Malcolm Allison, (1927-2010)

17Oct10

Malcolm Allison is often recalled as the cigar-smoking, fedora wearing manager who led Crystal Palace to the FA Cup semi-finals in 1975-76, but beneath the high profile media image he was a key figure in the coaching and management revolution that transformed English football between the early 1950s and the end of the 1960s.

As a player he spent five years on the books of Charlton Athletic, making just two first-team appearances before moving on to sign for West Ham in February 1951, making his debut for the Hammers against Chesterfield the following month. Quickly settling into first-team football at Upton Park, he was appointed club captain in 1951-52. His arrival at the club heralded the beginning of an era when the East End club became known as ‘the academy of football’. Despite his lack of seniority, Malcolm was placed in charge of training at the club and, heavily influenced by what he had seen of the Hungarians at Wembley in November 1953, the team adopted a more Continental approach to the game. Crucial to this was the presence, over a period of time, of a number of thoughtful players who went on to make their mark in coaching and management over the following three decades. The West Ham ‘school’ included Noel Cantwell, Dave Sexton, Frank O’Farrell, John Cartwright, John Bond, John Lyall, Malcolm Musgrove and Phil Woosnam amongst others. They would meet regularly after training at the Cassatarri Café, just round the corner from Upton Park where they would discuss tactics and training methods, with Allison very much the leader. He later recalled, “We were like any revolutionary group. We got excited and built up a good feeling.”

Malcolm’s West Ham career was effectively ended in the autumn of 1957 when he was diagnosed as suffering from tuberculosis. He said of this period, “Everything was finished, I thought. I was in the sanatorium about nine months and I was a very quiet fellow when I came out with one and a half lungs.” He recovered sufficiently to return to play for the Hammers’ reserves then moved on to spend two seasons with Romford in the Southern League, also coaching the Cambridge University team at this time. The TB set back made Malcolm more determined than ever to succeed in the game and he seized the opportunity to take over as manager of Bath in the summer of 1963. He transformed the club’s fortunes, taking them to an FA Cup third round replay against Bolton Wanderers.

After a season at Twerton Park Malcolm moved on to Plymouth accompanied by his skipper Tony Book and more success followed, with Argyle reaching the semi-finals of the Football League Cup in 1964-65. However, the club’s promotion charge stalled towards the end of the season and Malcolm departed, stepping up to become coach to Joe Mercer at Manchester City in the summer of 1965. Over the next five years City achieved tremendous success under the partnership of Mercer and Allison, winning the Division Two (1965-66), the Football League title (1967-68), FA Cup (1968-69), Football League Cup (1969-70) and European Cup Winners’ Cup (1969-70). Tony Book had followed Allison from Plymouth and two other crucial signings were Colin Bell and Francis Lee. Malcolm had now also established himself as a colourful character who made headlines in the national press, but when he took over as manager in his own right, in October 1971, he lasted less than two seasons in the job.

Malcolm moved on to the manager’s job at Crystal Palace but he was unable to keep them in the First Division and in 1973-74 they were relegated again down to the Third Division. Here the club’s fortunes stabilised and in 1975-76, ably assisted by Malcolm’s ‘lucky’ fedora, they reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup. The fedora captured the imagination of football fans throughout the land, one national newspaper even offering readers the chance to “Win a lucky Allison hat”. Nevertheless, after away wins at Leeds, Chelsea and Sunderland Palace went down to Southampton in the semi-final.

Thereafter, Malcolm became something of a wanderer, returning to each of his three senior clubs at various times as well as serving as manager of Middlesbrough (1982-84) and spending time in Europe with Sporting Lisbon and Vitoria Setubal amongst other teams. He remained active in the game until the early 1990s before long-term illness brought an end to almost half a century in the game.

The published obituaries have tended to focus on the publicity seeking man who lived life to excess, but Malcolm Allison was also a shrewd football man who was ahead of his team with his work at West Ham and, with Joe Mercer, produced a golden era at Manchester City. His teams played bright, attacking football and his philosophy is summed up in the following quote: “The most important thing about a professional footballer is that he should express himself … When a man completely expresses himself the best comes out of him. It is my job to help him express that, to show him how he can succeed.”

Malcolm Allison passed away on 14 October 2010 at the age of 83.

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