Remembering Malcolm Allison: football’s most iconic gaffer

Ben Mountain

Football is a colourful game with a vast array of quirky characters. But none epitomise this more than the late, great, Malcolm Allison. Cigars at the ready, chaps; his is quite the story.

You know that someone is destined for footballing greatness when they flunk their exams for it at the tender age of ten. When the former Manchester City and Crystal Palace gaffer, Malcolm Allison was just this age, he enacted just this flunking.

In desperation to avoid playing rugby and to play football instead, a young Allison intentionally failed his grammar school entry exam so as to make it into the football-playing comprehensive schools of Dartford. And so a lifelong love affair with the sport began.

Allison is fondly remembered as one of football’s most iconic characters. Affectionately dubbed ‘Big Mal’ by fans across the country, the fella became synonymous with English football thanks to his infamous image. A sweeping fedora, dark chunky cigar and liberally drank champagne all became attributes of this iconic gaffer.

But not everything was as rock ‘n’ roll as it seemed. The very beginning and end of Allison’s best days were marred by sickness.

Allison’s playing days were tragically cut short. Having started his career with the South London-based Charlton Athletic – now flatly languishing in League One – football did not, perhaps, seem a wise choice of jobs. Just two games in six year for the Addicks saw Allison sold to West Ham after telling the Charlton coaches that their training methods were ‘outdated’.

And it was at West Ham that his coaching career began to take shape. Racking up 238 appearances in six years for the Hammers (119 times more than he managed in the same length at Charlton), Allison quickly gained prominence in the footballing world. A natural ability for coaching also became clear as he took the likes of Bobby Moore under his wing to guide and advise them through their early footballing careers.

“When Malcolm was coaching schoolboys he took a liking to me when I don’t think anyone else at West Ham saw anything special… I looked up to the man. It’s not too strong to say I loved him.”

Bobby Moore

This success was cruelly cut short by a case of tuberculosis in 1957 that saw part of Allison’s lung surgically removed. From here, Big Mal pledged that he would “live life to the full” and, in no uncertain terms, he went out of his way to fulfil this vow.

A brief attempt back into professional football concluded at the non-league club Romford. Whilst recovering his post-operation fitness, Allison took on roles that gave quite the indication as to the man he was and the life he intended to live.

Professional gambling and nightclub owning, however, did not prove lucrative ventures and football was calling for him to come back.

After short spells coaching at West Ham and, no doubt feeling out of place, Cambridge University, Allison took on his first professional managerial role.

Later becoming known as a revolutionary, he increased training two-fold at non-league Bath City; which saw only part-time players dedicate five days a week to the club. A third-place league finish ensured that Allison earned the attention of some bigger names in the industry.

A brief vacation in Toronto over a summer’s coaching spree saw Allison return to his home nation. His trademark trickery was in evidence when he signed Tony Book as he returned to Bath and had the player amend his birth certificate to appear a more youthful signing. Book, at the age of 30, told his employers that he was, in fact, 28, and Allison was permitted the signing he desired.

He later got his biggest break under Joe Mercer at Manchester City in 1965. Mercer sought Allison as a youthful assistant coach to inject some life into the City squad as his own health declined.

What followed was the Citizen’s strongest pre-Sheikh Mansour spell and an impressive league title, FA Cup, League Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup in a three season spell. Not a bad double-act.

Allison was making a ripple in the footballing pond. And this ripple led to a bitter and degenerative battle for power between Allison and Mercer, with the former coming out on top and assuming the reigns at City.

This, sadly, was not a successful spell. When City slipped down the ranks and the Citizen fans became harsh critics of the man they once adored, Allison left the club and headed home again.

Back to London.

And it was here, with Crystal Palace, that Allison’s image and notoriety really took off.

On stuck the fedora, in jammed the cigar and down washed the champagne.

And, paralleling Allison’s new-found image, the changes were being rung at Selhurst Park too. Big Mal famously ditched Palace’s claret and blue colour scheme in favour of red and blue and also instigated a change in nickname. Out with the Glaziers, in with the Eagles.

Despite a relatively failed set of league campaigns, Allison has gone down in the hearts of Palace fans as an undisputed hero. Club legend, Jim Cannon, put it this way:

“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”.

But the drop in leagues under Allison paled into insignificance for the South London club, as the Eagles soared their way to the semi-final of the 1976 FA Cup. Sadly, despite the club’s astonishing cup-run, Allison left with only his legacy to last.

At the conclusion of his Palace days, the fedora-clad gaffer enjoyed one of his more pleasurable moments. It was in 1976 that the now defunct News of the World snapped a picture of Allison sharing the player’s bath tub, alone, with the British actress Fiona Richmond. The FA, being the rain for everyone’s parade, charged him with disrepute.

This came after allegations that Allison had also enjoyed relationships with Christine Keeler of the political Profumon scandal, the singer Dorothy Squires and, amazingly, two Miss UKs. The fella must have been getting something right, then. Even if it wasn’t on the football pitch.

Anyway, several of these high-profile relationships were mirrored by several high-profile moves to the likes of Galatassaray, Sporting CP and Middlesbrough. Between these were homely returns to Man City and Palace again, although both were fairly fruitless. All in all, Allison took a leading role at no less than 19 clubs in 30 years.

Towards the end of his life, Allison became gripped by crippling alcoholism and depression and tragically passed away whilst suffering from dementia.

His legacy lives on at the clubs he graced and in the annals of football. Perhaps this is no better shown than by ‘Fedora Day’, a tribute to the man in 2007 from Palace fans, who attended a game against Preston North End clad in fedoras, smoking cigars and necking champagne in nostalgic memory. This iconic image of Allison followed him to the end, with a bottle of Moet et Chandon accompanying his coffin on the day of his funeral.

Allison revolutionised training methods nationwide as well as the clubs he took over at. Never the tactical genius or most successful manager, what Allison will be remembered for is in his status as a renegade icon.

Never again will we witness such a character. In memory of his legacy, enjoy watching him mug off the shameful Alan Mullery.

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