Underneath the hat, behind the over-sized fur coat and at the other end of the cigar, there was a fine football brain. Malcolm Allison, who has died at the age of eighty-three, could have been a great manager, one of the very best, but he will arguably be best remembered for the time that he spent as an assistant manager – a supreme irony for a man that revelled in the limelight. His passing, however, is a sad loss – another link severed between the modern day and the world that we used to know. In some ways, he managed to personify the three decades during which his career blossomed – the radical new kid on the block in the sixties, he became a picture of excess during the seventies and was also there during the game’s decline during the early eighties.
Allison was one of the new guard when he took the assistant manager’s job at Manchester City. His playing career at West Ham United had been but short after tuberculosis meant that he had to have a lung removed, but after spells at Bath City and Plymouth Argyle and some time in Canada with Toronto City, the City job, which he took in 1965, saw him paired up with Joe Mercer and three years later they pipped Manchester United on the last day of the season to win the First Division championship. Although his confident prediction that they would be the European champions came badly unstuck in the first round of the following year’s European Cup against Fenerbahce, they still won the FA Cup in 1969 and both the European Cup Winners Cup and League Cup the following year.
The relationship between Allison and Mercer crumbled after this, though. Allison reportedly turned down the Juventus job on the understanding that Mercer would quit the Manchester City job, but he didn’t and the ensuing power struggle was won by Allison. Mercer left to go to Coventry City during the summer of 1972, but in sole charge of the club Manchester City struggled and Allison only lasted a few months as their manager. Immediately picked up by Crystal Palace, his downward spiral continued and Palace were relegated twice in succession. The directors of the club, however, kept faith with him. He changed their colours from claret and clue to the distinctive white kit with a red and blue sash. Out went the nickname of “The Glaziers”, and in came “The Eagles” instead.
By this time, however, the transformation into a caricature, Big Mal, had begun. He had taken on celebrity status on the ITV panel of experts at the 1970 World Cup, and the drinking and partying grew with his move to London. In possibly the most infamous moment of his career, he was photographed in the team bath at Palace’s training ground with the soft porn star Fiona Richmond as the team ran a dual campaign towards the FA Cup final (which ended in a semi-final defeat at the hands of Southampton) and promotion to the Second Division, and when they failed to manage either, he resigned from this job as well. It was during this FA Cup run, though, that the popular image of Allison, with the “lucky” fedora hat and cigar fully seeped into the public consciousness.
He would later return to both City and Palace – both times unsuccessfully – and, although there would be occasional highlights (one season in Portugal with Sporting during the 1981/82 season led to what turned out to be their last title win for almost two decades) and the end of his last significant spell in English football management, during a period of heading towards a financial black hole at Middlesbrough, ended when he stated that it would be, “Better for the club to die than to linger slowly on its deathbed”. A few years abroad and one during the early 1990s desultory season at Bristol Rovers followed, and that was the end of his career.
If we spin back to his playing career and the start of his managerial career, however, it is clear that his potential for greatness was no mirage. Allison’s time at West Ham United during the 1950s saw him mixing with some of the great football minds of the 1960s and 1970s, and his 1968 book, “Soccer For Thinkers”, advocated increased fitness levels, radical training methods and tactical fluidity on the pitch. Much of this may seem obvious to our modern eyes, but in 1968 football was still within touching distance of a generation that believed smoking woodbines to be beneficial to the health. In the end, however, Big Mal won the day over Malcolm Allison, and a fine football brain never seemed to reach the fullest of its potential.
For all of the failed ambition, however, and all of the personal financial ruin and crisis that would end up engulfing him, there was something admirably unapologetic about Malcolm Allison. We may never fully know the extent to which he was the power behind the throne at Maine Road during the late 1960s, but he was certainly present and correct during a period of success that the club’s current owners would give anything for and, although he left Crystal Palace having failed to get them back towards the position that they were in when he joined the club, the bedrock that he had built at Selhurst Park was evident in the fact that Palace were back in the First Division three years after his resignation from the club. A product of his times in more ways than one, we will almost certainly never see his like again.