Thursday, March 24, 2011

BIG MAL - THE ORIGINAL SPECIAL ONE

"It was a great thing that he has been in our lives." So said Colin Bell about the legendary Malcolm Allison, who's career and unorthodox approach to life has been dissected with the precision of a surgeon's knife over the last six months or so.

The Glory years of Mal's Maine Road tenure are well trodden, the Gory years that followed equally familiar to one and all, but the sometimes bleak sometimes vivacious end to his coaching career represented by the three jobs he held in Portugal make a fascinating postscript to an undulating story.

Stop any Sporting follower of a certain vintage with the refrain "Big Mal" and they will regale you of his exploits with their team in season 81-82, when the green and whites carried off a double of cup and league playing barnstorming, technically daring football that swept all before it. They speak of "um verdadeiro Mister" (a real football manager), of the larger than life character that England came to love or hate, but also of a man of subtlety and intuition, of candour and tenderness.

Mal walked into a set-up at Sporting that was well prepared for success. Aside from Antonio Oliveira, a national team regular and the Hungarian national keeper Meszaros, Melo, Venâncio, Nogueira, Virgílio and Alberto all arrived that summer. They were added to an already strong squad. Eurico, the defensive lynchpin was impressed by Allison's early excursions into creating a winning group. "He gave us responsibility. All players had the right to a glass of red wine with our lunch. I can well remember the immaculately dressed serving staff putting bottle of wine on our tables at meal times. In one of our first meals together at the beginning of malcolm Allison's season with us, an employee served the wine and went to remove the bottles. Up went the shout from Mr Allison "leave those bottles where they are!" 

As in England, everyone he came into contact with and especially those lucky enough to have worked closely with him, have a favourite story of the big man. Manuel Fernandes was Mal's choice at centre forward in the all-conquering Sporting side of 1981. He remembers a trip to Paris at the end of the season for a wind-down friendly after a triumphant close to the football year. “We went to Paris to play PSV Eindhoven in a friendly, end of season stuff. We were champions and had just brought home the Taça de Portugal (Portuguese cup) as well. After a good long dinner, we returned to the hotel. It was already two in the morning, so I said to Mr Allison, "Boss, what time do we get up in the morning?" I will never forget his reply. He looked at me, smiling, and said “Today, nobody's going to sleep. We are going out on the town in Paris. We are champions and now our job is to celebrate and enjoy each other's company. We will come back at six!"

Priceless footage of a three sided Alvalade stadium, in the process of reconstruction, as Sporting put seven past Rio Ave in the last game of the season, with the title already won. Malcolm Allison is seen barking instructions from the bench as Jordao runs riot and in the changing rooms afterwards with his defrocked players. Confusingly, Sporting are wearing the white shirts. Only the socks give them away.


Mal's domestic success with Sporting had been tinged slightly with the disappointment of a failure to spark in European competition, a story that haunted him with City too. Having dismantled an excellent Southampton side containing the likes of Keegan, Channon and Alan Ball, Sporting slipped up against Neuchatel Xamax. Antonio Oliveira remembers the away leg on the south coast of England. “For this tie he decided to put me at right back. he said to our keeper, Meszaros, "When you have the ball, play it out to Oli down the right." Mal had seen a weakness in the Saints side and manoeuvred his best players into positions to attack that frailty. We won 4-2 at the Dell, Sporting's first ever away win on English soil.. What a night, what a tactician". Had Mal seen something in Nick Holmes to give him hope? It would not have been the first time that such a sentiment had been encouraged. Whatever the lead, Sporting mercilessly carried out the big man's orders, swift counter-attacking goals down the flank sinking the home side without trace. As the final whistle sounded, the British public were treated to one last proper Big Mal moment on national television. As rival boss McMenemy fled away down the cramped touchline, Big Mal could be seen ambling back to the dressing rooms surrounded by the adoring attention of the press photographers flashbulbs and microphones. It must have felt like a wonderful home-coming.

Goalkeeper Meszaros also has fond memories of Mal: "I owe him an awful lot. It was Mr Allison who brought me to Lisbon and afterwards to Setubal in 87-88. There was one detail which I will never ever forget. It came in a cup match at home to Boavista, which we were losing 2-1 at half-time. We, the players, were already in the dressing room. He just opened the door and said as calmly as you like, "If you want to win this match, give the ball to Mário Jorge.'' Then he shut the door again and hammered on it with his fists from the outside. We all looked at each other. In the 2nd half, Mário Jorge created the equaliser for Manuel Fernandes and was floored in the area for our penalty winner..."


Carlos Xavier was a youngster in the side: "Every time we played in Alvalade we were to be in the stadium at 10.30 and we would take "lunch" at this time too. Malcolm Allison told us that we could eat what we wanted, potatoes, eggs, meat, fish, pasta. You could choose. Until the match started, we would stay there inside the bowels of the stadium. By the time we left the changing rooms to go up to the pitch, we all had goosebumps. Everyone in the ground did, supporters, staff, players, because Mr Allison would go onto the pitch before us and walk a lap of the whole perimetre with his arms out, waving and gesticulating to the supporters with that amazing hat of his. He was like a show before the show, if you like. The supporters were whipped up into a state of near delirium by the time the match was due to start and we were too. We would hear live music playing, clearly hitting the notes of "o Comanchero".What a time that was. Malcolm's departure was the end of the golden period for that Sporting team."

The afore-mentioned Mario Jorge had seemed on his way out of Alvalade when Allison arrived, but the new coach managed to change things round for the wayward talent. "He liked to see the young players in action. he arranged an early training session and just wanted to see us pass, trap, receive and deliver the ball, simple stuff, nothing fancy. I remember being aware of how he was watching me pass and control the ball. After the session he asked me to stay at the club and he put his confidence in me. He kept his distance from the players, didn't say much but valued hard work and players he could rely on to perfom."

"O tipo do chapeu e de charuto" 


Despite his roaring success in the first year at Alvalade, Big Mal's job in Lisbon came to an abrupt end at the very beginning of the following season. He was fired by president João Rocha, another man who enjoyed the limelight. It was rumoured that Rocha could not stand the attention Mal was getting from the fans and, more importantly, the local and national media. The story was circulated that Mal had been drinking too much, a more than feasible excuse, as his high jinks and taste for alcohol and fast women had followed him into southern Europe, but there are those, who deny this to be the real reason for his somewhat precipitous departure. Oliveira again: “It was a deeply unjust process that was unleashed on Mr Allison. An agent was preparing the smooth arrival of Joszef Venglos and managed to invent a story that Allison had downed an impossible amount of alcohol." Although Malcolm's capacity to drink and carry on drinking had by this time transcended into legend, Oliveira doubts its veracity. Ironically, it was Oliveira that would be the immediate beneficiary of the new situation, substituting the departing Englishman in the capacity of player-manager whilst Venglos's contractual niceties were finalised. 

As stated elsewhere on the pages of this blog, an unconfirmed story tells of Joao Rocha calling Mal to a meeting in his office, where there is a bottle of whisky in the middle of his desk. Rocha throws down his new contract and says "It is one or the other, Malcolm, you cannot have both." To which Allison, in true Dartford gunslinger style, picks up the bottle and departs. Other stories have Mal misbehaving on a grand scale during a pre-season trip to Bulgaria, where the trusty combination of drink and girls seems to have been augmented by the appearance of the local police in Sporting's hotel. This appears to have been the straw that broke the camel's back for Rocha. he could no longer countenance Mal's playboy shenanigans and, despite the fact that he had produced a swashbuckling winning side the like of which green and white fans would not witness for another 18 years (when the club finally brought home another league title under Lazslo Boloni), it heralded the parting of the ways.

Sporting was Mal's last big success. Flops, failures and truncated stays followed at Middlebrough, Kuwait (what a choice) and Bristol Rovers where he finally brought the curtain down on a career flaming in headlines since the early 60s. According to António Oliveira: “Malcolm was a man who enjoyed life to the full and wanted to transmit the joy of working in the industry of football to all of us players and staff."

Mal's squad, by the end of his tenure at Sporting looked like this:
Big Mal with his squad at a packed Alvalade

Meszaros, Fidalgo, Virgílio, Barão, Eurico, Carlos Xavier, Bastos, Zezinho, Meneses, Inácio, Mário Jorge, Ademar, 
Marinho, Lito, Esmoriz, Nogueira, Freire, Manuel Fernandes, Oliveira and Jordão.

Still today considered one of Sporting's finest squads in the rich and textured past of this great institution. 

Mal still had time to alight from the Destruction Express at a football outpost called Setubal. Based in the dowdy but characterful fishing port south of Lisbon, the local side was down on its luck slumbering in the 2nd division when the new coach breezed in under a cloud of blue cigar smoke one morning. Then as now, Setubal was a run-down, ramshackle sort of place. You can smell the salt from the estuary, the fish from the quays and the ever-present churascos (barbecues) along the Avenida Luisa Todi. If the wind is in the wrong direction, an awful funk pervades from the paper pulping factories by the great ship building sinks. Nevertheless it is a beautiful setting, with a wide estuary giving out onto the Troia Peninsular on one side and the elegant bulk of the Arrabida coast on the other. This is like the Cote d'Azur without the jungle of concrete and buzz of Porsche cabriolets. It is truly a lost paradise, 40 kilometres south of the bustling hub of Lisbon and 2 or 3 from Setubal. Mal would have loved the beach restaurants serving fresh ameijoas a bulhao pato (clams in white win sauce), the icy Vinho Verde (Portuguese sparkling green wine) and the gentle sunny climate  Indeed, he holed up in a wonderful farmstead in the Arrabida hills, overlooking lush green valleys of fruit orchards on one side and the clear blue Atlantic on the other. It is an intoxicating place. He seems to have been taken by his life here almost immediately. The story goes that he was planning to lay down slightly more long term roots. He seems to have found some peace in this unassuming, slightly decrepit corner of south west Portugal.

He got back into coaching in a big way, the downtrodden Vitoria squad the obvious and immediate beneficiaries. Soon Mal had the rag-tag band of no-hopers on the way to promotion. It was around this time, mid 1987, that Vitoria's goalkeeping coach began to bring his son along to training sessions. His son was a Physical Education student in Lisbon and, even at that age, was keen to learn from interesting and innovative teachers. 

The slightly shabby fishing port of Setubal nestles 2kms behind the glorious Arrabida hills
Taking one look at Big Mal at work with the Vitoria squad, the young man was swiftly hooked. He became a permanent fixture at squad training. The goalkeeping coach was called Felix. Felix Mourinho. His son, Mal's last disciple, a self-confident young man who today carries more than a passing resemblance to the self-assured coach he watched so closely all those years ago. Next time you see José Mourinho strut onto centre stage, ask yourself who he reminds you of.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

FAREWELL ROMARK, HELLO GOOD FORTUNE

It is with a little sadness that I announce the end of Romark's FA Cup curse.

In case anyone forgets, Romark was a legend in his own crystal ball during the 70s. A man with just as much psychic ability, Malcolm Allison, had uncovered this mysterious Shayman (pun coming in 7 paragraphs) during his spell as head honcho at Crystal Palace in the mid-70s. Big Mal, hands more than full with champagne bottles and blondes from the Playboy Club, forgot to pay Romark's modest bill, however, and the soothsayer got the hump, revolving his eyes in different directions and placing a curse on Palace. On the eve of Palace's 1976 FA Cup semi-final against Southampton, Romark -evidently a man who enjoyed looking into the past as well as the future- contacted Lawrie McMenemy's secretary and arranged to meet up with the Southampton supremo. McMenemy could hardly refuse a man with such an obvious penchant for storing grievances. He is widely quoted thus:


"When he came in, his eyes immediately struck me. He had peripheral vision, both eyes staring in different directions. He surprised everyone by asking for two chairs to be placed in the centre of the room facing away from each other two yards apart, then got an apprentice to put his head on one and heels on the other. When he took the chairs away, the lad stayed suspended in mid air. I was even asked to sit on the lad's stomach and still he stayed suspended. George Horsfall, our reserve-team trainer, came in shortly afterwards and, after telling him what had happened, he did the trick all over again. He wouldn't tell us how it had been done, but George was born in India and it may well have had something to do with the old Indian rope trick."

Whether the apprentice was suspended by the golden filaments of Mordor or Romark had a set of bathroom mirrors stashed in his underpants, the trick worked a treat on Southampton, filling them with an "energy" that not only saw them past Allison's strangely unblinking Palace, but imbued enough turquoise light in the players to see off staunch favourites Manchester United in the Wembley final itself. I well remember as a schoolkid, watching Bobby Stokes stroke the winner. The pass through to him had arrived in his stride from Jimmy McCalliog, who, when afforded an intimate close-up after the goal, appeared to have a middle eye shining brightly on his forehead. In an instant, it was gone. It was that fast. I may have been the only one watching Cup Final Grandstand that day that actually saw it. My nurse says this is an entirely possible scenario.

Romark's work was not yet done, however. The curse, as these things often do, transferred itself to Allison himself, who went back to City in the late seventies with startling failure and abject embarrassment just a funny glance and an oddly pointed finger away. On the eve of the infamous FA Cup third-round tie at Fourth Division Halifax, to be played at The Shay (told you to look out for it) the Halifax manager George Kirby enlisted Romark's assistance once again. Not being a man to miss a pay check or an opportunity to get revenge on previous poor payers, Romark accepted and brought his mirrors and rope set north to West Yorkshire.

Halifax striker John Smith recalled an odd meeting two days before the tie:
"I'm sat there with this guy called Romark, and he was saying … 'you will go to sleep now, John Smith, and then you'll overcome the power of Manchester City. You will play the greatest game of your life, John Smith. When I count to three, you'll wake up again.' I was trying not to laugh and I'm thinking, what's all this about? What a load of nonsense."

Mal with yet another gypsy ref
Naturally enough, Smith would subsequently lay on the winner for Paul Hendrie in a 1-0 win for the home side, although "overcoming the power of Manchester City" was not confined to Halifax in those tumultuous days. Shrewsbury and a host of other less than fragrant opponents also found it within themselves to beat City, Romark or no Romark. Smith was flabbergasted. "All the headlines, though, were about that hypnotist," said Smith, "but we beat Manchester City through courage, hard work and belief.", said the Halifax man whilst hovering three metres above his sofa, drinking orange juice without a cup.

Romark later tried to prove his powers to the unforgiving public on Ilford High Street by driving blindfolded down the road. His intrepid journey reached a rather predictable (unless you couldn't see the future too clearly) end after approximately 20 yards when he drove miserably into the back of a police van.

"That van was parked in a place that logic told me it wouldn't be," he said afterwards, looking at the wretched vehicle, slotted hopelessly alongside the pavement, parallel with the curb, within the little yellow lines and with its hazard lights flashing for good measure.

It was too late to save Big Mal, however, who got the bullet from City shortly after. Unlike Mel Machin, Peter Swales may well have claimed at the time that Mal had too much "repartee" with just about everyone. This was the problem. After being imprisoned for embezzling his mother, Romark died of a stroke in 1982. Didn't see that one coming. Was this the end of the curse?

You only owed me tuppence, Mal

When City left Maine Road, it was felt that this was another moment of release, as unhelpful gypsies had been said to have buried an upside down horseshoe with a picture of Gary Neville's great grandfather Neville Neville Neville attached to it. Surely, the move to a new stadium would also bring an end to the Gypsy Curse laid so many eons ago?

Well, maybe, maybe not. What we do know is Manchester City have at last laid the ghost of the FA Cup semi final to rest. The fading images of Paul Power gleefully waggling his arms over his head as he set off for the Holte End fencing, already awash with amateur mountaineers and escape artists in blue scarves, can be put to one side. In the name of Romark and old man Neville, let us hope there is no dark stranger with a wall eye and a bag of spoons at the entrance to Wembley Way on the 16th April.  City, after all, are wholly capable of mucking things up without help or hindrance from a higher plane.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

KISSED BY ANGELS AND GETTING AWAY WITH IT

The approach to Wembley Way

She offered her face up tenderly to be kissed. I looked at her for a second pretending not to understand. Then, holding her in the hollow of my arms, I rubbed my cheek gently against hers, soft down and gently illuminated fluff. I looked down at her for a long, loving moment. "City at Wembley," she murmured breathlessly.

You have to hand it to Signor Mancini. A League Cup semi last season, FA cup semi this. If it sounds like relatively small beer to some, try following Manchester City for 36 years.

1981. Villa Park. Ipswich Town. In the days when FA Cup semi-finals were done properly. The draw was carried out when we knew who was in it, the venues were chosen when the draw had been carried out. Simple, old-fashioned, quite good. Bolton v Stoke? Old Trafford for you. Quite what they would have done with a Manchester Derby FA Cup semi I shudder to think. Then as now It would have been a logistical and police nightmare. They would have sent us all to Goodison probably, where we could not only batter seven colours of heaven out of each other, but be joined by our Scouse brethren for a knees-up to resemble the first days of the Somme.

In 2011 money talks. Sometimes with the dulcet lilt of a foreign accent, but always in a way that is clear enough to follow and devastatingly coquettish to those susceptible. So it came to pass that four teams from the North West of England were informed they must travel to London to play the semi finals of this prestigious tournament in the very same stadium as the final. There is so much wrong with this that one would need a toilet roll the length of the first Nile papyrus scrolls to successfully commit one's grievances to print. One would hope not to be caught short whilst in full flow. Every sheet counts after all, when you are communicating with the House of Herberts.




None of this politico-economic skullduggery should deflect from the fact that tonight, Manchester City sit firm in the semi-finals of the Cup. After an epic attempt to shoot ourselves in the foot, the gallant men of Berkshire were sent packing by the ample forehead of Micah Richards. Here is a young man, who -despite having the innate ability to go to sleep amongst a crowd of hyenas- fills his shoes and shorts with more energy than a small army of clockwork rabbits. Contrast this thrusting, explosive piece of human machinery with the somehow defunct, strangled Shaun Wright Philips. The stadium lights fall on a slight figure, hunched and troubled. After 70 minutes of blind alley running and clog-shoe accuracy, he has the good fortune to exit the green baize to a rapturous round of applause, presumably based almost entirely on our common memory of What Went Before. Anyone else playing like a small lame man with insomnia would not be treated so well.

As is usual with this club, the historical chance offered seemed almost to be too much for us all. A threadbare Reading side, reliably marshalled at the back, but with no huge thrust anywhere else, so nearly took us to what would have been the most unwanted replay ever. Not surprising that Signor Mancini should be in the hill of bodies to congratulate the scorer when the bell finally rang. This then is the City way. Hope springs eternal, but it also knocks you stone dead.

To those of us who have spent a third of a century watching the auto-collapse syndrome of a thousand and one aimless foot soldiers, the knocky-knees of Kenny Clements, the fly-away bouffant of Steve Kinsey, the hitched-up shorts of Mark Lillis, you will not begrudge us this moment of maximum joy. After all, we most certainly do not have long before the next abject humiliation hoves steadily into view.







Thursday, March 10, 2011

PERSPECTIVE


With the raucous Caucasus still fresh in the mind and in the ears, it might be worth taking a breath, counting to thirty-two and reading the following two snippets from a dusty old scrapbook. They hark back to a time of Van Blerk and Beesley, angst and strife. A time when things began to happen that no longer caused surprise amongst those cognoscenti, long since brought up on the dry cabaret of Slap & Tickle, Blood & Thunder. There was no Bernard Manning symbols clap, just hollow laughter and the sound of water flooding out through a tiny vortex of despair and calamity. 

So for those advocating an Aston Villa European capitulation next week, think again. For those decrying swollen feet and sore heads, battered egos and busted flushes, read on. We were not always party to such exalted company.




Here was a day when the world truly fell on our heads. The agitated chap in the centre circle tugging at his season ticket book, the terrace groans growing to a crescendo, Frank Clark sloping off to find his guitar...

There followed, a few short weeks later, this little number in West Yorkshire as we slid towards the 3rd division. I remember sitting numb from the waist up in the Allied Colloids Stand watching a Brazilian in white shoes waltzing around our defenders, who stood off proud and erect like the moss covered statues in Gatcombe Park. A month later, City had disappeared over the precipice into a land they called Division Three.




Now we fret about Balotelli holding his face, David Silva his ankle. We worry that they may not have packed Yaya Touré's hot water bottle. We wonder at a fixture list which presents cup quarter final hurdles at home and abroad and Champions League deciders week after week. So, thank you Kiev, for reminding us of our task. This is what we have waited a long time for, but now we're here, can anyone tell me what we're supposed to do.....?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

FEAR AND LOATHING IN WEST GORTON

Ladies and gentlemen, you are entering The Zone.

The edge. The edge of The Zone.

Without a shadow of a doubt, dear old loveable rough-and-tumble laugh out loud Manchester City face in the next week and a half their snow-clad Eiger. North Face. Blizzard conditions. Dodgy crampons. No sandwiches. Funny loss of feeling in left foot. Only a beige Balotelli hand hat to keep you warm. This is it. The meaty part of the season. You can almost smell the sizzling hamstrings from here.


Drugs, violence, insanity? Let's give it a go.
Signor Mancini's efforts at pat siege mentality or plain-as-pancakes Year One kidology seem, on first glance, to be a little parched, a little lacking in both cunning and subtlety. "We are all very tired" has never fooled many through the annals of time. Napoleon, Montgomery, Hunter Thompson.They have all gone the extra kilometre when asked. Sure, we have tired legs, just like every other team still in three competitions, still struggling on three fronts, with meagre resources, battered egos and poor facilities. You can only fear for our boys on the cheap treadmills, eating the soggy sarnies at Carrington.

Life can be dreadfully tough.

Steadying ourselves, it is perhaps right to say, we are slightly, very slightly ahead of schedule. The remit was 4th place. Champions League qualification. The reality, as it presents itself to me tonight through the haze of a very decent bottle of Quinta da Alorna Reserva, is that City sit in 3rd place, are to play Dynamo Kiev for a place in the last eight of the Europa league and have Reading as guests on Sunday for a semi final berth not experienced since the days, the glorious days of Tommy Hutch, Joe Corrigan and Nicky Reid. Excuse me whilst I wipe away a tear.
 
"And Martin, the smell of European glory...Intoxicating?"
Many have been the rumours, the suggestions, the urgings that Mancini must / will / ought to ditch the European gig in favour of domestic glory. Martin O'Neill tried this for Villa not so long ago, I seem to remember and it went down like Lindsay Lohan (the other Lindsay Lohan, from Bradford) with the locals. The answer to any football conundrum can never be "jack in the cup". The answer can never be "jack it in", full stop. Any leader worth half a salt cellar would at this point not be whining about tiredness, but eulogising about sitting on the shoulder of angels. Ten games (or so) from the most unforgettable glory, the most intoxicating release an athlete can have from nine months of intense physical effort. Give it one more big big shot and the moon might just fall in your lap.
   
City's current form might not suffice. On a grand global scale, sneaked 1-0 wins over frightened Wigan and desperate home draws with Fulham do not a Dublin knees-up make. Yet, there is still room for optimism. United have lost to Wolves, Chelsea and Liverpool , banishing the sweeping-luck-before-them epithets clean out the window and down to the bottom of the drive. Last seen being buried enthusiastically by the neighbour's afghan, slathering and panting as it went. Arsenal, being Arsenal, are dizzyingly, maddeningly once again embarking on a series of intricate one-two-three-fours that will see them sink without trace. Their sterling efforts against Birmingham and Barcelona reveal their penchant for slapstick with no return is alive and well. Bizarrely, the big threat comes from behind in the form of the stampeding buffalo that is Chelsea, a wet, angry beast emerging from the Zambeze with a feather dart in its bottom. So often and so thoroughly written off by the great and good that they must be contenders, as sure as Mark Clattenberg's middle name is Narcissus Maximus.


John Terry centre parting

So things are shaping up nicely. Whilst the cocksure leaders stand gauchely on their own toes, whilst the commentators search grimly for a new angle on this "season of all seasons", whilst Jamie Redknapp considers the prospect of literally shooting himself in the buttocks, we can all still dream. Of Dublin, of Wembley, of jam roly poly with custard. City carry us magnificently into the tail-end of the season, dragging tired limbs but pulling on the resources of the most eager set of terrace dreamers since hope began. Limbs may be heavy, time may be short, but those going that extra furlong are about to be rewarded with a brass plate or two.

..."The Edge... there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over."
   

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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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