Anyone who loves football knows that the game often throws up intriguing coincidences that some may call ‘fate’...
They happen too often to be brushed off as ‘just one of those things’ – and a case in point is City drawing Crystal Palace in the FA Cup 3rd round during the 1980/81 campaign.
Malcolm Allison’s largely disastrous return to City in 1979 had ended with the mercurial coach-turned- manager dismantling a team of seasoned internationals who had twice come within a few points of winning the title in 1977 and 1978.
Tony Book’s side had hit a bad patch in 1978/79 and hastily decided to bring Big Mal – the Prodigal Son – back to Maine Road, where he had once been the brilliant No.2 to Joe Mercer.
Though Book was never removed as manager, the brash, larger-than-life Allison assumed control and was soon making the decisions, with the back of chairman Peter Swales.
Book deserved better and would almost certainly would have turned the tide, but Malcolm had a vision for a new-look, younger and vibrant City side.
Almost a team of international stars were sold – Asa Hartford, Dave Watson, Gary Owen, Peter Barnes and Mike Channon all left in quick succession – the excellent Kenny Clements was sold to Oldham and Colin Bell was convinced to leave the club after his long battle with injury took a heavy toll on his ability to perform at the highest level.
But as household names were shipped out and teenagers and lower league signings brought in, so City began to rock with a young side and fragile egos marvellously unpredictable and by late December, the cracks began to show.
By that stage, City had a decent return of 10 wins, three draws and nine losses in the old Division One – 23 points (it was two points for a win then) from a possible 44 was solid mid-table form.
However, the brittle confidence of a team that included a number of homegrown teenagers plus British record signing Steve Daley was smashed into smithereens as 4-1 thrashing at Brighton was followed by a 1-0 FA Cup 3rd round defeat to Division Four strugglers Halifax Town.
It was one of football’s biggest cup upsets and City didn’t win any of the next 15 league matches – with only three wins in the final four matches saving the Blues from relegation.
The 1980/81 campaign saw City continue their wretched form and a run of four draws and seven defeats meant the Blues had won just three of 33 league games under Allison’s tutelage and his – and Book’s – dismissal was inevitable.
Norwich boss John Bond was the man Swales and the board turned to replace Allison, but it already looked like Mission Impossible.
Bond, who had been under Allison’s wing during their days at West Ham, publicly admitted he had inherited a mess, pointing the finger at his old Hammers coach in all-but name.
Allison responded in kind, manipulating the media as he only knew how, claiming that Bond had achieved nothing in his 12 years of management.
Yet the effect Bond had on City was nothing short of miraculous, as he turned a badly listing ship into a steady, sleek and confident outfit.
The Blues won 11, drew twice and lost twice in his first 15 games in charge, with his bargain-basement signings of Tommy Hutchison, Bobby McDonald and Gerry Gow all experienced, wily acquisitions that helped steer the talented younger stars almost immediately.
As the nation’s form side, City were a side nobody wanted to draw in the FA Cup, but there seemed an air of inevitability when the Blues were pitted against Crystal Palace at Maine Road.
Out of work for just a month, Palace had turned to their former coach to help them out of a hole and Big Mal was back in business – and now also on his way back to Maine Road to try and get one over Bond.
Asked ahead of the tie if he had been a little harsh on Allison when he’d claimed he had inherited a mess at City, Bond replied, “If anything, I was too kind.”
Malcolm, of course, responded in kind. The battle lines had been drawn and the New Year would begin with a fascinating cup tie.
“It’s nice in many ways for Mal to be giving me such stick,” said Bond. “I know that for many years he saw me as the worst part of the coaching set up between himself, Cantwell and me.
He thought I was the least likely to achieve anything in management and I think he thought I was a young country bumpkin who worked hard but would never achieve much in life. That’s the impression he always gave me.
“But if he feels I have taken an opportunity to inherit something he was building here at Manchester City, he is vastly mistaken.”
Bond had clearly been scarred by his former mentor's words, but they had perhaps also been his driving force - a desire to prove how wrong he was.
He dismissed Allison’s claims of knowing where City’s weaknesses lay as nothing more than mind games.
“To my mind, he was aiming the jibes at me,” recalled Joe Corrigan. “He was asked before the game what he was looking forward to the most against us, and he said, ‘the first free-kick or corner’ – and I was certain he was having a dig at me.
“I hadn’t taken much notice of what he said in the press and I just wanted to win the game. He’d been sacked after what I thought was a fairly disastrous second spell at the club and it was our job as players to put things right as soon as we could.
“He had tried to sell me the previous season but the chairman had put his foot down and said ‘no’. He had his own way of wanting to do things and I honestly couldn’t understand why he decided to sell so many top players. It just didn’t make any sense.
“That had probably been the best City side since the late 1960s and early 1970s and we’d lost Colin Bell who was irreplaceable, so as soon as we hit a bit of a bad patch, the board panicked and brought Malcolm back. He had his own agenda and the players he brought in to replace the likes of Barnes, Owen and Hartford beggared belief.
“John Bond came in, added some experience and everything settled down really quickly. He changed the training methods, playing style and we all bought into that and it worked pretty much straight away.”
It was January 3 when City and Palace finally met in the most eagerly-anticipated tie of the round.
Before kick-off, Malcolm said that he had no feelings for the game at all on the journey to Moss Side, but now he was at the ground, he felt nothing but pleasure – “But I need to win this game,” he added.
As the teams ran out, Palace players headed for their half of Maine Road to jeers from the 46,000 crowd and then game Big Mal, trotting out onto the turf before jogging towards the centre spot in front of the Kippax where he held his arms aloft in triumph.
At first, the response was muted, but he almost demanded a reaction of some sort and the Kippax responded with a crescendo of noise, cheering and clapping one of the most gifted coaches the club had ever had. The bond had been fractured, but the respect and affection for a man who you simply couldn’t ignore remained. He nodded, shook his fists in recognition and blew kisses before heading for his dug-out.
As he walked off, a loud chant of “Johnny Bond, Johnny Bond, Johnny Bond!’ echoed around Maine Road and moments later the man who had become Allison’s nemesis took his place in the Main Stand alongside chairman Swales.
“I paid no attention,” said Corrigan. “That was the time I focused and concentrated for the game ahead and I didn’t let anything affect that. Malcolm used to do that sort of thing when he was coach whether it was at Old Trafford or Anfield and it was just to get a reaction – sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. It was just Malcolm.”
The game itself had taken second billing to what had come before, and Palace defended resolutely to go into the break with a 0-0 scoreline.
“We need one break,” Allison told his players in the dressing room. “One free-kick around the box and we score – we’ll beat them.”
But the opportunity would never arise. As both Bond and Allison puffed Cuban cigars in their respective seats, a ball into the Palace box resulted in a push on Phil Boyer and the referee pointed to the penalty spot – Kevin Reeves confidently dispatched into the top right corner with 55 minutes played.
Further goals from Paul Power, Boyer and a second for Reeves.
After the game, while one dressing room was buoyant and smiling, the Palace dressing room was in total silence. Allison waited for the players to come back in, then sat down beside them, completely crestfallen and speechless.
Eventually, he walked out, walked across to the home dressing room he knew far better, shook Bond’s hand and congratulated the City players before leaving and the returned to his players.
The post-match press conference was fascinating, with Bond and Allison sat a yard apart, Swales next to white-suited Allison as both managers puffed away on cigars.
Bond said that for Allison to be at his best, he needed to be controlled and that while he had no doubt he could make players better, he thought as a manager, he couldn’t make teams better.
In many ways, he was right.
Allison was a brilliant, innovative coach and the perfect foil for Joe Mercer. But great coaches don’t always make great managers, and after just 55 days as Palace boss, he was sacked again.
He would return to Maine Road as a manager one more time – as boss of Middlesbrough in a Division Two clash that City won 2-1 - and by that stage, Bond had quit his position as his magic touch faded.
October 14 marks the date Big Mal passed away in 2010, aged 83.
“Malcolm’s genius was in coaching, not management,” opines Joe Corrigan. “He was a brilliant coach when he first came to City. He worked wonders along with Joe Mercer and those are the times I think most City fans cherish.
“When he signed me, he told the press that he was going to make me better than Frank Swift and Bert Trautmann – what a millstone for a 17-year-old kid to see a headline like that! But that’s how Malcolm worked.”
Flamboyant, brash, brilliant - but never dull - there really was only one Big Mal, and his place among the Club's favourite sons is very much set in stone.