Life in a footballing wonderland with Allison

NORMAN GILLER celebrates the lives of two larger than life football figures, Malcolm Allison and Eddie Baily

They don't have book launches like this anymore: Malcolm Allison in typical style in 1975

If all the beautiful ladies Malcolm Allison “escorted” – euphemistically speaking – were to turn up at his funeral on Monday, they would need Wembley Stadium as the venue.

It may sound disrespectful, but Big Mal would have laughed louder than anybody.

In the summertime of his life, Malcolm Allison was a devastatingly handsome man. Brian Clough said Allison  “was too handsome for his own good”, and he turned the heads of more women than a Roger Federer service. He fitted perfectly the title of Last Playboy of the Western World.

There is not a football reporter from my generation who will not have a story or three to share about Big Mal. I knew him longer than most because I just happened to be working as a reporter on his patch at the lowest moment of his life.

Eerily – just two days before he died last week – I dispatched an article on the West Ham team I covered for the Stratford Express to a marvellous retro football magazine called BackPass, run by small squad headed by talented sports journalist Mike Berry. Part of the article reads:

“Allison – Big Mal – was the tactician of the West Ham team, then in the Second Division. He and Noel Cantwell virtually ran things and used to tell manager Ted Fenton how they would play on the Saturday.

“Bobby Moore was in awe of Allison, who played in what in those days was called the left-half position – wearing the No6 shirt. It was the position and the shirt that Bobby inherited when Big Mal cruelly had his career cut short by tuberculosis during the 1957-58 season, when West Ham were promoted as Second Division champions.

“Many years later Bobby told me: ‘Malcolm was my mentor, who took me under his wing. He told me not to listen to anything Ted Fenton had to say about tactics, that he was stuck in the past. Malcolm had been in the crowd at Wembley the day Hungary beat England 6-3, and he was one of the leaders of a tactical revolution in our game.

“‘Then, when Brazil won the World Cup in 1958, he was one of the loudest voices saying we should be playing 4-2-4 and not 2-3-5. Even when he became ill and I took over his position, he was always encouraging and advising me. Mal has a lot of critics because of his flamboyant lifestyle, but he has one of the best football brains in the British game, and I want to acknowledge all that he did for me in my early days’.”

Within 48 hours of me writing those words, the sad news came of Malcolm’s death at the age of 83. The miracle is that he made old bones, because from the minute he recovered from having part of a lung removed he lived every day as if it was his last.

I was reunited with him a couple of years after his operation, when he opened a drinking club in the West End just a brief walk from the Daily Herald office where I was subbing. At the same time he was bank rolling a professional gambler.

But Malcolm was aching to get back into football and – with the drinking club proving a punt and a pint too far – he went west first with Bath City and then Plymouth Argyle, before getting the call from wise old Joe Mercer at Manchester City.

It was at City where Big Mal really flourished. Maine Road was a stage made for him, and in James Lawton he was paired with a journalist who could match his flair for inventive football ideas with beautifully crafted words.

In his Independent obituary, Lawton – with his natural modesty – was silent on the huge part he played in the making of Malcolm Allison. He ghosted him throughout the glory years at Maine Road in a brilliantly produced weekly supplement in the northern Daily Express, and collaborated with Big Mal on a superior autobiography (Colours of My Life).

It was the Lawton sentences that gave sense, shape and meaning to the often woolly and romantic Allison ideas. He was the Boswell to Allison’s Johnson, and as we mourn Malcolm’s passing let us remember those golden years when he was the brightest and most innovative of coaches and a good-times companion beyond compare. We will not see his like again.

I thought the most fitting of the obituaries was penned for the Daily Mail by my old Express colleague Steve Curry, capturing the wild and wicked side of Big Mal yet balancing it by revealing that underneath the flamboyant exterior was a man haunted by insecurities.

Because of his gambling nature, Malcolm was always walking a tightrope of uncertainty and his last years were miserable because he had blown all his money, and his old age was accompanied by the curse of ill health.

But I prefer to think of him in the golden days when he could claim to be God’s gift to women and to football.

Curry told Mail readers the true story of when, in his managing days, he was bedded by the wife of his club chairman. After they had gone the full 90 minutes – and no doubt extra-time – she picked up the bedside telephone and rang her husband. “I have just screwed your manager,” she said.

But they left out the punchline to that story, that Malcolm provided one day when I was interviewing him in his unofficial headquarters at the Park Lane Playboy Club. It was for a Tom Clark-ordered feature I was writing in the Evening Standard headlined “Allison Through the Looking Glass”.

“The chairman had a terrible dilemma,” said Big Mal, with his trademark grin between puffs on his giant Havana.

“He had to decide whether to divorce his wife or sack me. It was cheaper to get rid of me, so I was on my bike …”

You won’t get that sort of quote from today’s managers.

JUST A FEW HOURS before Malcolm died, we had news of the passing of 85-year-old Eddie Baily, the “Cheeky Chappie” of the Push and Run Spurs who later became Billy Nicholson’s assistant manager at White Hart Lane.

Cheeky chap: Eddie Baily

Eddie could pass a ball as well as David Beckham, but with his left foot as well as his right.

He was never allowed to forget that he was in the England team beaten 1-0 by the United States in the 1950 World Cup, along with Spurs team mate Alf Ramsey. Cockney Eddie told me:  “I created at least 10 goal-scoring chances, so I ain’t taking the blame for the defeat.”

He was a sergeant-major of a coach at Tottenham, and was continually at war with any players who did not pull their weight. He once caught Jimmy Greaves taking a lift on a milk float during a pre-season cross-country run. When Eddie reported Greavsie to Bill Nicholson, the Spurs boss shrugged and said: “That’s Jim for you …”

Eddie was furious that no disciplinary action was taken, and from then on he and Jim were at loggerheads. “Eddie was Victor Meldrew long before he was created,” Greavsie told me this week.

“We just could not get on the same wavelength. Perhaps we were too similar! But I’ll tell you what, he would be worth his weight in gold in today’s game for his passing accuracy. His sort of skill is just what Capello is missing.”

Big Mal and Eddie were both likable, larger than life characters. I wonder who will tell them when they get Up There that God’s seat is already taken?

Read Norman Giller’s previous columns for the SJA website by clicking here

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