Friday, 15 October 2010

A fine line: the City career of Malcolm Allison

Former City coach and manager Malcolm Allison has sadly passed away. If there is a fine line between madness and genius, Allison certainly crossed it during his involvement with the Blues. But far from casting a shadow on his City career, I think this paradox will only serve to reinforce his status at the club. The man will always go down as a City legend.

The genius

During the club’s most successful period during the late 1960s to early 1970s. Allison played a pivotal role. Brought to the club as the first team coach by manager Joe Mercer - the manager for the majority of these glory years – Allison soon proved to be the perfect foil to Mercer’s figurehead, the Y to Mercer’s X. Theirs was a symbiotic relationship, formidable when they worked together, but fallible when they were at odds.

Together, the duo took City to heights of which the club has never experienced either before or since. Clinching promotion to the First Division in 1966, winning the First Division in 1968, the FA Cup in 1969, and then the League Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1970. From the Second Division to European glory in five years was the stuff of dreams. This couldn’t have been achieved without Allison.

Key to this success was Allison’s relationship with the players and his motivational techniques, creating a fantastic team spirit that allowed players to believe in themselves. This ability to get into the heads of players was complemented by his visionary training methods. In the words of another City legend of this era, Mike Summerbee, Allison was “the forerunner of fitness and tactics way beyond his time.” Indeed, according to another City great, the Allison approach appeared to border on the scientific, through studying the physiology of the squad.

And whilst on the subject of former City player greats, we should acknowledge Allison’s role in bringing a fair few to the club. ‘Big Mal’, as he came to be known, was vital to securing the services of Colin Bell, Francis Lee, and Tony Book – names that are now etched into the very soul of the Club forever, as is his own.

The madness

In his fictional account of the Mercer-Allison relationship, 'The Worst of Friends', Colin Shindler indicates that these men let greatness slip through their fingers. He could well be right. Everything seemed in place: the right managerial set up, the right tactics, the right team spirit, the right players who were beginning to win things. All that was left was the objective of sustained success.

But in the end this did not materialise, and it is not exactly clear why. The club of course will say that the Allison-Mercer relationship remained strong through their tenure, but I fear the reality was different. The prolific City Author Gary James has indicated that relations became strained when both men supported different sides during the club's early 1970s takeover battle. Allison supported the winning side and eventually became manager whilst Mercer was gradually forced out of the club. For Shindler, Allison’s ambition to step out of his manager’s shadow, and Mercer’s refusal to let go of the controls, was the root of the problem. The truth is probably a combination of both scenarios.

The result soon became clear. With Allison at the helm, City missed out on the League title by a point and won the Charity Shield the following season, but never again did they hit the heights of the late 1960s and Allison resigned in 1973. A fine line between success and failure indeed.

But ‘Big Mal’ was reinstalled at Maine Road in 1979 with the dubious title of ‘coaching overlord’. It was during this period that the madness of Allison really set in. In his book ‘Lows, Highs and Balti Pies: Manchester City Ruined my Diet’, Steve Mingle captures the eccentricities of Allison’s second spell in charge. Perhaps guilty of believing too much in his own judgement and ability, Allison set about dismantling what was potentially another City side capable of great success. The likes of Asa Hartford, Gary Owen (then England under 21 captain), flying winger Peter Barnes, and probably the best defender ever to grace Maine Road in a Blue shirt – Dave Watson, were all jettisoned. In their places came players of inferior quality, demonstrated most clearly with the now infamous £1.5m signing of Steve Daley. This was a horrendous gaffe - and an expensive one at that. Ten years earlier Allison had left a heroic legacy at the club, but his actions during this period threatened to undermine all his previous efforts – as Gary James quite rightly points out, these expensive replacements dogged City’s finances for the next decade.

With his judgement way off target, Allison’s once legendary motivational methods now seemed to border on the absurd. There’s a great example in Gary James’ recent ‘The Big Book of City’. In 1979, City had reached the fourth round of the UEFA Cup against Borussia Monchengladbach. In the previous round the Blues had dispatched AC Milan. Since that victory Allison had been installed and City went on to lose 4-2 to the Germans. Kenny Clements was a player on the sidelines at the time. He attributes the Blues' exit to the return of Allison, indicating that ‘Big Mal’ ruined everything during his second spell:

“I think he’d become too hung up on new ideas that he forgot about the basics. I remember he used to give us homework. He’d tell us to go home and write ‘I must win’ or ‘I will win’ a thousand times, then the next day he’d ask us if we’d done it. I always used to say ‘yeah’ but some of the younger, more impressionable lads would produce their lists and some would even write out twice as many lines! He insisted we drank coffee before a game to keep us alert, and brought in lots of motivational people. It didn’t motivate me I’m afraid!”

The legend

Clearly the motivational methods went a bit too far, but in the end this just adds to the Malcolm Allison aura. We must not forget of course that Allison went on to manage around the world and delivered real success in Portugal with Sporting Lisbon by winning a league and cup double in 1982.

But somehow I feel Allison’s heart will always be at City. Of course he was flawed. Of course he eccentric, over-confident and greedy. He wanted the plaudits of the Mercer years all for himself. But City fans will allow these excesses because they recognise that he was a foundation to the Club's glory years. Hopefully, we are going back to that place soon.

As Gary James shows, perhaps Blues will also allow Big Mal his shortcomings because he understood what it meant to be a City fan, and what it meant to beat United:

“In December 1970 he walked up to the Stretford End prior to a League derby match and held up four fingers to indicate how many goals he expected City to score against the Reds. Understandably, the United fans hurled abuse at him, but by the end of the match the confident Allison was laughing as City won 4-1.”

I can’t find a more fitting tribute to Malcolm Allison than that.



I’ve relied on some fantastic City authors to write this article. I’d highly recommend all of the books below, each of which provide a unique angle on the Club.

Gary James, Manchester City: the complete record (2006)

Gary James, The Big Book of City (2009)

Steve Mingle, Lows, Highs and Balti Pies: Manchester City ruined my diet (2008)

Colin Shindler, The Worst of Friends: the betrayal of Joe Mercer (2010)

1 comment:

  1. The bloke was class, loads of style, arrogance and a good coach