Football: A voice ringing out to inspire: Ken Jones gives a personal insight into the qualities of an innovator who is back preaching the cause of good football

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The Independent Online
BACK when Malcolm Allison had winning teams at Manchester City and was guaranteed to raise a cheer simply by igniting his cigar, people went around saying that no more innovative mind had ever been brought to bear on football.

Not everybody thought this to be so. But some of us who sensed a darkening of spirit in the game, a betrayal of its soul, were understandably drawn to the enthusiastic persuasions of a handsome man who frequently conveyed the impression that he would not have gone unheard on the road to Damascus.

His downfall came out of a response to the hedonism in which others encouraged him to indulge at the expense of exceptional powers of inspiration.

There are many stories about Malcolm who this week, in his 65th year, is endeavouring to prove that he still has something to offer football, that he can still cast a bright light on bleak proceedings in the English leagues. Malcolm rejoined the fray in mid- November when he succeeded Dennis Rofe as the Bristol Rovers manager, a team he had been helping out in a coaching capacity. Since then the club's results have improved markedly, though defeats in the last two games is naturally a cause for concern.

Malcolm's is a voice that still rings true, and with no disrespect to Aston Villa and their manager, Ron Atkinson, who took on some of his flamboyance, it would do the heart a power of good if Rovers were to record a sensational victory in the third round of the FA Cup on Saturday.

Of all the comforting voices that have reached out to me since an accident a fortnight ago, predictably it was Malcolm's that conveyed the most imaginative and practical advice.

Let me put you in the picture, blurred though it still is. Two weeks ago I fell beneath a train. I don't know how this occurred, or why I was spared. I do know that a great deal of expertise and care, all of it a monument to the sadly dilapidated National Health Service, was brought to bear upon my plight.

Some of the voices I heard, especially that of a compassionate railway policeman, will remain with me for the rest of my days. Others, more familiar, those of relatives, friends, colleagues, carried across the voice in my mind.

Mercifully, the outcome, difficult as it is sure to be, is that I did not lose my life or suffer horrible mutilation. Merely, if that is the word, the loss of my right hand. I am now unavoidably a southpaw.

It was to this problem that Allison applied himself without hesitation. Recalling that George Best once set out successfully to prove that he could play an entire match in the First Division without employing his most natural foot, the right, he said 'You are not George, but remember what we used to say. It's all in the mind.'

He went on to ask me a question. 'Why,' he said, 'do you think the Chinese are so good at table tennis?'

I thought it was some kind of a joke, Malcolm at his tricks again. 'Come on,' I said, 'where's the punchline?'

It was no joke. 'It's because they have great touch. And think about it, they use chopsticks.'

A light came on in my mind. Chopsticks? Dexterity. Touch. The most fundamental and yet important of football techniques.

With the chopsticks, using a hand that until last week was an auxiliary implement, I can now lift small objects and place them in a small pile. I am getting quite good at it.

Allison had set a difficult test, encouraging me as he did, when I came under his influence on coaching courses at Lilleshall in the long ago. 'You can be what you want to be,' he would say.

It was more or less what he said to Tony Book, who was approaching the veteran stage when Malcolm inspired him to rise from the relative anonymity of non-League football, and gain a regular place in the first-team at Manchester City, going on to share a Footballer of the Year award with the great Dave Mackay.

Anyone old enough to read this has lived long enough to have witnessed great changes in sport, but probably without appreciating the effect that people like Malcolm had on the modern development of football.

Due to the circumstances I have described, it was not possible to keep an appointment with him this week, to take the road west to Bath where he is preparing Bristol Rovers for Saturday's great adventure. The late Joe Mercer, his old sparring partner at Maine Road and man of wise and independent virtue used to say that the longer you stayed in the game, the further you grew away from it. The dilemma for Allison is that he finds himself working with footballers young enough in some cases to be his grandsons, but in their enthusiastic response he finds the respect to which he is entitled.

He speaks sadly of the poor technique now evident in Britain, the inability to make even a clean contact with the ball, the absence of qualities that he saw and developed in such notable performers as Colin Bell and Francis Lee in an outstanding Manchester City team.

Realistically, Allison, in the autumn of his days, can no longer expect to have a profound influence on trends in football. He is no longer the Allison of fancy appendages and outrageous indifference to pompous authority. Not the Allison of champagne, cigars, and the fancy fedora. Not the Allison who gatecrashed a party at the Brazilian Embassy in London to celebrate their victory in the 1970 World Cup final. Calling for silence, Allison first toasted Brazil then Pele.

To borrow from perhaps the most famous of Dylan Thomas's works, 'he caught and sang the sun in flight, and learned too late, he grieved it on its way'.

But his passion for the game remains undiminished, and it would be uplifting for some of us if he gets a touch on Saturday.

(Photograph omitted)

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