On 14 October 2010, Malcolm Alexander Allison shuffled off his mortal coil and put in a transfer request to the great coaching school in the sky. In the myriad of subsequent obituaries written were the compulsory epitaphs and descriptions of ‘football visionary’, ‘ahead of his time’, ‘a character’ and, inevitably, copious mentions of fedoras, champagne and cigars.
However, there was much more to Malcolm Allison than was initially apparent in the brash public persona he seemed to delight first in cultivating and then in displaying.
Born in Dartford in 1927, Allison joined Charlton Athletic just after the war but made just a handful of appearances before signing for West Ham in 1951. Allison let the management team at Charlton know in no uncertain terms that he was not impressed with the training or coaching on offer at the Valley and so the move across London was to everybody’s benefit.
At Upton Park Allison played his entire career under the semi-legendary Ted Fenton in the Second Division. Fenton had been a player at West Ham for 12 years and would manage the side for a further 11. During this time, he was largely responsible for developing the ‘Academy of Football’ and ‘the West Ham Way’ of playing. Allison was a willing and eager pupil and as well as playing he took on the development of some of West Ham’s younger players.
A certain young blond-haired centre-half was all too keen to partake of Allison’s tutelage and in later years would seldom be slow in recognising the effect and influence Malcolm had had on him. Never was this influence more keenly seen than on July 30, 1966, when as captain of England that young man lifted the World Cup at Wembley.
In 1957, Allison tragically contracted tuberculosis. This was a terrible blow which resulted in him partially losing a lung. Despite this rather consequential handicap, Allison refused to give up playing entirely and he battled back to play once again for West Ham’s reserve team, and then later at senior non-league level with Romford.
Forced to retire from professional football, Allison looked for alternative employment. He tried his hand at being, variously, a second-hand car salesman, a professional gambler, and a nightclub owner before returning to his first, and only, love of football.
Starting out as coach of the Cambridge University side, Allison soon moved onto non-league Bath City, where he first encountered Tony Book, who was playing for the Somerset club.
In his one full season at Bath, Allison took the club to third place in the Southern League and the third round of the FA Cup. Only a late Bolton equaliser prevented Bath from putting the then-First Division side out of the cup and causing a major upset.
After spending the summer of 1964 coaching in Canada at Toronto City (with Tony Book by his side), Allison returned to England and was offered the management of Plymouth Argyle.
Once safely with his feet under the desk at Home Park, Allison returned to Bath to sign Tony Book again. Legend has it that he knew the Plymouth board would not wish to pay a transfer fee for an ageing player (Book was 29) without league experience, and so he instructed Book to alter his birth certificate to appear two years younger.
Meanwhile, Joe Mercer was installed as Manchester City manager in 1965 having enjoyed a long stellar playing and management career. As a player, Mercer’s career had been interrupted by the war but he had won the league title with both Everton and Arsenal, as well as appearing five times for England. After managing Sheffield United for three seasons in the mid-1950s, Mercer moved on to Aston Villa where he built an exciting young team.
Ill-health led Mercer to take a sabbatical from Villa Park, and upon his recovery and return to work, he was summarily sacked within a very short period. Undeterred, Manchester City offered him a way back into football in 1965.
Due to lingering worries concerning Mercer’s long-term health, he was advised by the City board to appoint a younger man as his assistant and coach while he concentrated on management. Joe Mercer knew Malcolm Allison well through attending coaching courses together, and although Allison was at that time still managing in lower league football at Plymouth, Mercer had no hesitation in offering him the position.
So, it came to pass that Manchester City’s most successful managerial duo was formed. That the Mercer-Allison axis was to serve the Maine Road faithful so successfully over the next few years should have come as no great surprise to anybody who had studied the two men’s relative talents and skillsets.
Although they shared a great many characteristics and principles, most notably with regards the ‘pass and move’ style of football they initiated at City, they were also sufficiently different enough to complement each other.
Mercer was a ‘people’s person’ in as much that he was approachable, while Allison was, if not exactly confrontational, certainly more direct. Mercer could build and shape a side, while Allison could spot a player and then coach him.
Their double act was therefore similar in some ways to the Clough – Taylor partnership that was to produce so much success at first Derby and then Nottingham Forest a few years later.
Getting Manchester City promoted was their first task, and this they duly achieved at the first time of asking as City finished champions of the Second Division in 1966, five points clear of runners-up, Burnley.
If 1966-67 was a season of consolidation, with City finishing 15th in a 22-team top flight, 1967-68 was anything but. With local rivals, Manchester United, taking the title in 1967 for the second time in three seasons and thus earning themselves and Matt Busby another shot at the coveted European Cup, the pressure was on Mercer and Allison to deliver and to challenge for local as well as national superiority.
Nevertheless, Manchester City were not expected to push United quite so hard for the title in 1967-68 and yet they were finally able to prevail in a thrilling race that went right to the wire. Results on the last day of the season went City’s way and they took the crown by two points.
Although the title wasn’t defended in 1969, and City also made no real progress in the European Cup, the FA Cup was captured courtesy of a single goal victory over relegated Leicester City at Wembley. More success followed in 1970 with the capture of both the League Cup and the European Cup Winners’ Cup.
It was truly a heady time for Manchester City and their followers and the team of Mercer and Allison could seemingly do no wrong.
And yet all was not rosy in the garden.
Allison had taken on the role of assistant to Mercer on the understanding that he would serve an apprenticeship under the great man before taking over himself. Indeed, he had turned down several offers to move elsewhere, most notably from Juventus, but Mercer seemed to be in no hurry to step aside.
In fact, Joe Mercer was undergoing a change of mind. Although he conceded he wasn’t getting any younger, the success City had enjoyed had revitalised him and he felt in fine enough fettle to be able to carry on for a while yet. Although totally convinced of Allison’s coaching skills, Mercer was also harbouring some doubts regarding his man-management abilities and so saw no pressing reason to change the status quo.
Matters came to a head when two men, Albert Alexander and Peter Swales, went into battle for ownership and control of the club. Mercer backed Alexander, while Allison threw his weight behind Swales’ bid. When Swales eventually prevailed, it spelt the end for Mercer and Allison finally got his chance in the hot seat.
Unfortunately, things didn’t really work out for Allison in sole charge, as Manchester City blew a great chance to take the title in 1972.
With the side looking comfortable and clear at the top going into the New Year, Malcolm Allison decided to bolster his attack by signing Rodney Marsh from QPR. At a stroke, the balance of the side was altered and City’s form collapsed with the side eventually finishing fourth.
Allison and City never really recovered from the disappointment of not winning the league that season, and in March 1973 Allison resigned.
If his time at Manchester City is remembered for swashbuckling football and hordes of trophies, his next port of call stirs up a whole different set of memories.
Rolling into Selhurst Park as manager of Crystal Palace almost immediately upon leaving Maine Road, Allison found a club in disarray. Deep in relegation trouble, Palace made a desperate punt in appointing Allison in the hope that the dreaded drop could be avoided. It was to no avail, however, and Palace were relegated in 21st place with only 30 points from 42 matches.
Given a whole season in charge, Allison promised to take Palace out of the Second Division. Good to his word, the season’s climax did indeed see Palace moving on again. Unfortunately for those involved with the Selhurst Park club, it was into the Third Division they were heading as a second successive relegation was confirmed.
It was a different era back then, of course, but the thought of a manager – any manager – keeping his job after two successive relegations seems almost quaint nowadays. Such was the aura that Allison seemed to exude at times that his days in charge of Palace are even now viewed through rose-tinted spectacles and his time there is seen as an almost unqualified success when in reality it really was nothing of the sort.
1974-75 saw Palace and Allison finish in fifth place in the table, thus missing out on promotion and condemning the club to at least one more season in the third tier of English football.
Now, finally, the natives were getting restless and Allison was given one more season in which to secure promotion.
The 1975-76 season has gone down as one of the most talked-about and best remembered in the history of Crystal Palace. Early season form was good and by the turn of the year promotion was looking, if not assured, then at least very much on the cards.
Then fate took a hand in the form of the FA Cup. A scrambled 1-0 victory over non-league Walton and Hersham in the first round gave no clue as to the drama that lay ahead. A feisty London derby with Millwall in the second round was settled by the odd goal in three after a replay and that meant a third-round date and a possible showdown with one of ‘the big boys’.
Instead, Palace were drawn away to non-league opposition once again, this time in the form of Scarborough. There was nothing particularly memorable about Palace’s 2-1 victory save for the fact that the away side’s manager decided to turn up for the game wearing a fedora and smoking a cigar!
The reasoning behind wearing the fedora was supposedly because the sun was streaming in over the small Scarborough stand and straight into Allison’s eyes on the touchline. Allison, therefore, contended that he had worn the thing merely as a matter of expediency. The reason for the cigar was left unexplained.
Anyway, with victory secured Allison declared his unconventional headwear to be ‘lucky’ and he insisted on wearing it for the rest of Palace’s cup run that year.
In the fourth round, Palace met the mighty Leeds United at Elland Road. Although not quite the side of old, Jimmy Armfield’s men were expected to have too much in the locker for Third Division Palace. The fact that Palace prevailed by the only goal of the game was down at least in part to Allison’s sweeper system which successfully nullified the Leeds attack.
The fifth round saw Palace drawn away again, this time to Second Division Chelsea. Another game that has passed into folklore was watched by 54, 407 on a chilly February afternoon in 1976.
They saw a cracker. Allison again decided to wear his fedora, and he again deployed a sweeper system. So confident was Allison of success that before the game he took the time and trouble to walk around the Stamford Bridge pitch holding up three fingers to the home crowd – the number of goals he was sure his side would score.
He was not wrong. Palace progressed to the quarter-finals by a 3-2 scoreline with future Palace manager Peter Taylor turning in a five-star performance.
The quarter-final draw was made, and once again Palace were drawn away from home against higher-level opposition. This time it was the long trip to Roker Park, Sunderland, that Palace and their supporters made to witness another single goal victory.
The improbable was now becoming almost possible, and the semi-final draw was kind enough to keep Palace away from both Manchester United and Derby. Instead, a return to Stamford Bridge to play Second Division Southampton was necessitated.
Allison was in no doubt that it would be he and not his Southampton counterpart, Lawrie McMenemy, who would be leading a side out at Wembley on May Day 1976, but this time it was not to be.
Southampton and Palace went toe-to-toe for most of what turned out to be a pretty dull affair before two goals in the last quarter of an hour saw the Saints through to Wembley.
The cup run took a lot out of Palace and Allison, and after leading the way for so long in the Third Division, their form dropped off and once again no higher than fifth was achieved in the final league standings.
By now Allison had become very much a larger than life figure. He was known for his quotes and appearances on TV as much as for his undoubted footballing knowledge and acumen, and the headlines on the front pages were beginning to claim as much prominence as those on the back.
During his time, Allison was alleged to have had a relationship with Christine Keeler, who was famously involved in the Profumo scandal of the ‘sixties, the singer Dorothy Squires, and at least two Miss UKs.
In 1976, at the height of his publicity at Crystal Palace, he was famously photographed in the team bath with the porn actress Fiona Richmond. This resulted in an FA charge of ‘bringing the game into disrepute’ and also did not go down well in the Crystal Palace boardroom.
Thus in May 1976, Allison left Crystal Palace under a cloud and started a nomadic life in football management.
Over the next two decades, Allison turned up managing in such diverse places as Kuwait, Middlesbrough, Yeovil, Libson, Turkey, Willington, Bristol and Fisher.
He also returned for unsuccessful spells at each of Plymouth, Manchester City and Crystal Palace, but was unable to recreate the magic at any of them.
Malcolm Allison died at the age of 83 having left a lasting mark on the English game.