Malcolm Allison: Inspirational football coach who struggled to repeat elsewhere the success he enjoyed at Manchester City

Saturday 16 October 2010 00:00 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Brian Clough called him "the Errol Flynn of football, who was too handsome for his own good".

Don Revie dismissed him as "an embarrassment to the game". Yet despite the drinking, the gambling and the womanising – his lovers included Christine Keeler, the woman at the heart of the Profumo scandal – Malcolm Allison was arguably the finest, deepest thinking and most innovative football coach England has known.

"Big Mal" offered plenty of evidence on that score during a sublime partnership with Joe Mercer at Manchester City in the late 1960s and early 1970s. When they were together, with Mercer's wisdom and maturity moderating the excesses of his charming but headstrong protégé, almost everything they touched turned to gold.

But subsequently, when Allison launched his own career as a manager, the Midas touch was reversed dramatically, providing ammunition for those who reckoned the flamboyant, impetuous swashbuckler was among the worst man-managers of modern times. He could be ruthless, was boorish at times and was possessed of a cruel tongue when riled, yet Allison was honest and generous, and blessed with a messiah-like knack of inspiring loyalty, even love, among his followers.

But what made him special, at least in sporting terms, was his visionary ability to communicate his creedof positive football to the young menin his charge. When everything else was stripped away, when the cares and responsibilities of high officetook second place to his pure passion for his calling, Malcolm Allison was magnificent.

The son of a Bexleyheath electrician, he signed for Charlton Athletic as an amateur in 1944, returning to play in earnest after NationalService, which began a year later. However, there was to be no breakthrough at The Valley for the stylish and outspoken young centre-half, who was disgusted by what he saw as the club's outdated coaching methods, and said so.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, he played only two League games before departing in February 1951 for West Ham United, where he became a first-team regular for the next six years. Throughout that period, Allison's obsession with coaching took hold, fostered by his attendance of summer courses held by England manager Walter Winterbottom, and his conviction grew that Continental-typetactics and reliance on skill had the edge over more basic traditional British methods.

He became the fulcrum of a brains trust of senior Hammers who would meet daily in a cafe near the groundto debate and theorise over the game; many of that group – includingJohn Bond, Frank O'Farrell, Noel Cantwell and Dave Sexton – went on to become managers.

But it was Allison who stood out as the most rebellious, forever questioning the existing order, while impressing club manager Ted Fenton enough to be allowed input into training sessions. That West Ham side, renowned for its thoughtful, almost scientific approach, won promotion to the First Division in 1958; but Allison was to miss out on a medal, having lost a lung to tuberculosis at the age of 29. Thus he was forced into premature retirement, having never played a game in the top flight.

Later he was to declare that the only time in his life that he suffered illness was when, in his playing prime, he went early to bed and didn't concern himself unduly with drinking, smoking and women. His reaction on recovering from TB was to "at least give myself a reason for being sick" by embarking on a series of wild sprees.

Now Allison's whole lifestyle changed. He became immersed in betting to the extent that he spent two years as a professional gambler. Then followed a brief and unsuccessful spell as a car salesman and a time-marking, booze-soaked period running a nightclub off London's Charing Cross Road. Fortunately, both for his own health and for the contemporary football scene, his addiction to the game was to reclaim him.

Against medical advice, Allison found himself unable to resist playing for non-League Romford, and from that followed coaching work with Cambridge University and Sutton United. As he became re-established, so his name began to be considered for various jobs, and in April 1963 he became manager of the Southern League club Bath City.

Allison enjoyed himself in the refined surroundings of the Georgian city, and did well enough to landthe manager's seat at Second Division Plymouth Argyle a year later. Hisnew responsibilities were discharged with a characteristic swagger, butwith mixed results. He brought in a wave of youngsters and although League form was patchy, there was the consolation of a League Cup semi-final appearance. However, differences arose with the board, who wanted to interfere in team selection and disapproved of his lifestyle, and he was sacked after a year.

A few months later Allison accepted the most important job of his life, working alongside Joe Mercer at Manchester City. The wily, experienced Mercer was not in the best of health and needed a bright young thing at his shoulder. Allison was bursting with ambition and ideas but required a restraining hand; it was a partnership forged in heaven.

Their new club was in a woeful state, marooned in the Second Division and overshadowed depressingly by their all-conquering neighbours, Matt Busby's United. They knew City possessed vast potential, however, and set about effecting a transformation - with immediate success.

New players were acquired, and at the end of the management duo's first season at Maine Road, the Blues were Second Division champions. They consolidated their berth among the élite during 1966-67 and then – joy of joys – pipped none other than United to the League title in 1967-68. The side, which starred the gifted forward trio of Francis Lee, Colin Bell and Mike Summerbee, played exciting, flowing football which received universal acclaim, as did Allison. their coach.

He revelled in the limelight, though he was irked by the fact that no matter what City achieved, and no matter how low United's star fell (very low after their European Cup win of 1968) they always attracted greater support and were perceived as Manchester's top club. That apart, "Big Mal" was supremely happy, and while sipping champagne and puffing at a massive cigar, he predicted that his team would "murder everyone on the planet" and "scare Europe to death". Such boasts were typically extravagant and Allison was ridiculed widely when City bowed out of the European Cup to unfancied Turks at the first hurdle.

But despite such ill-advised posturing, the team was an outstanding one, going on to win the FA Cup in 1969, and both the European Cup-Winners' Cup and the League Cup in 1970. One aspect of that success, for which the coach was responsible, was the astonishing contribution of captain Tony Book, who had played for Allison at Bath and Plymouth, followed his mentor to Manchester, then shared in all City's triumphs during his mid-30s, completing the fairytale by sharing the Footballer of the Year award in 1969 with Dave Mackay.

Among those most impressed by Allison's acumen were the Italian giants, Juventus, who offered hima fortune to join them that same year. He came close to accepting, but in the end could not walk out on his and Mercer's lovely creation, which was still at its peak.

Yet despite the success, signs of strain began to appear in the relationship as the 1970s got under way. As trophy followed trophy, so Mercer's health improved and earlier intimations that he would make way for Allison to assume sole control proved unintentionally misleading. Allison, who yearned for the top job, became frustrated and was involved in an attempted boardroom coup. The situation became confused and Allison was close to dismissal. Eventually, though, he got the position he craved when Mercer moved uneasily into an "upstairs" role in October 1971, before leaving, sadly disillusioned by behind-the-scenes politics, to join Coventry at the end of the season.

Around this time the extent to which Allison needed the elder statesman's cool judgement and discretion was thrown into sharp relief. With City apparently on course for the 1972 title, he bought the gifted but inconsistent Rodney Marsh, disrupting the side's system and arguably costing them the championship, which they missed by a point. Thereafter he became increasingly disenchanted by boardroom manoeuvring and in March 1973 he surprised many observers by leaving Maine Road to accept the challenge of reviving Crystal Palace, already doomed to demotion from the top flight.

It proved to be the first step on a turbulent, unfulfilling 15-year odyssey, taking in 15 jobs in five countries. At Palace, he presided over the anticipated relegation in 1973, but then shocked fans by taking the Eagles straight down to the Third. Then he signed his friend and fellow student of the game, Terry Venables, as player-coach and together they guided Palace to the FA Cup semi-finals in 1976.

Along the way there was plenty of time for high jinks in London's bright lights, including a well-documented plunge in the team bath with the actress Fiona Richmond. By May 1976, though, there was an inescapable feeling that Allison was treading water career-wise, too, and he resigned, thereafter working for Galatasaray of Turkey, Memphis in Tennessee and Plymouth for a second time before he was unable to turn down the chance of a return to Manchester City.

Back in the big time, money burnt a hole in his pocket as never before as he paid massive transfer fees for unproven players such as Steve Daley and Michael Robinson. After City suffered FA Cup humiliation at the hands of Halifax, then struggled in the League, the joke was that Allison would become the first man to spend a million on a corner flag.

His stock was low, but sunk lower after failing to register a victory in the first dozen games of 1980-81. Inevitably, he was sacked. There followed a second sojourn with Crystal Palace, lasting 55 days, before he took his coaching skills to Sporting Lisbon, winning for them the league and cup double before being dismissed for alleged indiscipline.

Cash-strapped Middlesbrough lured Allison back to the Football League in 1982, but he was oustedyet again for refusing to sell his best players. The remainder of the decade saw him occupy six further posts before accepting his last position, that of Bristol Rovers' caretaker manager in 1992.

Though he had hit hard times financially, and was unable to afford his former luxurious trappings – the local newspaper bought him a new fedora, always his trademark headgear – the old charisma was undimmed. Still he preached the gospel of skilful football, still young men were entranced by his opinions, but the Rovers job proved too hard for the twice-married 65-year-old, who had a two-year-old daughter by his current partner, and he couldn't prevent relegation.

After that – and before a destructive decline in his health whichconfined him to a nursing home for many years – one of the most colourful and expansive characters in football history lent himself to a touring chat show with Tommy Docherty, a rather sad footnote to a brave, if bumpy career. Had he been content to stick to what he did best – coaching rather than management – there was no limit to what he might have achieved. Even as it was, Malcolm Allison brought far more light than darkness to the English game.

Malcolm Alexander Allison, footballer and football manager; born Dartford, Kent 5 September 1927; played for Charlton Athletic 1944-51, West Ham United 1951-58, Romford (non-League) 1960-62; manager, Bath City (non-League) 1963-64, Plymouth Argyle 1964-65, Manchester City (coach and assistant manager 1965-71, manager 1971-73), Crystal Palace 1973-76, Galatasaray of Turkey (coach) 1976-78, Memphis (coach) 1977-78, Plymouth Argyle 1978-79, Manchester City 1979-80, Crystal Palace 1980-81, Sporting Lisbon 1981-82, Middlesbrough 1982-84, Willington (non-League) 1984; Kuwait (national coach) 1986, Vitoria Setubal of Portugal 1988, Farense of Portugal 1989, Fisher Athletic 1989, Bristol Rovers (caretaker) 1992-93; married firstly Beth (marriage dissolved; four children), secondly Sally-Ann Highley (marriage dissolved; one daughter); thirdly Lynn Salton (one daughter); died 15 October 2010.

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