Big Mal - The Playboy Boss

Tributes have poured in for Malcolm Allison, the charismatic former Manchester City and Crystal Palace manager who died today at the age of 83. The following piece on 'Big Mal' was written by Steve Anglesey and published in the December 2008 issue of FourFourTwo.

It was one of those days when the romance of the FA Cup needed a little Viagra to get it going: A cold and windy January 1976 afternoon by the English seaside, non-league hosts playing a side recently demoted to Division Three.

The injection of glamour arrived shortly before kick-off. Instantly recognisable to everyone inside Scarborough FC's cramped Athletic Ground as he took his seat in the main stand, Malcolm Allison’s appearance would ordinarily have caused a stir. On this day, it caused a sensation, sending the handful of photographers rushing from their positions behind the goal to capture a few precious frames.

The new fedora perched atop Allison's head was a present from a girlfriend, but the Crystal Palace manager couldn't have chosen a better gift himself. Favoured by Sinatra and Bogart; out of fashion since the 1950s, the creased felt hat summed up the essence of this football outlaw; roguish and revelling in his own preposterousness.

"I went past the Scarborough dressing room after we'd beaten them," Allison told me a decade ago, "and I could hear one of them saying 'What about that big-headed c**t? The first chance we have of getting some publicity and he wears that f**king hat!"

The fedora stayed on Allison's head throughout the memorable Cup run that followed and remained there in the public imagination. It became his signature. But in time it became his jailer too as Malcolm Allison the football revolutionary was subsumed into Big Mal the football personality.

"He had reached the point where Big Mal became more than just a nickname. It became a living, breathing person," says David Tossell, author of an excellent new Allison biography. "The desire to feed that persona became greater than the desire to be an innovative coach. That's ultimately why he's not remembered most for winning four trophies in three seasons at Manchester City and producing the most attractive football team of that era, but for being that bloke with the cigar and a hat."

Given the unanimous verdict on Allison's talents from those who worked with him, it was a shocking state of affairs. "Malcolm was doing things in 1967, '68 and '69 that people even now think are modernist," said his former City captain Tony Book. "Brilliant, years ahead of his time," agreed his friend and former Crystal Palace player Terry Venables. Bobby Moore once compared hearing Allison's ideas to "looking up into the sun for the first time." Added Francis Lee, once his player and latterly his benefactor: "I don't believe there has been a better pure football coach."

Allison was a visionary but he was also a magpie. A serviceable centre-back on Charlton Athletic's books, national service interrupted his progress and sent him to Austria. There, he made a few appearances for local side Wacker and watched the national team train. "It was superb," he told me. "One coach to seven players - you don't even get that in England today. There were defensive coaches, midfield coaches, attacking coaches, goalkeeping coaches, fitness coaches, gymanastic coaches. Fantastic." The revelation was matched only by watching the fluidity of Hungary in their famous 6-3 crushing of England at Wembley in 1953.

By then, Allison was at West Ham and part of an unofficial coaching academy which met in Cassettari's, a greasy spoon near the Boleyn Ground. There, the young players who used the condiments set to mark out new tactics included two future Manchester United managers - Frank O'Farrell and Dave Sexton - and two future City bosses, Allison and John Bond.

But Allison's exit from Charlton had unearthed a faultline which undermined his career from beginning to end. Like Brian Clough, his default setting was conflict. "When I came back from Austria, I remember standing there one morning and thinking 'this training is terrible'," he told me. "So I said to the trainer Jimmy Trotter 'what we're doing is f**king rubbish'. The next day he sold me to West Ham."

Allison played 300 games for the Hammers over nearly seven years, revolutionising their training while manager Ted Fenton busied himself elsewhere. Instead of long runs and 11-a-sides, he rotated small groups between different disciplines - head tennis, weights, sprints, six-a-sides. He proposed "clockwork football", a system in which each player could comfortably move into two or three positions vacated by team-mates. He took on the team's kit, too. "We had these heavy shirts and I ripped the sleeves off. I cut the shorts down so they were short shorts. We had these South American boots with a soft toe - all incredible at the time."

Yet the progress, and Allison's forceful manner in pushing it through, had not endeared him to Fenton or the West Ham board. Thus, when he was forced to retire at 31, having contracted TB and lost part of a lung, he was not offered a coaching role at the club. "He came to the conclusion that he had only one life and he was going to live it to the full,” said his first wife, Beth.

Allison reacted to the snub by snubbing football itself for nearly two years. He became a professional gambler and owner of a dubious Soho nightspot in which he befriended the Kray Twins. He kept fit by playing for non-league Romford on Saturdays and finally returned to coaching in an unlikely role, steering Cambridge University's undergraduates to Varsity Match victory against Oxford at Wembley.

Next he managed non-league Bath to the third round of the FA Cup, where they took Bolton to a replay. He took Bath's veteran captain Tony Book with him to Third Division Plymouth and reached the semi-finals of the League Cup before the inevitable personality clashes with directors took their toll. "I became an issue," he wrote. "Some felt my style was too aggressive, too flamboyant. There was also the fact that I didn't exactly lead a monkish life."

The dismissal led Allison to Manchester City as number two to former Arsenal great Joe Mercer, charged with revitalising a side which had slipped into Division Two and recently played a home league game in front of 8,000 fans. "Bath would have beaten us," said Allison. "I said 'get rid of him, him and him', and Joe got rid of them." In came Book, Francis Lee and "the best player I've ever seen", Colin Bell.

So did Allison's left-field ideas. Players built up their lung capacity by wearing gas masks in training. City trained with ballet dancers and Olympic sprinters and the mesmeric coach offered advice on diet and nutrition. One thing was definitely not prescribed, however. "Champagne is a good drink, a clean drink," he told me. "I never denied my players that." It was a credo he followed aggressively in Manchester's nightclubs as the team took off, winning promotion in 1966, the title on the final day two years later and the FA Cup in 1969. The League Cup and European Cup-Winners' Cup followed in 1970.

"City's team play was sensational," says James Lawton, the Independent sports writer who ghosted Allison's 1975 autobiography, The Colours Of My Life. "They would push far up the pitch, invading the opposition's space. They played with the fluidity Malcolm had seen in the Hungarians and at times they were irrepressible."

His enormous self-belief bolstered by results, Allison's arrogant streak was unleashed. "I would sit down at the start of the season and say 'we won't win the league this year, but we'll win the Cup-Winners' Cup and the League Cup'. Then I would make it happen," he said. Like a baseball player signalling an imminent home run as he approaches the plate, Allison began the practice of gesturing his score predictions to away fans before kick-off. He called Sir Matt Busby "Matt baby" at a civic reception and plotted to have the Old Trafford flag lowered to half mast before one derby match. He began a running battle with officialdom which drew a two-month ban from all team activities. Later, he would be banned from British touchlines for seven years.

The swagger was bolstered by alcohol. "Malcolm was great company but he was bloody hard to keep up with," said City striker Neil Young. Said Lawton: "He was funny, he was clever and he had an appetite that could not be sated, well beyond that which could comfortably be borne by the rest of us." The stories poured out of Maine Road like Allison's favourite champagne: Of Allison carried home in a sack by Francis Lee, of a 23-bottle bubbly bender, of scoffing at a waiter's request to settle a £1,000 bill and telling him "don't come back until it's double that", of a speeding Joe Mercer seeing the blue lights flashing in his rear view mirror and thinking "Christ, what's Malcolm done now?"

Divorce was approaching for the elder statesman and his turbulent understudy. Convinced that Mercer had told him he would surrender up the manager's job at the turn of the decade, Allison now agitated for his removal, at one point even attempting to buy the club before finally getting his wish. "I felt at the time, as did Malcolm, that he deserved it," says Lawton. "But in retrospect he needed the balance Joe gave him." Mike Summerbee agreed: "Malcolm was a genius as a coach but he was completely unsuited to management."

The new boss promptly proved it by disrupting a side which appeared to be coasting to the title in 1972 by forcing through the £200,000 purchase of Rodney Marsh from QPR. City barely won another game and finished fourth.

Embarrassed, fatigued and drawn to London through his hectic private life, Allison did not last another full season at Maine Road. Instead he joined struggling Crystal Palace in April 1973 and could not save them from the drop into Division Two. Palace were relegated again and despite the fedora-inspired Cup run to the semi-finals in 1976, the period is best remembered for the hat - replicas of which were sold outside Selhurst Park - and the manager's decision to allow porn queen Fiona Richmond to hop into the team bath for a picture with players.

“He became a great worry to those who regarded him highly,” says James Lawton of the period. “He was a great figure and a great friend but he was also a turbulent character who was not entirely rooted in the job he did. He had a ferocious appetitie for the good things in life and being in London did not do him much good.” Former Palace striker Alan Whittle is more direct in his assessment: "Under Malcolm, the social life was brilliant but the football was crap."

Increasingly restless, Allison had short spells in America, Turkey and back at Plymouth before making what he called “my worst mistake” by rejoining Manchester City and buying into chairman Peter Swales' misguided dream of overhauling a weak United as Manchester's most popular club by mortgaging Maine Road’s future.

"I looked at him, saw the comb-over, the England blazer and the suede shoes and thought 'this isn't going to work'," said Allison of his surprise return in 1979. "But he told me I'd have three years to rebuild the side and not to worry about the money because he was a financial genius."

It was a disastrous comeback. Desperate for million-pound glamour, Swales broke the seven-figure barrier twice and twice overpaid, most notably for Wolves’ Steve Daley. “If Daley had taken six shots at John Lennon he’d be alive today,” mused Big Mal’s pal Bernard Manning. “His signing, not mine,” insisted Allison later, claiming he had preferred Chester City rookie Ian Rush.

But Big Mal’s own judgement proved just as erratic. The hero of Maine Road alienated the Kippax by selling favourites Peter Barnes and Gary Owen, the latter leaving for West Brom in tears.

Players were baffled by training regimes which included warming up at City’s Platt Lane training ground and arriving by mini-bus just before kick-off, and talk of futuristic new systems including the ‘ring’, which by its nature left a huge hole in the centre of midfield. “Malcolm disappeared up his own arsehole with his theories at times,” mused Barnes’ father Ken.

Before long the local Piccadilly Radio station was issuing car stickers bearing the slogans ‘Back Big Mal’ and ‘Big Mal Must Go’. Soon the latter were everywhere. As Manchester faced up to Thatcherite austerity, soundtracked by the darkness of Joy Division and The Fall, the extravagant, colourful Allison looked like a man out of time.

Sacked in 1980, he returned briefly to Palace before brief and unexpected success in Portugal with Sporting Lisbon. There was a Gulf Cup win as manager of Kuwait, where Allison worked under the man he said was the only chairman he ever trusted, Sheikh Fahd. “He was an amazing bloke. When Saddam Hussein invaded he sent his family away and waited on his balcony with a machine gun, like Scarface. Killed 18 of them before they shot him.”

Then came a return to England with Middlesbrough. With attendances dwindling, Allison unveiled a bizarre plan to rename the club Cleveland Cowboys and play on an Astroturf pitch coloured orange. Later he suggested it was “better for the club to die than linger on.”

Flamboyance remained on the agenda; earning £25,000 a year, he spent £3,500 on champagne, cognac and cigars inside his first four months at Ayresome Park. Journalist Alan McKinlay recalls him holding court after Boro played at Oldham: “He sat with a cigar and a brandy and talked for what seemed like an hour about the Cleveland Cowboys, about new formations, about training habits, about how the transfer market should be shut down so clubs were forced to produce their own players, about how foreign players kicked the ball with a different part of their foot. A few of us, including Oldham’s manager Joe Royle, were nodding sagely.

“When the soliloquy was over and he went, there was a silence. Then Joe Royle said: ‘Can any of you tell me what the f**k all that was about?’”

Eventually sacked, Allison continued his nomadic existence in reduced circumstances. There was a return to Portugal, a spell in the non-leagues and a brief Indian Summer at Bristol Rovers. But it was over. "Brian Clough phoned me a few weeks ago," Allison told me in 1996. "We were talking about an old mate of ours who'd had three heart attacks. He said. 'You know Mal, I thought you and me would never get old.'" But both were.

After a final, bizarre brush with management in 1995, when a consortium headed by Freddie Starr briefly threatened to install him as Gillingham boss, Allison seemed happy in semi-retirement. Living in Yarm with Lynn and their small daughter Gina, he supplemented his pension with occasional radio work and scouting for Manchester City - to whom he recommended a 20-year-old midfielder called Luis Figo - as well as for Venables and the FA.

Then a series of setbacks brought Allison to a new low. First was the loss of his job as a radio summariser for Middlesbrough games. Suspended after twice muttering "f**king hell" as Boro lost a derby to Newcastle, he returned with a 'Big Mal Button' but was soon dismissed after calling a linesman a "f**king disgrace".

His FA role went too, in response to newspaper articles criti
ising England's Andy Cole and Matt Le Tissier. Allison by now was living in reduced circumstances on £104 per week but his drinking continued unabated. Said his son Mark, "If he goes into a pub someone will buy him a drink and then they get one of his great stories."

Finally, in 2000, Lynn threw him out. Allison briefly coached in Romania, then returned to Yarm in desperation. Twice arrested for breaking into his old home, and threatening suicide, Allison was finally rescued by Lawton and the generosity of old colleagues including Lee and Summerbee, with support from the PFA. He went first to The Priory, then to a secure council-run nursing home, making occasional forays out for lunch or to watch City. "He has always been a free spirit but now he relies on people to do everything for him," said Tony Book.

I last saw Big Mal at one of his outings to Eastlands, grinning and posing for pictures. But he had taken a fall at some point recently and his still-handsome face was pale and raked with cuts. At first he seemed to watch the game intently but later I looked back and saw his eyes frozen in a 1,000-yard stare, the result of what has now been diagnosed as Korsakoff's syndrome, a type of dementia exacerbated by alcohol. Says Lawton: "There is the sense of someone withdrawing a little bit into his own world."

Inside there, perhaps, is the contentment Malcolm Allison seems to have been searching for all his life. "Malcolm found the answer at City and went looking for another question," said Bob McNab. Says Lawton: "There was always a need for Malcolm to prove himself. He was always chasing the end of the rainbow."

"I once asked him why and he said, 'I always wanted a rocking horse as a lad and I never got one; maybe it would all have been different if I had.'

"I doubt it though and I don't think he would have any regrets. Malcolm was always a guy who got up in the morning and just did his thing. I remember being in Langan's restaurant once in the 1990s and Malcolm was there having lunch on his own, no-one to meet and no plans. He didn't know what the day would bring him but he had determined that it was going to be a big day and with Malcolm it usually was.”

NEWS: Allison passes away aged 83