"The young and the reckless"
By Tim Turner
Even a child as starry-eyed as I was found little to cheer about in the dark days of the mid-70s. Watford had spiralled all the way down to the bottom of Division Four, and the greyhounds that raced at Vicarage Road in midweek had more footballing talent than some of the players. But there were a few exceptions - men like Roger Joslyn, whose bonecrunching tackles could be heard on the High Street, and Alan Mayes, whose 'a-Mayes-ing' dribbles (© every newspaper sub-editor, ever) all too rarely led to the ball finding the back of the net. And then there was Keith Mercer.
Keith was tough, like Joslyn, but he wasn't a hard case. As a centre forward he had no interest in maiming his opponents. He just wanted to get to the ball first, and he invariably did, armed as he was with a body that was pure muscle and a brain that had obviously never been introduced to the concept of quitting. Put him in a yellow shirt and he would run until his legs were worn to stumps. You know that knight in 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail' who keeps fighting even after all his limbs have been lopped off? Keith was a bit like that.
Almost every picture of Keith shows him either lunging forward to get a foot to a ball most players wouldn't have bothered trying for, or heaving his bulky frame those vital couple of inches above a cluster of defenders to get to a header. I remember one goal in particular that typified his spirit. One-nil up in a Second Round FA Cup tie against Colchester in 1977, Watford were still looking shaky when a clearance went bouncing harmlessly towards the Colchester penalty area. As the left back sauntered across to collect the loose ball he became aware of a bulky yellow and black object bearing down on him like a jet-propelled battering ram. Having sprinted half the length of the pitch, Keith had built up enough momentum to run straight through a brick wall, never mind reach the ball first. The hapless defender went flying like a skittle and Keith slotted the ball past the startled goalkeeper.
For his time, Keith Mercer was a rarity - a product of Watford's youth team. Indeed, he became the club's youngest debutant when he came on as sub against Tranmere in 1973, a fresh-faced schoolboy of sixteen. Well, not that fresh-faced. Even his boyish moptop hairdo (which later gave way to an equally ghastly perm) couldn't divert attention away from the bovine set of his features. His teammates nicknamed him Bam-Bam after the baby in 'The Flintstones', but even at sixteen he looked more like Barney Rubble.
He had to wait another year for his full debut - and when it came, he scored. The programme for the next home match noted proudly that he'd been summoned to Lilleshall to train with the England youth squad. But the nearest he ever got to the big time was in the 1976-77 season. He averaged a goal every two games and was voted "Young Player of the Season" and "Player of the Season" as the club finished in the top half of a division for the first time in the Seventies. (Admittedly it was only the Fourth Division, but we were desperate for something to cheer in those days.) He was still only twenty when Graham Taylor arrived to make all our dreams come true.
Keith Mercer was just the sort of player Taylor was looking for, possessing all the essential items on the new manager's checklist: courage, determination, stamina, the 'never say die' spirit.... What he didn't have, as it turned out, was luck. In September '77 he picked up a knee ligament injury, and a recurrence in December (incurred, typically, scoring that goal against Colchester) put him out of the team for four months. Then he caught pneumonia. He still scored thirteen goals that season, but in his absence a kid called Luther Blissett had begun to catch the eye with his pace and his instinctive goalscoring ability.
Keith was still the first-choice striker when the next season started, but then he was carried off in a game against Exeter. In his third game back after recovering from that injury he had to come off with ankle trouble. He was profiled in the programme while he was recuperating. "I feel I have a long football life ahead of me," he said, but maybe he was just putting a brave face on it. It had reached the point where he was spending more time with the club physio than the physio's wife did. Besides, the Blissett/Jenkins goalscoring machine was rapidly rendering him superfluous, fit or otherwise.
Seven months later, Keith's next (and, as it turned out, last) 'Player Profile' interview in the programme bore all the hallmarks of a man desperately searching for a silver lining in a monsoon's worth of clouds. "Obviously there is nothing like actually being in the side," he said, and you can picture him forcing a smile, "but I'd rather be substitute than thirteenth man. At least you feel part of the side." It seems fitting that his last game for Watford was also the club's last of the decade. In February 1980, almost unnoticed amid the struggle to adjust to life in Division Two, he was sold to Southend.
I always looked out for news of his progress. Southend had the eccentric habit of playing home games on Fridays, so it was usually possible to find a match report in Saturday's newspaper. All too often it said something like: "Mercer was carried off with a recurrence of an old injury." Southend, no doubt unable to afford the bills for Keith's medical treatment, eventually unloaded him onto Blackpool, where his ligaments and cartilage finally won the battle and forced him to retire. He was just twenty-eight.
It's sad that he missed out on all but the earliest stages of Watford's euphoric rise, though some would say that it was his own fault. I mean, he shouldn't have gone charging around the way he did, should he? Ah, but then he wouldn't have been Keith.
First published in "Clap Your Hands, Stamp Your Feet".