2010/11: Malcolm Allison – More Than A Fedora?

Growing up in the late 60’s and early 70’s I remember that the side winning trophies in Manchester at the time, was that playing at Maine Road and not Old Trafford. The managerial team of Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison oversaw the most successful period in Manchester City’s history. Fast forward to 1976 and I recall Allison, head adorned with a fedora, during Crystal Palace’s incredible run as a Third Divison team to the FA Cup Semi-Final. And then that’s it, I really don’t have any more abiding memories of “Big Mal”. That’s 34 years ago and now he’s dead – when I read the news on the BBC website that image of the then Palace Manager came flooding back. Is that image a cliché? What is the Malcolm Allison story?

Malcolm Alexander Allison was born in Dartford, Kent, on 05 September 1927. The young Allison grew up in Bexleyheath, and demonstrated an early rebellious streak by deliberately failing the grammar school entrance exam so that he could continue to play football rather than rugby union. After brief stints as a Fleet Street runner and a grocer’s delivery boy, in 1945, aged 18 Allison signed for Charlton Athletic. He remained at The Valley for six years and even though he was regarding as a useful centre half he made just a handful of appearances for the club. Allison was open in his criticism of the training methods at Charlton and in 1951 moved to West Ham United.

Once at Upton Park, Allison established himself at centre half and in time as club captain. His interest in coaching also began as fellow players (and future managers) such as John Bond and Noel Cantwell provided opportunities to discuss tactics. With over 250 appearances for the club, Allison’s career came to an abrupt end. After playing against Sheffield United on 16 September 1957, Allison became ill with tuberculosis and this led to the removal of part of a lung. After spending a year in a sanatorium, he tried his hand at running a nightclub and being a professional gambler before deciding to return to football. West Ham gave Allison the opportunity to be involved in coaching with the young players at the club.  Allison proved a success and Bobby Moore later recalled, “…I’d been a professional for two and a half months and Malcolm had taught me everything I know….When Malcolm was coaching schoolboys he took a liking to me when I don’t think anyone else at West Ham saw anything special in me…I looked up to the man. It’s not too strong to say I loved him.”

Allison had a great mind for coaching and was receptive to new ideas. For instance, whilst in Vienna on National Service, Allison watched the Russian army team training and became impressed by the amount of work they did with the ball. Allison was also influenced by the “Magnificent Magyars” who destroyed England at Wembley in 1953. He recognised that winning was the product more of the system that a team played, than of the individual footballers’ ability. Allison is also credited for introducing, weight training and static bikes into clubs training sessions.

With the Cambridge University side, Allison had the opportunity to put his ideas into practice and quickly established his reputation as an innovative coach. In 1963 Allison took charge of Bath City in the Southern League and led them to a third place finish and to the FA Cup 3rd Round where they lost 3-0 after a replay to First Division Bolton Wanderers. The following season (1964-65) Allison moved to Plymouth Argyle and took the side to the League Cup Semi-Finals. An illuminating story from that time is around the signing of the then Bath City full-back Tony Book. Knowing that the Pilgrims board would be reluctant to sanction the buying of a player who was nearly thirty and with no League experience, Allison encouraged Tony Book to alter his birth certificate, so making him appear two years younger. However, Allison fell out with the board, and after parting company with the club was offered a position at Maine Road by Joe Mercer.

When Malcolm Allison went to Maine Road in 1965, Manchester City were in Division Two. By the end of that season (1965-66) City were champions and heading for the First Division. Once there and with the Manchester City squad containing household names such as Colin Bell, Joe Corrigan, Francis Lee and Mike Summerbee, winning became a regular habit. The First Divison title was won in 1967-68, FA Cup in 1969, League Cup and European Cup Winners Cup in 1970. However, by October 1971 Mercer was gone and Allison had sole charge of the club. Success didn’t return during Allison’s reign and in March 1973 he resigned. Mercer rather prophetically observed that Allison had become too partial to the limelight, having become a regular in the gossip and fashion columns of the time.

As the Maine Road door closed, so another opened at Selhurst Park in 1973. He arrived too late to save Crystal Palace from being relegated to Divison Two, but set about changing much at the South London club. Allison raised the club profile with his charismatic media appearances, changed the club nickname from ‘The Glaziers’ to ‘The Eagles’, and made colour and style alterations to the kit that influence the club today. Despite these changes Palace suffered a second relegation. 1975–76 was the most successful season for Allison at Selhurst Park as he engineered an epic run to the FA Cup Semi-Final which ended in defeat to eventual Cup winners Southampton. The image of Allison, cigar in hand, toped off with a fedora became burned on the minds of the footballing public at the time. However, with the team failing to reach Wembley and or gain promotion Allison left Selhurst Park in May 1976.

Over the next five years, Allison had a number of positions without enjoying any success. In 1976–77 Allison turned to Turkey to coach Galatasaray, before returning to England and to the three sides he had been in charge of before – Plymouth Argyle, Manchester City and Crystal Palace. He returned to Maine Road as manager in the 1979-80 season. The team was humiliated in January 1980, as they were knocked out in the FA Cup 3rd Round by Fourth Division Halifax Town. They just avoided relegation, but Allison lost his job the following season. A return to Palace for a two-month period at the ended of the 1980-81 season also ended in failure as The Eagles dropped out of Division One.

Allison’s last successful spell came in 1981-82 when he moved abroad once more and guided Sporting Lisbon FC to a League and Cup double as well as the Portuguese Super Cup. His sacking by Sporting came as a complete surprise and so marked the beginning of the end of his managerial career as he drifted from post to post. Two unsuccessful years at Middlesbrough (1992-94) came to an end when he suggested that the club be wound up. There followed stints coaching the Kuwait National team and back in Portugal with Vitoria Setubal (1986-88). His time in Portugal came to an end in 1989, when in three months with Farense, he won just one game and was dismissed. On the last day of 1992, he took over at Bristol Rovers, but the following year he was out of work again. He then found occasional work as a scout for Arsenal and as a pundit on local radio, until he was fired for swearing on air.

Anxiety and depression ensued. Allison had saved little, and lost much of what he did have in the collapse of BCCI. In his late sixties he established a stable life with a Lynn Salton, but when this relationship came to an end in 2000, the 72 year old was arrested after trying to batter his way into the house. Soon afterwards, he was put in hospital after admitting that he was an alcoholic. The combination of alcoholism and depression took their toll, to the point where he observed: “I don’t remember the days any more.”

On the one hand then Malcolm Allison the football coach can be viewed as one of the most forward thinking and inspirational of his generation as epitomised by his work at Manchester City. He also left his mark on Crystal Palace and Sporting Lisbon. However, this went hand in hand with the character that courted the press – the flamboyant life-style of champagne, fashion and women, a sometimes opinionated and cocky bearing.  Ultimately though, it is a cautionary tale. Malcolm Allison – another of football’s flawed geniuses.