The Whisky Option
Malcolm Allison’s time at Sporting was brief but fans remember him fondly
The atmosphere in the malodorous wood-panelled room was clunky and uneasy. A twist of blue smoke drifted slowly from the end of a cigar resting on an ashtray in the middle of the table. Only the sound of a group of children playing football in the street below broke the silence. By the ashtray, dead centre of the table, as if the space had been measured before the objects were set down, lay a single sheet of paper and an unopened bottle of Scotch. João Rocha, the high-profile president of Sporting Clube de Portugal, smoothed his hands over his bald head and, turning to his interlocutor without as much as a smile, said, “I’m afraid it’s one or the other, Malcolm.”
Legend has it that Malcolm Allison’s next move was to lean forward, pick up the bottle and leave the room, the stadium and the club. His time leading Portugal’s famous green and white hoops, brief and glamorously successful, was over in one simple, dramatic Dartford Gunslinger gesture.
To try to understand what might lead Allison to such headstrong actions at the age of 50, we must travel back from the narrow alleyways of early eighties Lisbon to the dank pebbled streets of East London in the fifties. It is a journey which will uncover the flamboyant and seemingly shallow and flash Londoner as a man way ahead of his time, a gifted centre-half and mentor to a young Bobby Moore, who was destined to become an indisciplined but extravagantly gifted coach and one who would eventually be the catalyst for the stellar managerial career of one of the modern game’s biggest names.
The glory years of Malcolm Allison’s Manchester City tenure are well-trodden, the gory years that followed in an ill-thought-out second spell in charge equally familiar, but the sometimes bleak, sometimes vivacious end to his coaching career represented by the three jobs he held in Portugal make a fascinating postscript to the undulating story of a man who found himself operating in a time warp, where all around him struggled to keep up.
Allison played most of his career for West Ham United at a time when the club was building a grand reputation for being a finishing school of aesthetics in English football. The team would later provide Geoff Hurst, Bobby Moore and Martin Peters for England’s 1966 World Cup-winning squad and, later still, under the astute guidance of Ron Greenwood and John Lyall, become known as the West Ham Academy, a homely place where a decent Trevor Brooking pass through midfield was just as likely to gain roars of approval as a bullet header from Clyde Best or a crunching 30-yard drive from Billy Bonds. They may have gained a reputation as a bit of a soft touch to the northern teams, but West Ham United’s eagerness to play the game in the right way was never dimmed by the catcalls.
Allison, then a burly central defender and the assertive mouthpiece of the team, began to influence the manager Ted Fenton’s tactics at West Ham as early as the the 1950s, despite a somewhat frosty relationship between the two men. The journalist and former Arsenal player Bernard Joy later remarked that West Ham’s leaning towards attractive football was designed in part at least to help the locals escape briefly from the drabness of their everyday lives. For this they had Malcolm Allison to thank.
Allison’s teammate Mike Grice said at the time, “Before the weekend, three team sheets would go up for match days. Malcolm would look at them all, take them down and go and see Ted Fenton. When they went up again afterwards, they had invariably changed. After a while we all knew what to expect. Ted would post the team, then Malcolm would go and persuade him to change it.”
Spending long hours after training in Cassettari’s, a small Italian-owned café around the corner from Upton Park, Allison, along with his teammates Noel Cantwell, Phil Woosnam, Frank O’Farrell and John Bond, would spend their time moving salt and pepper pots around the tables, extolling the virtues of fearless attacking football. All would go on to put Allison’s coaching philosophies into practice in their own managerial careers. “As such, what happened at the Boleyn Ground in the fifties can be understood as a kind of revolution, a series of culture changing events, that included worker (player) control…,” said the author Brian Belton. “There was, as John Cartwright [a West Ham youth player who later became England Under-21 manager] described it, a form of communism at the club. The players really ruled it. In short, the dictatorship of the football proletariat.”
Tuberculosis put a premature end to Allison’s playing career, but, by the time he arrived at Manchester City in 1965, he was becoming ‘Big Mal’, the larger-than-life womaniser and champagne connoisseur. A sizeable Havana cigar was never far from his lips, an expensively cut sheepskin coat slung around his giant shoulders, but beneath that brash exterior lay an articulate and innovative football brain. From tactics to match preparation, from diet to the weight and design of the strip, nothing escaped his close attention.
City would undergo a complete revolution, from second-tier no-hopers, playing to crowds as low as 8,000, to European trophy winners and league champions within three years. Allison, under the watchful gaze of the general manager Joe Mercer, engineered the brightest attacking machine English football had seen since the Tottenham double-winning side of 1961. Allison took his inspiration from the great Hungary side of the early fifties and allowed a collection of technically gifted players to take wing. That side, born out of the thick snow of the game that came to be known as ‘The Ballet on Ice’, in which Bill Nicholson’s star-spangled Spurs side was taken apart on a treacherously slippery surface in Manchester in 1967, heralded three magical years of robust and artful attacking football.
With Allison insisting to the television cameras that “it’s a simple game and we try to keep it simple”, he built his side around the rock-solid defending of Mike Doyle and George Heslop, the tireless midfield prompting of Colin Bell and Alan Oakes and an attacking trident of Francis Lee, Neil Young and Mike Summerbee that was constantly fed from the wings by the impish Tony Coleman. Allison’s philosophy of quick, neat, one-touch passing to feet would bring a league title that season, followed by a League Cup and an FA Cup and a European Cup Winners’ Cup in a run un-matched in the club’s history.
Allison’s influence does not stop there, however. Leaving City in 1973, after a misunderstanding with Mercer about managerial structure and succession, and with the great side that they had built beginning to crumble, Allison began a trek through English football, coaching at Crystal Palace and Plymouth Argyle, before leaving England altogether and becoming, in 1981, the last man to coach Sporting to the Portuguese League and Cup double for 30 years.
João Rocha gave Allison a budget for new signings. Among his top-quality reinforcements for the season ahead were the Hungarian goalkeeper Ferenc Mészáros, the defender António Oliveira, António Manuel Nogueira and up-and-coming youngsters like Carlos Xavier and Mário Jorge.
The 1981-82 championship started with a sunny 2-2 draw between Sporting and Belenenses at a packed Estádio José Alvalade. Despite the draw, the crowd registered with pleasure that the team was playing a brand of innovative attacking football. Sporting won their next five games, with the triple-headed attack of Rui Jordão, Oliveira and Manuel Fernandes immediately demonstrating the form that would make them feared. Sporting went 21 games before finally being defeated, by Boavista.
Sportinguistas also became aware of Allison’s brusque sense of humour as the team brushed aside Red Boys of Luxembourg in the Uefa Cup. Asked by a reporter why Sporting’s defence had been jittery, the coach replied, “The defence played badly? What did they have to defend? Red Boys had an attack?”
The next European game was particularly attractive to Allison, as his team was given the opportunity to take him back to England and show his compatriots what they were missing. Allison always loved proving his critics wrong and, somewhere deep inside him, he wanted to hear noises of acceptance from the country that had turned its back on his talent. Sporting’s opponents were Laurie McMenemy’s exciting Southampton side, featuring the likes of Kevin Keegan, Alan Ball, Mick Channon and David Armstrong. At the Dell, Allison’s Sporting were magnificent, running out 4-2 winners and allowing Allison the opportunity to bask in the glory by taking a slow walk along the touchline at the end of the game to receive the applause of the locals.
Sporting beat Rio Ave 7-1 in the game that clinched the championship, with Rui Jordão scoring five of the goals. Sporting finished two points ahead of Benfica in the end, taking their foot off the accelerator after sealing the title, but still lost only three times all season. They also reached the Cup final, in which they faced Sporting Braga. As Allison walked out before the big crowd at Jamor with his customary fedora and cigar, he was upstaged by the Braga coach Quinito, who appeared immediately behind him wearing a tuxedo for the occasion. But on the pitch Allison’s men undressed Braga completely with a sure-footed 4-0 win to clinch the club’s fifth double.
Despite his success in the first year at Alvalade, Allison left the club at the beginning of the following season, with rumours suggesting that Rocha could not stand the attention his coach was getting from the fans and, more importantly, the local and national media. António Oliveira said, “It was a deeply unjust process that was unleashed on Mr Allison. An agent was preparing the smooth arrival of Jozef Vengloš and managed to invent stories about the relationship between Allison and President Rocha.” Oliveira ended up as the immediate beneficiary of the fall-out, replacing the departing Englishman as player-manager while Vengloš’s contract was negotiated.
The story of Rocha, Mal and the bottle of whisky adds drama to an already smouldering scenario. Tales of Allison drinking and womanising on the club’s pre-season jaunt to Romania may also have contributed to his departure. What is certainly true was the impossibility of Big Mal remaining Big Mal with Grande João in the same building. Allison is said to have been last seen leaving the ground with an armful of papers and his newly acquired bottle of Scotch. The fact that he had produced a swashbuckling winning side the like of which green and white fans would not witness for another 18 years (when the club finally brought home another league title under László Bölöni) held little sway with Rocha.
Sporting was Allison’s last big football success. Flops, failures and truncated stays followed at Middlesbrough, Kuwait and Bristol Rovers. “Malcolm was a man who enjoyed life to the full and wanted to transmit the joy of working in the industry of football to all of us players and staff,” said Oliveira.
Allison – with time and the ravages of the good life swiftly catching up with him – still had time to alight at a football outpost called Setúbal. He had wondered about his damaged reputation in football after hitting so many bum notes in the British press, but in Portugal he was revered as a coaching giant and, as he exited the airport in Lisbon, he was mobbed by well-wishers who remembered what he had done for Sporting.
Even to this day, he remains popular. On a recent taxi ride from Lisbon airport, I hazarded the usual football conversations with the driver and on mentioning Malcolm Allison, almost caused the man to drive across the middle of the Rotunda do Relógio, the manic roundabout situated outside the airport. “Malcolm Allison, the great Mister” apparently still held the affections of Sportinguistas everywhere.
Vitória de Setúbal were down on their luck, slumbering in the second division when the new coach breezed in under a cloud of cigar smoke one morning. In a quiet town of sardine grills and Atlantic sunshine Allison began to be rebuild. He brought half of his Sporting heroes the 35 kilometres south from Lisbon. The captain Manuel Fernandes, the goalscorer Jordão, the centre-back Eurico and the midfielders Ademar and Zezinho all arrived, as did the scruffy keeper Ferenc Mészáros.
Soon Allison had Vitória on the way to promotion. It was around this time, in mid-1987, that Vitória’s goalkeeping coach began to take his son along to training sessions. His son was a Physical Education student in Lisbon and, at 24, was keen to learn from interesting and innovative teachers. He was fascinated and soon became a permanent fixture at squad training. The goalkeeping coach was called Felix Mourinho.
Felix had been a stalwart goalkeeper for Vitória and had kept goal for them in the inaugural game at the Estádio do Bonfim. He later turned out for CF Belenenses and managed Rio Ave. José Mourinho has been spoken of as a disciple of many of the great coaches he worked with, but it was while watching Allison’s unique brand of tactical innovation and free thinking that he gained his first insights into the world of football management and tactics.
Roger Spry was Allison’s conditioning coach at Setúbal and had the young José as his assistant. He said, “In one sense he [Allison] 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 José Mourinho and Arsène Wenger, and I would put Malcolm in that category. He really was that good. He was a luminary and a visionary and a teacher. Mourinho worked with Malcolm and me at Vitória de Setúbal and I can see Malcolm’s influence on José. I can see Malcolm in 90% of the things that he does. Malcolm would make every player under him believe he was the best in the world in their position. José is the same.”
Allison’s spell in Setúbal also revealed another side of life to a man who had been brought up in London and had lived with the trappings of the champagne life ever since. He found peace living in a beautiful farmstead tucked into the rolling splendour of the Arrábida hills, a ridge of mountains separating the Atlantic Ocean from the rich pastures around Palmela and Setúbal. There, content to drink glasses of the sparkling vinho verde and enjoy the delights of clams in white wine and grilled sea bream, Allison was said to have reached peace with himself. His partner Lynn accompanied him and they enjoyed a bucolic lifestyle.
Having got Vitória into the top flight, it all went sour again for Allison, as the club struggled to finish eighth the following season. The coach picked up a seven-week touchline ban for abusing a referee and began to fall foul of the fans too, who booed him in a late-season game loss at home to Salgueiros. With the club’s president keeping half an eye on Manuel Fernandes, Allison’s Sporting and Vitória captain, who was readying himself for a first step into football management, the axe fell once more.
Allison’s reaction was to move to the Algarve, where the president of Farense, Fernando Barata, offered him a job. António Boronha, a colleague of Barata’s, remembers Allison’s stay there well. “Every Monday we would have lunch with him,” he said, “an expansive period, spent talking about the good things in life, at a restaurant called ‘Green’ in honour of his continuing affection for Sporting.”
Boronha would become president after Barata and struck up a friendship with Allison as the coach drifted towards the end of his managerial career among the fishing shacks and cobbled streets of Faro. “I would often enjoy spending a couple of hours with Mal, going over the previous day’s match,” he explained. “Always in good spirit, always humorous, always in a fine mood, despite it being a bad season for us.
“We ended up being relegated and Malcolm left under a cloud after a home defeat by Braga with the total indignation of the fans ringing in his ears. He had played our central defender, a Brazilian called Luisão, up front. Fernando Barata left with him in the end. Paco Fortes followed as trainer and I, three months later, as President.”
For Allison, it was the beginning of the end. The maverick trainer, whose stay in Portugal mirrored the highs and lows of his managerial career elsewhere, had only the bottle ahead of him.
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