Stylish goalkeeper whose England career included a disastrous defeat to Hungary
Had his international career as England’s goalkeeper stopped at the beginning of the 1953-54 season, Gil Merrick, who has died aged 88, would doubtless be remembered as the stylish, commanding player so long admired between the posts for Birmingham City. Alas, he was destined to run into the Hungarians, conceding six goals at Wembley in November 1953 – according to the England manager, Walter Winterbottom, Merrick “had a nightmare” – and another seven in Budapest, the following May. Still, Merrick remained as England’s keeper when the party flew on to the World Cup finals in Switzerland in 1954, where another uneasy game – conceding four goals against Uruguay in the quarter-final – proved to be the final cap he would win.
Born in Sparkhill, Birmingham, Merrick supported the city team, rather than Aston Villa, as a boy and he signed as a professional with them in August 1939. He spent the second world war in the army. Returning to Birmingham City, he helped them to win the Second Division championship in the 1947-48 season and was again in goal when, having been relegated, they won it in 1954-55.
In 1956 – the year that Birmingham City finished sixth in the First Division – he figured in their FA Cup final team, which lost 3-1 to Manchester City at Wembley, the match in which his opposite number, Bert Trautmann, continued to play despite breaking a bone in his neck. Merrick made 485 league appearances for Birmingham City until 1960, when he retired as a player and went into management.
Standing 6ft 1ins tall, weighing more than 13 stone, and elegantly moustached, Merrick was an imposing figure. He took his goalkeeping very seriously, making a careful study of his potential opponents. “If I studied a player’s run-up and action,” he would reflect, after saving a fierce right-footed shot from Portsmouth’s Duggie Reid, “in kicking the ball, rather than waiting for the ball in flight and depending on quickness of the eye to make a save, I should have a better chance of going the right way.”
The first of Merrick’s 23 England caps came in 1951 at Wembley. He could scarcely be saddled with all the blame for England’s later debacle against Hungary, their first ever defeat on home soil by a team from outside the British Isles. Defensive weaknesses had been evident some weeks earlier in the same stadium, when a patchwork Rest of Europe team scored four times and deserved better than a 4-4 draw. Two of their goals were scored by a player Merrick particularly admired, the powerful Hungarian exile Ladislao Kubala.
From almost the outset of the game against Hungary, Merrick was something of a sitting duck. His defence was totally baffled by the deep-lying Hungarian centre-forward, Nándor Hidegkuti. Barely 90 seconds of the game had elapsed when Hidegkuti, with a clever feint, caused the English centre-half Harry Johnston – who failed to get to grips with him throughout the match – to leave a space in the defensive line, through which he crashed a fierce right-footer past Merrick.
A flood of goals followed. “That was something special, no doubt about that,” Merrick would recall. “Everybody was so very fast. I think the first was a shambles. We never knew who to mark. Harry Johnston, as we walked off 4-2 down [at half-time], said, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing here. I haven’t had a kick’, and he hadn’t, because Hidegkuti had moved back 20 yards and left Harry marking nobody. In some ways it was a privilege to play against them. I don’t think there was a better side to teach us how to play football. We’d never seen anything like it. We never had a ghost of a chance at all… The two wingers could catch pigeons. Poor Alf [Ramsey, the right-back] didn’t know which way to turn, because the little left-winger was going by him like a train.”
Seven more goals whizzed past Merrick in Budapest, but with Billy Wright moving from wing-half to centre-half, the defence tightened up in the World Cup in Switzerland, until in the quarter-finals the opposition was Uruguay, holders of the trophy, the 7-0 conquerors of Scotland in the first stages. Merrick, thought one commentator, “had lost his nerve completely after the two Hungarian defeats. England’s new backs, Ron Staniforth and Roger Byrne, had not had time to build up any understanding with their goalkeeper or with each other.”
In Basle, it was 1-1 when England fell behind to a goal by Uruguay’s famous roving centre-half and captain, Obdulio Varela. “The agility of Beara [Yugoslavia’s keeper] or Grosics [Hungary’s],” considered the commentator, “might have saved that goal.” Uruguay’s third goal saw Merrick widely criticised – too slow, it was reported, to get down to a shot by Juan Schiaffino.
Dropped by England, Merrick would play for another six years for Birmingham City. Before he retired, he published an autobiography, somewhat challengingly titled, I See It All. He managed Birmingham City from 1960 to 1964, becoming runners-up in the Fairs Cup in 1960-61 and leading the side to win the 1963 League Cup over Aston Villa. Although they were never greatly successful in the First Division under Merrick, the club at least escaped relegation.
In the 70s, he would have a spell managing non-league Bromsgrove Rovers, but his name will always be associated with Birmingham City. Last year, the Railway stand at St Andrew’s was renamed in his honour.
He is survived by his wife, Ivy, a daughter, Jill, and a son, Neil, from a previous marriage.
• Gilbert Harold ‘Gil’ Merrick, footballer, born 26 January 1922; died 3 February 2010