Visionary, tactical genius and ‘possibly the greatest coach this country has ever had.’
As epitaphs go, they take some beating. And the same could be the said for the recipient of those glowing tributes… the late, great Malcolm Allison.
One of the most flamboyant figures to emerge in post-war British football history thanks to his larger than life personality and penchant for hyperbole, Allison – or Big Mal as he was universally known – more often than not backed up his big words with even bigger deeds.
Amongst his many classics were that ‘City would be the first team to play on Mars,’ and that we would ‘Go on to terrify Europe.’
What isn’t in question is that for a special period, the Manchester City team crafted by Allison and Joe Mercer played football from another planet.
For all the public perception of champagne, fedoras, cigars, Bunny Girls and sheepskin coats that were at times bigger than sheep, Allison was a pure football man at heart.
As a gifted coach he possessed an insight and deep, profound appreciation for the game that marked him out from the rest of his peers.
What’s more, in tandem with manager Mercer, Malcolm helped orchestrate one of the greatest periods of City’s illustrious history between 1965 and 1970.
In that golden spell, Joe and Malcolm first piloted City back into the old First Division before – between 1968 and 1970 - subsequently leading the Club to a clean sweep of every domestic honour with the league title, FA Cup and League following in successive seasons along with the European Cup Winners’ Cup.
The irony is that Joe and Mal made for the unlikeliest of pairings.
Merseyside-born Mercer, who had enjoyed a tremendous career as a player, was an avuncular, father figure with time for everyone and a capacity for bringing people together, though he would have been the first to admit that tactics were not his forte.
Dartford-born Allison in sharp contrast was loud, brash and armed with an inner core of steely resilience and an absolute cast-iron belief in his methods.
He was also a coach like no other and both recognised talent and nurtured his players to ensure they got the very most of their potential.
Individually they were formidable.
Collectively, Allison and Mercer proved an irresistible force for good, moulding one of the most exciting and eye-catching sides in post-war English history.
It was a partnership of polar opposites and perhaps that is why it worked so well.
As Allison explained: “No-one in football could live with us. Between us we had it all. I charged into situations like a bull, full of aggressive ambition and contempt for anyone who might be standing in my way.
“And Joe came behind me, picking up the pieces, soothing the wounded and the offended with that vast charm.”
For his part, Mercer summed it up in his own down-to-earth way: “Malcolm is the best football coach in the world,” Joe declared.
Not surprisingly, even 50 years on from their City hey-day, the players who thrived under Joe and Big Mal are still in awe when they speak of the pair’s impact.
“Joe Mercer was the figurehead but Malcolm Allison was the key to the door,” says Mike Summerbee, one of City’s key players in those magical years.
“Malcolm changed football by making us train like athletes and in that respect, he was so far ahead of his time.
“He was one of the lads, but he knew how to crack the whip and we all respected him. My wife always said that ‘You love Malcolm Allison more than you love me!’. That’s how you epitomized Malcolm Allison.
“He was just an amazing man and was possibly the greatest coach this country ever had.”
Born in Dartford, Kent, Allison was a bright schoolboy, but his single-mindedness was evident even from an early age.
Allison deliberately flunked his grammar school entrance exam in order to ensure he attended a secondary school where football was played.
After spells as a grocery boy and a Fleet Street runner, he joined Charlton Athletic as a centre-half before moving to West Ham in 1951.
At Upton Park, he thrived and also began to develop his passion for the tactics of the game and obsession with coaching.
At the age of just 29 however, Allison contracted tuberculosis which put paid to his playing career after almost 250 appearances for the Hammers.
As Allison’s first wife Beth recalls: “While he was recovering, Malcolm decided to prove himself. I think he came to the conclusion that he had one life and he was going to live it to the full.”
Not for the last time, Big Mal was to make good on that promise.
Having started out his embryonic coaching career with Bath City in 1963, Allison quickly furthered his knowledge base at Toronto City and then Plymouth Argyle, before arriving to link up with Mercer at Maine Road in the summer of 1965.
The pair’s arrival would transform City’s fortunes with Allison’s appliance of science and visionary approach a pivotal factor in our subsequent period of unparalleled success.
“Malcolm was way ahead of his time,” Summerbee recalled. “He had us on running machines with massage-based fitness sessions at Salford University back in 1965.
“We worked hard for him and we were exceptionally fit, but we could enjoy ourselves and he went along with that. He was a great psychologist; he knew how to crack the whip and we respected him, but he could also handle players as individuals and get more out of them.”
Sadly, however boardroom politics saw the pair’s partnership dissolve in 1972 with Mercer leaving City and Allison installed as manager in his own right.
Though City won the Charity Shield that year under his leadership, it was clear things were not the same and, by March 1973, Allison had also left the Club.
He was quickly appointed as manager of Crystal Palace and despite suffering two relegations, steered the Eagles – Allison rebranded Palace’s nickname to that from the Glaziers - to the semi-finals of the FA Cup in 1976.
As Palace defender Jim Cannon reflected: “Malcolm Allison put Palace on the map. No other man could single-handedly take a club from the First Division to the Third Division and still become an instant hero.”
After leaving Palace in the summer of 1976, Big Mal had a spell in charge at Galatasaray in Turkey and then returned to Plymouth before he was summoned back to take charge at City for a second time in the summer of 1979 by chairman Peter Swales.
However, it was not the happiest of reunions.
Dismantling much of the side which had lifted the 1976 League Cup and finished second in the league a year later, Allison instead splashed the cash, breaking the British transfer record to sign Steve Daley and recruiting several more expensive newcomers.
Results were not forthcoming though – with City also suffering a disastrous FA Cup third round exit at Halifax - and just over a year after his return, Allison was sacked.
After a brief second spell in charge at Palace, Malcolm’s wanderlust saw him move overseas once again to become manager at Sporting Lisbon.
There he proved the old magic was still intact, guiding Sporting to the domestic Portuguese treble in 1982 before returning home once more for two final spells in charge at Middlesbrough and Bristol Rovers.
It was a low-key finale for a man who had given so much to football.
Sadly, Malcolm’s final years were marked by ill health and he passed away in October 2010 at the age of 83, an occasion marked by heartfelt tributes and genuine affection throughout the game.
What’s more, the legacy and enduring influence of one of the giants of City’s proud post-war history resonates just as loud and clear today.
Way back in 1967, Allison wrote Soccer For Thinkers, an treatise on the way he thought the game should be played and taught.
His words could have been penned yesterday such are their clarity and incisiveness.
“The player,” Allison wrote, “appreciates there are others around him he must use. He must look and see where they are before he gives a pass. His one chance of getting into the game is by finding a clear position.
“The game becomes open only when players appreciate the value of this basic positional play.”
Proof positive that passing and movement, the principles that have brought us so much recent success under Pep Guardiola, were Big Mal’s guiding values too.
This article was first published on 14 October 2020, the 10th anniversary of Allison’s passing.