Maine man

Ian Farrell reflects on the career of the extrovert and often underrated manager Malcolm Allison, who died on October 14, 2010

To those unfamiliar with the man, the tributes to Malcolm Allison must have made confusing reading. The grandiose quotes about his talents would leave them in no doubt that this was a giant of the British game, and yet sifting through the boasts and anecdotes for actual managerial achievements turns up surprisingly little.

A sole Charity Shield was all he had to show for his time in charge of English clubs, and though there would be a commendable Portuguese double with Sporting in the early 1980s, it’s still a thin CV for a man often mentioned in the same breath as Brian Clough.

Of course the problem is that Allison’s greatest achievements are not in his name. They came as the man behind the man, helping the great Joe Mercer to bring unprecedented success to Manchester City in the late 1960s and early 1970s. That Allison should deserve so much of credit will probably baffle younger fans used to thinking of assistants as whip-crackers and cone-carriers, rarely seen unless required to give a low-key line-toeing interview to someone their boss is boycotting.

But Allison was given a great deal of control over team affairs, along with an unprecedented freedom to experiment. He also became the voice of the club, issuing his proclamations to the press. Their football alone was enough to keep City on the back pages, but Allison wasn’t one to worry about excess.

Very particular circumstances brought these two men together. The chance to revive City came to Mercer barely a year after suffering the stroke that ended his time at Aston Villa, and only by promising to appoint a strong number two to share the workload did he get his wife’s blessing to take the job. Meanwhile, problems with the board had ended Allison’s time at Plymouth Argyle, the fourth side he’d been in charge of since returning to the game from a spell in the nightclub business. His search for the right stage to show off his ideas was over.

The pair had met many years before on the FA’s coaching courses for players: Mercer the veteran looking to stay in the game, Allison the strong-willed young idealist fascinated by the tactics of Hungary’s Golden Team and the preparation techniques he’d observed while in Austria on national service. At West Ham, before tuberculosis and the subsequent loss of a lung cut short his playing career, Allison had been unofficially involved in coaching, sometimes to the annoyance of manager Ted Fenton, but to the benefit of youngsters like Bobby Moore.

His brash quotability earned him a role as an ITV pundit, but it would ultimately prove to be a damaging move as the boorish TV persona gradually overwhelmed the person. His increased celebrity status eroded any chance of him being willing to stay on as an assistant and, after a power struggle with Mercer, he got the backing of the board and the manager’s job in 1971. It started well and they were top in March, but then one last tinker – the signing of Rodney Marsh – changed the team’s dynamic and they ultimately slipped to fourth.

He would resign during the following season and things would never be the same again, for City or Malcolm. He brought Crystal Palace plenty of publicity and an FA Cup semi-final, but left them in the third division. A return to Manchester City in 1979 was a disaster and, but for a successful year in Portugal, the years that followed were more notable for his off-field hedonism than managerial prowess. He last coached a club 17 years ago and hadn’t had regular media work since on-air swearing lost him his job as a local radio summariser in the late 1990s.
You can say it’s a shame that one of football’s most original thinkers should end up a hero to Nuts readers, but Allison made his choices in life and his admirers can’t really complain if the mention of his name doesn’t make people think of advancements in coaching. But if you are willing to look past the playboy image, you can see a genuine innovator whose impact on the game surpasses many of those with more tangible successes. He’ll always be a fixture in lads’ mags “bad boy” lists, but hopefully he can also live on in the game he loved, as a precedent to be cited whenever a moderniser is being castigated for “complicating” football with their fancy tactics and new-fangled ideas.

From WSC 286 December 2010