Big Mal, the Legend dies at 83

Crystal Palace have mourned the loss of former manager Malcolm Allison who has died at the age of 83.

Allison was one of the most flamboyant personalities in the game, he dated glamour models and was loved for his outspoken views, trademark fedora and sheepskin coat, while drinking champagne and smoking cigars.

Big Mal was football’s first playboy manager and will be remembered most by Palace fans for leading the club to the FA Cup semi-final for the first time as a Third Division side in 1976.

But perhaps the biggest impact made by Mal at Palace was off the pitch when he brought much-needed bundles of glitz and glamour to Selhurst Park.

Before a match would start he’d walk over to the away fans and put three fingers on one hand and a big circle on the other, as if to say, you’re going to lose 3-0.

He ended 68 years of tradition by changing the dull Glaziers nickname to The Eagles and swapped the claret and blue shirts to more modern red and blue stripes and the sash kit.

Dartford-born Allison began his playing career with Charlton before moving onto West Ham – where he played 255 times and acted as a mentor to a young Bobby Moore – but was forced into retirement because of tuberculosis and the removal of a lung.

“Malcolm saw something in me that others didn’t. Yes, I loved him,” said Moore.

After quitting football, Allison worked as a car salesman, then as a professional gambler and nightclub owner but returned to the game as manager of Bath City which was followed by spells with Toronto City and Plymouth.

Allison enjoyed success at Manchester City where as a coach alongside Joe Mercer, City won the First Division (1967-68), FA Cup (1969), League Cup (1970) and Cup Winners’ Cup (1970). He stepped up to the manager’s hotseat after Mercer left but resigned in March 1973 as the team struggled.

Crystal Palace appointed him the new manager, who was the first celebrity football newspaper columnist, shortly afterwards on better pay – which was just as well as he owed the bookies £1,300 after a session at Sandown.

On his arrival, Allison announced on the pitch, “In two years, possibly less, I will be competing again with the giants of English football. Raymond Bloye has a vision of Selhurst Park as a super stadium of the future.

“I believe I can give him a super side to go with it. I have two years to get Palace into a striking position for honours. The potential is staggering.”

Despite winning his first match, Mal was unable to stop the club dropping out of the top flight after five defeats from their last seven matches. In typical fashion, Mal celebrated with the players by holding a banquet at a restaurant.

Palace then suffered a second successive relegation and were left stranded in the Third Division. Striker Alan Whittle said: “It was a great social life under Malcolm. But the football was crap.”

Don Rogers had fonder memories and said: “I remember several memorable nights, one in particular in Pisa with Malcolm, myself and Alan Whittle. Malcolm turned to us and said ‘Let’s have one more bottle of champagne before bed.’

“He called over the waiter and was told the hotel only had two bottles left and both were very expensive. ‘We’ll have them both then’ was his reply. He always wanted us to celebrate the wins and even some of the losses too.”

But the brilliant FA Cup run to the semi-final after triumphs over big guns Leeds United, Chelsea and Sunderland lifted spirits before eventual winners Southampton ended Palace’s route to the final.

Mal the Maverick caused a stir by inviting porn star Fiona Richmond to a Palace training session and he was charged by the FA after a tabloid newspaper photograph showed him in the players’ bath with her.

The club got fed up with his constant self promotion and the often brash and cocky Allison resigned in May 1976 after two successive fifth-place finishes in the Third Division.

Palace were enjoying extensive media coverage despite the under-achievement of a talented young squad but this was a real hey day for the newly nicknamed Eagles.

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.

“There was an aura about him and, even in the Third Division, if you’d asked any player in the country to come to Palace, I think he would have come.”

He came back to Palace in season 1980-81 for a two-month period but was unsuccessful in his attempt to avoid relegation from the First Division.

Mal regularly drank with stars such as Michael Caine and could only be described as part manager, part playboy. He was an innovative and inspirational coach, a colourful character and his legacy at Palace lives on.

Behind that extravagant ‘Big Mal’ facade was a man riddled with self-doubt, insecurity and human failing. But there was also a unique football brain, brimming with new ideas and a deep love of the game.
The great Bobby Moore always gave Allison full credit for his development into one of the world’s finest defenders after they played together in West Ham’s original ‘Academy’.

In turn, I thank Malcolm for fostering my love of champagne. His maxim was to work hard and play even harder, and there are former players and journalists aplenty who will raise a glass in his memory today.

While he and Joe Mercer were moulding Manchester City of the Sixties into the finest team in the land – without the need for Middle East millions – they had a chemistry that was successful and electrifying.

Mike Summerbee, a focal figure in that City side who won the old First Division, the FA Cup, the League Cup and the European Cup winners’ Cup, was effusive in his praise on Friday.

He was one of the greatest coaches there has been in this country,’ he said unequivocally. ‘It is sad to lose such a great character, a very special person and a nice man. He turned that team into a championship and cup-winning side because of the confidence he gave them and the belief he had in himself.

‘He couldn’t get into training early enough, and we trained in match situations. We worked so hard during the week that when we played on a Saturday, it was our day off. He was that good.

‘He was a great character and a very sociable man. We worked hard for him and we were exceptionally fit, but we could enjoy ourselves and he went along with that.

‘The club at that particular time came from nothing under Joe Mercer and Malcolm and became very, very successful. It was a great era, a great period in the history of the club. He was a special, lovely man.’

Allison, ever the showman, will be remembered by football nationwide for his trademark cigar and fedora, and of course the bath at Crystal Palace with actress Fiona Richmond, one of many women who infiltrated his hectic life.

When Malcolm subsequently moved to London, we would congregate after training at Crystal Palace in a subterranean Fleet Street bar where champagne was poured copiously. Jim and I would leave Malcolm to return to the office only to find on our return that he had left us a bill with too many noughts on the end for comfort.

It was during these lengthy sessions of relaxed conversation that we would listen to Malcolm’s thoughts on the game, always expansive, invariably innovative and usually interspersed with anecdotes of his social life.

When another manager came under discussion he would use one of his favourites phrases — ‘show us his medals’. Of course he had them, though fewer than he might have wanted.

When it came to the opposite sex, Big Mal had plenty of trophies, not least the beautiful Bunny Girl Serena Williams, a constant companion for many years. She was not his first conquest.

Whether it was being caught with a Heidi in the Russian sector of Vienna while a virgin soldier, sipping hot chocolate and kirsch with millionaire ladies of Cortina or making love to Christine Keeler in Chelsea, he commanded attention and, yes, envy from his audience.

In his time he had to take evasive action against the wives of rich and powerful football directors, and he recalled that after once buckling under pressure, he heard the wife then ringing her husband to say, ‘I have just spent the afternoon in bed with Malcolm Allison.’

His playing career, with Charlton and West Ham, was cut short by tuberculosis and it took Allison a long time to overcome the depression that followed. The loss of a lung eventually intensified his determination to live life to the full.

Allison’s interest in coaching began at Upton Park, under Ted Fenton, and was fostered at a lower level. The Dagenham boy coached Cambridge University as he sought an opening in the professional game, staggered by their ‘after you Henry’ approach. But it was at Bath and Plymouth that he first earned recognition.

‘He knew the game inside out. He could change a game without writing it down on a piece of paper. Also, his players on the field could change it without looking over to him. He made sure we had footballing brains. He had a wonderful character and that spread right through the side.’

Middlesbrough’s conditioning coach Roger Spry also gave an insight into Allison’s abilities.

He said, ‘In one sense he was a fraud in that he was this flamboyant character to the media and the public, but in private he was quiet and one of the most knowledgeable coaches I have worked with. I have worked with some of the best managers in the business, including Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger, and I would put Malcolm in that category. He really was that good.

‘He was a luminary and a visionary.

‘Mourinho worked with Malcolm and I at Vitoria Setubal and I can see Malcolm’s influence on Jose. He is the best coach in the world and I can see Malcolm in 90 per cent of the things that he does.’

Juventus saw this in Allison in 1969 when they invited him to write his own contract. He had just had his car re-claimed by a finance company and the temptation to move was strong.

Clandestine meetings took place on the moors near Preston but City were about to win the FA Cup. So it was from the celebrations that he flew to Turin in a light blue suit and white shoes to be whisked away in a Ferrari.

Tormented for four days, he went to Rome and then the French Riviera, struggling to make a decision. He turned Juve down because of his affection for City and the players. He was a mate and a mentor to them and soon resumed taking life by the scruff of the neck.

Once, when his old West Ham mate John Bond made references about his private life, he responded, ‘Both my wives were upset.’

To a young Bobby Moore he had said, ‘Keep forever asking yourself if I get the ball now, who will I give it to?’

It was so simple, so easy, so real. No doubt they will be enjoying their reunion…over a glass of champagne, of course.

by Buford Balony


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