Malcolm Allison, Joe Mercer and Manchester City
by Colin Shindler
Reviewed by Ian Farrell
From WSC 268 June 2009
Back in the late Nineties, Colin Shindler’s Manchester United Ruined My Life became one of football writing’s biggest break-out hits, earning its author plenty of mainstream praise, a spin-off TV documentary, and, it has to be said, a fair amount of criticism, amid suggestions that it was just a Manchester City version of Fever Pitch. Such carping about merely putting his own club’s spin on a recent success is clearly of no concern to Shindler if the strangely familiar premise of his latest work is anything to go by: a piece of nostalgic “faction” about a big-mouthed, larger-than-life coach battling for control... of Man City. In fact, given that its release has been timed to follow that of The Damned United’s much-hyped film version, it doesn’t look like Shindler and his publisher’s publicity department mind one little bit if you make the comparison. Now that I’ve done their bidding, I’ll say this: they’re nothing like each other.
Though The Worst of Friends is presented as a novel about the relationship between jovial City manager Joe Mercer and his brash, ambitious assistant Malcolm Allison, Shindler’s limitless admiration for the latter tends to relegate Mercer to more of a supporting role. Allison is portrayed as the brilliantly inventive and ahead-of-his-time brains behind City’s rise from Division Two strugglers to 1968 League champions; Mercer is there to help him, to frustrate him, to restrain him, to lend him money. Mercer is an old-fashioned nice guy; Allison is a genius.
And geniuses, apparently, can behave as they want. The author certainly seems to think so, as tales of arrogance, adultery, debt-welshing and deceit pass by largely without censure. But those with no emotional investment in the man are likely to view him less sympathetically, and might wonder why exactly they’re supposed to feel sorry for him when Mercer hangs on to the manager’s job for longer than promised, and why they should care when it all ends in tears after Allison gets his way and the board eases Mercer out.
To be blunt, this is not a novel aimed at people looking for a likely Booker Prize winner, but simply at Manchester City fans seeking a decent story told in an uncomplicated (and remorselessly pro-City) way, with a straightforward prose style unlikely to wow the Hay Festival crowd.
The book is undeniably written with a genuine feeling for the period and its protagonists that will appeal to fellow devotees, and Allison was undoubtedly an interesting and complex character: ball-breaking drill sergeant by day, champagne-swilling playboy by night. However those coming at it cold will likely rue the absence of perspective. “He knew he lacked some of the traditional virtues expected of a father,” it tells us, “but he lacked nothing as a coach.” Oh well, you can’t have everything.