By Gary Lawrence
There have been so many Arsenal captains over the course of the club’s history. From the very first, one of the founding fathers of the club David Danskin, right up to Mikel Arteta.
There have been some very successful ones such as Patrick Vieira, and Alex James. Wee Alec is probably the most unappreciated Arsenal captain lifting 3 League Titles and an FA Cup. Which makes him the second most successful Arsenal captain ever in trophies won.
But as a captain Eddie Hapgood and Tom Parker, both of whom were also excellent Arsenal captains, got more plaudits as captain, even though Alex was more successful than both of them put together in terms of lifting trophies. The main reason for James not getting more credit is that many people assume that Hapgood was captain for most of the 1930s. When in fact it was Alex James.
Pat Rice was another superb Arsenal captain. But most of the Arsenal captains weren’t very successful at all, with only about 12 Arsenal captains actually lifting a major trophy.
From the mid 1950s till the late 1960s there was a conveyor belt of Arsenal captains. None of whom cut the mustard for one reason or another.
There’ve been captains like Don Howe, Thomas Vermaelen and Mikel Arteta who have gone complete seasons as Arsenal captain, hardly kicking a ball.
Top players like Jimmy Logie, George Eastham, Alan Ball, David O’Leary. Even Thierry Henry, one of our greatest ever players. None of them were great captains of Arsenal.
Patrick Vieira was probably our last really decent captain. While William Gallas in my opinion was our worst ever captain, he was a disgrace as an Arsenal skipper. Sitting on the pitch after the game at St Andrews, sulking and feeling sorry for himself like a spoilt child. How embarrassing was it to see Arsene Wenger having to try and coax him off the field.
As for Cesc Fabregas going on strike to force a move to Barcelona and Robin Van Persie and that ridiculous statement he released when leaving the club. Neither of them were worthy Arsenal captains.
However there are three Arsenal captains for me that stand out from the rest. Captains that would galvanise the whole team into giving everything for the cause. Captains that could lift the team to fight against the odds when all seemed lost.
Some people say a captains role isn’t important. I happen to believe that it is. The three I want to talk about were not only very successful in bringing trophies to the club. But their part as captains was absolutely vital in achieving it. They brought another dimension to their sides with their strong personalities and will to win. All three of them are remembered as much for their leadership qualities, as for their ability as great players. These are the creme de la creme of Arsenal captains.
George Allison signed Joe Mercer from Everton on 29th November 1946 for an initial £6,000 with a further £2,000, if Arsenal resigned him after the first season, as the original deal was only for a year. Joe was 32 years old and had lost seven seasons of his career due to WW2, in which he served as a Sergeant Major. He’d been in dispute with Everton over their refusal to believe he needed a cartilage operation, the cost of which Joe ended up paying himself. In fact things had got so bad between Mercer and the Everton manager Theo Kelly, that the Toffees boss brought Joe’s boots with him to the transfer negotiations with Arsenal, so keen was he to see the back of Joe!
Joe made only one stipulation and that was that he was allowed to remain up north to train with Liverpool and travel down to London for matches. The reason being Joe ran a successful grocery store at Wallasey. As the initial contract was only to run till the end of the season the club had no objection to this arrangement.
By the time League football had returned after WW2, the 1930s legends were all finished and players like Eddie Hapgood, Ted Drake and Cliff Bastin all needed replacing. The East and West Stands had cost a fortune to construct. The North Bank roof had been destroyed in an air raid. Plus with no proper gate receipts for seven seasons Arsenal were in a bad way financially. The club didn’t have the funds to go out and replace the 1930s stars with the same quality. But a 32 year old Mercer albeit it with his spindly bow legs was a good option.
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At Everton Mercer had been an attacking wing half. What Tom Whittaker, (who ran the playing side of the club even when Allison was the manager) had planned to do was to give Joe a deeper role so that he could use his considerable football brain to organise the defence. The switch to a defensive role also allowed Mercer to prolong his career at The Arsenal for eight seasons taking him to almost 40 years of age!
This turned out to be a master stroke by Whittaker. The new role worked a treat and suited Joe down to the ground. Beneath the genial gentleman exterior lay a very shrewd footballer, who knew the game inside out. An excellent passer of the ball, he’d anticipate attacks and intercept the ball to thwart the danger. Joe commanded the respect of his team mates, organising and cajoling them into doing his bidding.
Tom Whittaker took over as manager for the 1947-48 season and Arsenal won the first six games and never looked back. Going on to win the League Championship, bringing back some of the glory of the 1930s days. A large part of that was owed to Joe Mercer who drove the side on to the Title.
The 1947-48 title winning side
On the eve of the 1950 FA Cup Final Mercer was named Footballer of the Year. Joe then famously skippered the side to win the FA Cup, with a Reg Lewis brace giving The Arsenal a 2-0 victory. Mercer was majestic and gave a man of the match performance. He also gave a fine speech afterwards a bit of which you can watch below.
Arsenal came within 3 games of the Double in 1951-52. But as they did 20 years before, they fell between two stalls. Just as it was in 1932, it was once again Newcastle United that Arsenal faced in the FA cup Final. Arsenal went down heroically 1-0 with only ten men on the pitch due to losing Wally Barnes to a badly twisted knee. On top of that four other Arsenal players were struggling with injuries. They really were the walking wounded. Joe Mercer said afterwards at the team’s banquet “I thought football’s greatest honour was to captain England. I was wrong. It was to captain Arsenal today”.
In 1952-53 Joe captained Arsenal once more to the Title piping Preston North End on goal average by just 0.010 of a goal! Tom Whittaker pleaded with Joe to give him one more season and Joe agreed. Even though he was really struggling as he was nearly 40 by now and injuries had taken their toll. He didn’t really need to play as his grocery store was making him a good living. But as Laurie Scott said “He just loved the glory of captaining Arsenal”.
On the 10th April 1954 Arsenal were playing Liverpool at Highbury, when Joe collided with his own team mate Joe Shaw and Mercer sustained a broken leg. As Joe was stretchered off he gave a final goodbye wave to the Highbury crowd who gave Joe a standing ovation. It was a very emotional moment for the the fans who adored him, as they all knew that Joe was finished and they’d never see him play for The Arsenal again.
Joe was much respected and admired by team mates and opponents alike. Reg Lewis once said of Joe “He was an inspiration to us all on how to conduct yourself on and off the pitch”. I’ll leave the final say on Joe’s career to Len Shackleton. Who says this about Joe Mercer, whose words adorn the outside wall of the Emirates stadium. “When Joe discovered his legs would not allow him to run, he played almost entirely in his own half. The service of wonderful passes that flowed from this spindly bow-legged genius was, I am certain, fifty per cent of the reason for Arsenal’s post war successes”.
Joe Mercer passed away on the 9th August 1990. Sitting in his favourite armchair on his 76th birthday. His part in Arsenal’s rich history will ensure he’ll be remembered forever.
Part 2 at 4.30 pm today