Dawud Marsh's Photo Diary
Malcolm Allison, who was born on 5th September 1927 and died on 14th October 2010 was arguably one of the most exuberant characters in English football. Big Al was not only known as a great innovator in revolutionising football training methods, but he was also a flamboyant and outspoken character that had a huge impact on modern football.
Missing his chance for schoolboy honours due to the outbreak of war, Allison joined Erith and Belvedere FC earning Kent Country amateur honours and later when in the forces skippered British Combined Services XI against an Australian International Team and the French Army.
Malcolm’s promising career as a centre half was ended prematurely as a West Ham player due to contracting tuberculosis when he feel ill after a match against Sheffield United on 16th September 1957 resulting in having a lung removed. This proved to be his last senior game for the club.
Malcolms future as a manager was evident in his early playing career as he challenged club coaches at Charlton Athletic, where he struggled to make an impact on the pitch, for their outdated training methods.
Joining West Ham United in February 1951 for £7,000 as a replacement for Dick Walker Allison made 238 appearances and scored 10 goals but after his illness struggled with fitness as he battled to play on in the reserve team. Malcolm left football for a while but returned to play for non-league Romford in 1963.
Malcolm carried a great enthusiasm for the game and was always striving for improvements and his influence on tactics an team selection were a key feature of his time at West Ham. Malcolm would often stay behind after training to talk tactics and he was a mentor to the young Bobby Moore at the start of his career. Malcolm had his first taste of coaching at West Ham when Ted Fenton was manager, who also created The Academy and the development of youth teams that reached the FA Youth Cup Final twice in the three years between 1956-59.
Moore said of Malcolm:
“I’d been a professional for two and a half months and Malcolm had taught me everything I know…. When Malcolm was coaching schoolboys he took a liking to me when I don’t think anyone else at West Ham saw anything special in me… I looked up to the man. It’s not too strong to say I loved him.”
Malcolm hung up his boots after the 1963 season and pursued his career in coaching and became Joe Mercer’s assistant at Manchester City in 1965. Mercer had previously suffered from ill health and wanted a young and energetic assistant so he sought out Allison whom he knew from coaches courses at Lillshall. Malcolm had already managed non-league Bath City, leading them to 3rd place in the league and a 3rd round FA Cup tie with 1st Division Bolton Wanderers.
Malcolm then managed Plymouth Argyle from May 1964 and returned to Bath to sign full back Tony Book, where he encouraged Book to doctor his birth certificate to appear younger as Allison feared Argyle would not sign a 30 year old player with no League Football experience.
At Manchester City Malcolm and Mercer era is considered one of the strongest in their history, winning 1st Division in 1967-68 season, winning FA Cup in 1969 and League Cup and Cup Winners Cup in 1970. Although Mercer had the final say as manager, it is understood that Malcolm inspired him to buy the players that would become the heart of the side – Colin Bell, Francis Lee and Mike Summerbee. Malcolm motivated and trained the team towards promotion and their successes, but there were still controversies as Allison was blamed for signing the disruptive Rodney Marsh from Queens Park Rangers. Allison had an offer to manage Juventus, but turned it down in the understanding that Mercer would stand aside. Mercer was critical of the media attention on Allison and his love of the limelight as he became a regular in gossip and fashion columns. A power struggle ensued that left Mercer sidelined and Malcolm continued as manager after Mercer left for Coventry, but struggled and he resigned in March 1973.
Mike Summerbee, who played under Allison at Man City, paid tribute to his former gaffer: “Malcolm changed football by making us train like athletes. In that respect he was ahead of his time and he was a great tactician as well.
“He was also one of the lads – in effect he was the 12th player from the sidelines but he knew how to crack the whip and we respected him.
“He was a great psychologist; he knew how to handle me and how to get more out of me. He did the same for Colin Bell, Francis Lee, Neil Young and all of that great side.”
Malcolm moved to Crystal Palace where a roller coaster 3 years lead to two successive relegations, a totally changed kit that introduced the renown red and blue stripped colours and name change from The Glaziers’ to ‘The Eagles”. But in 1975-76 season Malcolm lead the team to FA Cup semi final appearance taking on Leeds United, Chelsea and Sunderland in an amazing cup run which also introduced Allison’s famous fedora hat and the sweeper system, which was a relatively new idea in football.
Palace defender Jim Cannon said: “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”
Allisons managerial career faltered until a brief period of success at Sporting Lisbon where he won the League and Cup in 1982 before coaching Middlesborough, stints in Turkey and Kuwait and finally at Bristol Rovers in 1992. Allison suffered from anxiety and depression and after losing much of what he had earned over the years. After the breakdown of his 17 year relationship with Lynn Salton, Allison admitted to his alcoholism saying “I don’t remember the days anymore.”
What would have Allison’s life had been like if he had not fallen so ill after the match against Sheffield United in 1957? Despite the flamboyant and forthright character whose life was played out in the limelight, Malcolm will be remembered for rolled up sleeves and a determination both on and off the pitch that had such a lasting impact at West Ham United.