Great and good: City and Villa have shared more than just players

Posted by Simon Curtis

Joe Mercer GettyImagesJoe Mercer enjoyed success as manager of both Aston Villa and Man City

Aston Villa and Manchester City come together this weekend, two kindred spirits, blessed and cursed by time and fate in equal measures, but seen in a generally positive light by their peers over the years; the owners of century-old tales that warm the heart and send a shiver down the spine at the same time. Two grand old clubs possessing the maverick qualities required to thrill, confuse and disappoint the bewildered punters that have been proud to call themselves supporters over the decades.

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Villa and City have shared many players down the years and five such examples are spread across the playing staff in Manchester and Birmingham this season alone. Messrs Steven Ireland, Shay Given, Richard Dunne, Gareth Barry and James Milner will not mind, I'm sure, if we look a little further back into history for our links this time, however. For City and Villa have shared more than just players down the years. Historical triumph and despair have also been shared in the dugout and up in the stands.

"...he was a likeable man, very honest in many ways... a man with values..." - George Graham.

Joe Mercer managed Aston Villa to Second Division promotion and to a League Cup win in the competition's inaugural season of 1961-62. The ex-Everton and Arsenal man - highly decorated during a lengthy playing career - developed into one of the English game's greatest managers during his spell at City between 1965 and 1971, winning every domestic trophy in that time, plus the European Cup Winners' Cup, in the teeming Vienna rain against Gornik Zabrze of Poland. Mercer was the cajoling father figure in the good cop bad cop double act with the young impatient coach, Malcolm Allison. He had left Villa on doctor's orders, a detail which some might be tempted to make parallels with what today's Villa might do to Paul Lambert.

Genial Joe had suffered a stroke and was ordered to rest from the game, but, when City offered him a route back into management, he could not resist.

"Football could live without Joe Mercer, but I found out I couldn't live without football..." - Joe Mercer, 1965.

Until Roberto Mancini's renaissance movement took a proper grip of things at the Etihad, Mercer's time at City was, and still is, considered the club's Golden Age. Indeed, Mancini still has a little way to go before reasonable comparisons can be made. In many ways, City's time under Mercer mirrored what he had done at Villa Park. Early periods of despair and depression at poor results (at Villa he presided over relegation and at City had to watch the club play to crowds as low as just over 8,000 in the Second Division) gave way to trophies and success in later years. Mercer was a true great to put on the high step alongside Jock Stein, Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Brian Clough and Don Revie. Little is mentioned of what was achieved under the gentle scouser from Ellesmere Port, but Joe Mercer was a true giant of the English game.

Fast forward twenty-odd years and we come to another story of shared managers between the two clubs, but one that has no happy ending, no trophies and left a bitter taste in the mouths of supporters on the great sloping mass of the Holte End, just as it did to those huddled together on the mighty Kippax terracing. The success of the Mercer-Allison years was a dim memory, as City ploughed their way through a Second Division season of brickbats and belly flops in 1983-84. Having fallen from grace, the job of resurrecting the old giant had been handed to ex-Celtic captain Billy McNeill. True to his tartan values of thriftiness and hard work, McNeill carved out a low-cost side that clawed its way back up to the top flight, but, as it faltered amongst the elite, the Scot jumped ship to Villa Park.

By the end of the 86-87 season, McNeill had also made a little bit of history for himself, but not quite in the same brilliant white light of Mercer's exploits. Leaving City to take the drop, Big Caesar (or Big Seizure, as some fans later named him), proceeded to do precisely the same to Aston Villa, thus becoming the first manager to --technically speaking-- take two sides down in the same season. History has been unkind to McNeill, who did a more than competent job in taking City up with a team packed with free transfers from Aberdeen and Morton, but the bitterness of that 86-87 season will ensure that his name is remembered for all the wrong reasons in both these footballing hotbeds.

So, when you think of the shared culture of those great shirts of sky blue or claret and blue, the maverick players, the grand old stadiums, the roller coaster histories and Steven Ireland's pink Range Rover and black and white snooker table, spare a thought as well for two managers who brought the best of times and the worst of times to these two great clubs.

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