Friday, October 15, 2010

THE GREAT CHALKBOARD IN THE SKY



To pay homage to Malcolm Allison, who was shown the red card by God today, would need a far better pen than mine, but I am not going to let that prevent me from offering one or two thoughts about the Greatest Manchester City manager ever.

Big Mal: doing what he did best

My early years following City brought a degree of confusion in my seven year old mind that would serve me well for the ensuing 35 years and Big Mal was at the very heart of this.

I came to City - or vice versa - at just the wrong moment for anyone looking for a quiet life. I missed the glory period of 67 -70 by two to three years. By the time City had made itself comfortable in my unknowing lap, the glory days had dissolved, acrimony and discontent were moving in and an audible all-pervasive rumbling could be heard in the distance.

This was the house falling down.

By the time I had steadied myself, bought the tracksuit and stuck up the Tony Towers posters on my bedroom wall, City were managed by Ron Saunders, a monosyllabic man with a charisma bypass, who must have believed smiling was a frivolous gesture best left to nuns and grave diggers. It is always a bit of a let-down when the Habsburgs move out. You are left with the distinct feeling that the Lipizaners won't move with quite the same step and the empire might end up looking a little decrepit.

So it was with my City post-Allison. In 1979, however, as if God had willed it himself, the neighbour's Daily Mail told me the news that made my day: Big Mal Was Back!

Day One of Phase Two

This is very definitely it, I thought to myself with the pinch of triumphalism that a boy of 13 sometimes allows himself. City would be back among the big men in no time at all. Little did I know I was starting a career of self delusion that still warms me in bed at night in the year 2010. My colleagues on the Kippax obviously shared these grandiose thoughts, as a great thundering mass of blue scarved supporters crossed the Pennines for Big Mal's first game back, at Elland Road against the old foes of Leeds United. City showed no signs of a sudden improvement and were thankful to Brian Kidd's 30 yard thunderbolt, which saved a point. Here already was the first pointer to what Big Mal would mean to me: although the prolific Kidd had scored the late equaliser, he had been operating as a centre-half during the game, a position i had never seen him play. Allison's penchant for tinkering would land him in much greater trouble in no time at all.

Big Mal takes the press plaudits on his first day back at work

It was precisely this tinkering that would land him in trouble during this ill-fated second spell in charge at Maine Road, but if we travel back a little, we can see clear and frequent evidence that "tinkering" in his earlier days actually meant "innovation" with a capital "i". Allison, bred in the school of excellence at west ham with John Bond and Noel Cantwell, was a tactical masterchef. What Arsene Wenger gains applause for in the modern game (dragging Ian Wright and Alan Smith off the fish and chips, suggesting Paul Merson and Nigel Winterburn might like to swap a glass of red for the eleven glasses of amber, balancing diet and muscle preparation, implementing alternative therapy) Allison was doing 30 years ago. Dance instructors, aerobics, diet, yoga, you name it. Added to this willingness to experiment in areas deemed "pansy" by 70s England, Allison was light years ahead when preparing tactics. As Mike Summerbee said on hearing of his demise "We'll not see his like in football again."


Ahead: he was even wearing the tops 40 years before Mancini


It is almost impossible to understate the worth of this man to the development and linking of coaching finesse, acceptance and modification of continental European strategies, diet and well-being of athletes to the domestic English game.Whilst most coaches were wearing trilbies and cooking omelettes, Allison strode the touchline in a fedora and sheepskin coat with a recipe book from La Gavroche. The Havanas and the omnipresent after match bottle of Veuve Cliquot only served to make him more sexy. When he was then pictured in a bubble bath with a perkily naked Fiona Richmond, it was confirmed: Malcolm Allison was the man, who would teach me all of life's lessons:

  • Never stand on your laurels
  • Expect and embrace the unexpected
  • If you're good enough you're old enough
  • Say what you think even when honesty hurts
  • Shoot for the sun and you might hit the stars
  • Never put a cork back in a bottle
  • If the hat fits (even if it's a funny one)....
  • Never be shy to embrace fragrant women

"I don't know what you're laughing at, you're playing left back tomorrow..."


Allison brought entertainment, success and swashbuckling football to a Maine Road creaking and cracking, to a City bankrupt of ideas and bereft of hope. The club was haemorrhaging support by the week, a paltry 8,000 watching the Swindon game (the famous I was There match for 45,000 40-somethings who have followed City through thin and wafer thin). By the time Allison teamed up with Joe Mercer, the black curtains were about to be drawn. Within months colour flooded back into the lifeless body and the sky blue half of the city awoke to a period of laughter and unbridled triumph. Allison brought in a new away kit: the iconic red & black of Milan, he ushered in an era dripping with silverwear, a dare and do mentality. City's golden age is owed entirely to Allison and mercer. Genial Joe, the organiser, prompter, cajoler, smoother of wrinkles. Big Mal, the womaniser, the troubleshooter, the maverick poet, the lyricist, the creator.

It is said that neither would have found success without the other. Certainly neither came close to it on this scale. League Cup, Charity Shield, Cup Winners' Cup, Fa Cup and the League Championship, won breathtakingly 4-3 at a packed St James Park with an estimated 18,000 Mancunians willing the Blues on. Only a Malcolm Allison side would have dared win it that way. Forever on the edge, confident, cocky, teasing us all.

So, when he came back to do it all again, few of us had reservations. But sadly it was a disaster. Soon after returning, during his first full season back in charge, City sank in the clogging mud at the Shay, dumped on their expensive backsides by Halifax Town, a team shorn of its stars, replaced by expensive "experimental" misfits. This was typical Allison, pushing the boundaries to see what would happen, what could be achieved with a Michael Robinson instead of a Brian Kidd, a Barry Silkman instead of an Asa Hartford and a 16 year old Tommy Caton at the back instead of good old dependable Dave Watson, sold for peanuts to Werder Bremen..

A promising start with the youngsters  


The Halifax defeat weighed heavily on the players and on Big Mal. Coupled to an equally lame collapse on ice rink at Shrewsbury the season before, it made people stop and think. Questions were being asked about the big man's judgment, both in coming back at all and in his transfer dealings. Hartford, Watson, Barnes, Owen had all been shipped out rapidly and replaced by the likes of Robinson, Shinton, Daley and Reeves. The transfer balance was negative whichever way you looked at it, performance or finance. Even the rookies had a slightly comical whiff: Paul Sugrue from Nuneaton, Dave Wiffill, the fluffy haired Barry Silkman and Stuart Lee from Stockport. This time Mal's gambles were not coming off. In a Granada documentary titled simply "City!", the tv execs got lucky. Trailing all and sundry for a warts an' all look at big time football, they suddenly found themselves filming the unravelling of Allison's second coming and it made uncomfortable viewing. It still does, some 30 years on. Slightly more warts than we could handle.

Big Mal enjoys the spotlight at Sporting

Allison, dismissed, showed up briefly in Middlesbrough and Lisbon, for a season, where he won the double with Sporting and is still revered as the "Mister" who brought a new swagger to the green and white hoops, bringing them to England in the UEFA Cup where they swatted Southampton 4-2 at the Dell. It was Sporting's first triumph on English soil. But the star was waning, the halo beginning to slip. He was sent packing from Lisbon after some "excesses" displeased the president João Rocha, no doubt linked to wine and women rather than any failed team formation. Big Mal's time had come and gone, the swanky tv appearances dried up, as did the job offers and he seemed to physically shrink in later years, a sad and stumbling replica of that grand, tanned lothario of the 70s. His last years, in a bedsit in Middlesbrough, were not a satisfactory reflection of a full and exuberant life.


So farewell it is, Big Mal. You always managed to mix the super sophisticated with the naive and perhaps that's why we loved you so much. Whether it was in the stands at Stamford Bridge before Palace's never-to-be-forgotten 6th round FA cup tie, swathed in cigar smoke, or striding pre-match towards the bubbling Stretford End holding up 4 fingers to show the locals how many City would score, you were always full value. I leave the final thought to my first taxi driver in Lisbon, when I arrived here 10 years ago, who - on hearing that I was a Manchester City supporter - turned round to look at me whilst negotiating the Rotunda de Horlogio (the most hair raising roundabout in town) like all good Lisboetas do, and said to me "Ah, Malcolm Allison, he was a real Mister, a real Mister!"

3 comments:

  1. Can you give us more of what they say about him in Portugal (he was at V Setubal as well), any stories? Good piece anyway.

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  2. Good piece, but I'd still rather have had him than John bloody Bond.

    As a City fan, a bit older than you, I was lucky enough to live through and see Mal's successful City team of the late '60s/early '90s I feel a bit of me has died with Mal's passing.

    As for his only lasting a season at Sporting, despite the double, I think I can shed some light here.

    When I was in Lisbon in 1995 I met a Sporting fan who spoke good English in a bar. Learning I was a City fan he, of course, immediately started talking about Mal.

    He said that the Sporting fans loved him and were expecting him to stay after such success. A new and improved contract was drawn up to give to Mal.

    But when it came to signing it Sporting's President (your João Rocha presumably) walked into the room carrying the contract and a bottle of whisky. Mal had been getting through over a bottle of whisky a day at Sporting and the Prez didn't like it.

    "You can have one but not the other" said the Prez pushing forward the contract and the whisky. Mal just got up and walked out.

    That's what I was told, I don't know if it is true or not.

    But I have no doubt Mal's later years, like that other football managerial giant Brian Clough, were blighted by the curse of alcoholism.

    But to me he'll alway be the laughing outrageous giant that transformed a club from its (then) lowest point to heights we could only dream of.

    RIP Mal.

    Harpurhey Harry

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  3. I have had the above-mentioned clash with Joao Rocha confirmed. Mal's life in Portugal was rich and varied, as one would expect. he would appear to have added whisky to champagne as a favourite drink whilst down here. Am currently digging for a follow-up story with the Portuguese angle (Setubal and Farense also benefitted from his wily presence.

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Victim of great Winona Ryder trouser theft; bitter, confused and maladjusted. Watching City since 1974 with fluctuating amounts of disbelief.

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