Malcolm Allison and the Modernisation of English Football

Malcolm Allison - cigar

Playboy, character or revolutionary?

Rarely are such terms used to describe the same person and that is what made Malcolm Alexander Allison such an enigma to those who knew him. Allison was hugely influential in the introduction of modern training systems in 1960s England but his reputation as a trainer was often overshadowed by matters off the pitch. A shame when one considers Allison helped spread ideas about weight training, aerobic fitness and nutrition in a sport renowned for its archaic training methods.

Born in Dartford, England in 1927, Malcolm Allison was only a boy when he discovered football. Soon he was hooked. So passionate was Allison about playing the game that he deliberately failed School entry exams so he could attend a school that played football. It wasn’t a conventional path, but Allison was always a bit different. During National Service in WW2, Allison had spent time observing and trying out training methods from the Russian Army. When he returned to England Allison set about implementing such methods in his own career.

Malcolm began his career in football with Erith & Belvedere before signing with Charlton Athletic in 1945. He had only played two first-team games in six years with Charlton before being signed by Ted Fenton for West Ham United for a fee of £7,000 in 1951. Charlton had sold Allison after Allison had fallen out with the training staff. He had described their pre-season training as archaic and out-dated. Unsurprisingly they weren’t pleased.

Once at West Ham Allison, flourished spending six years with the club before his career was cut short by a bout of tuberculosis. More than a player, Allison had spent his years with the Hammers learning more and more about training. It was during his time in London that Allison gained a reputation for being a considerate and inventive player. A player who placed great importance in training, at a time when many coaches’ idea of fitness was the ability to run around a pitch 5 times before heading home.

Soccer - Football League Division Two - West Ham United v Birmingham City

Allison in his playing days with West Ham United

Under Ted Fenton, Allison took charge of coaching sessions with the club. An incredible development for a member of the playing staff. In later years Allison would reflect

“I took charge of the coaching at West Ham. I built the attitude. We used to get together and I used to make them come back for training in the afternoons.”

Allison also acted as mentor to future stars such as England World Cup winning captain Bobby Moore and coupled with this, Allison was a leading figure in the creation of a youth academy at West Ham. Following his battle with tuberculosis Allison left the game altogether for a number of years, becoming a car salesman before returning to football in the early 1960s.

His first port of call?

Cambridge University. It wasn’t London, but it was a start. He soon gained a reputation for having new and exciting ideas whilst at Cambridge and not long after his appointment at Cambridge, found himself recruited by non-league Bath City as manager. One of Allison’s first moves at Bath was to double the number of training sessions . The Bath players, who were all part time, were required to train four days a week. For many it was sacrilegious, for Allison it was necessary.

Bath finished third in the league, and even made it to the third round F.A.Cup before being knocked out by First Division Bolton Wanderers. Allison was getting proof that his training methods were working. Stints soon followed with Toronto F.C. and Plymouth Argyle before Allison was recruited by Manchester City to be Assistant Manager to the then ageing Joe Mercer.

It was at Manchester City that Allison came into his own. Given the freedom by Mercer to train the players exactly how he wanted, Allison set about revolutionising the Mancunian team’s methods.

One of Allison’s first moves as Assistant Manager was to introduce double training sessions to ensure his players would be fit for the season ahead. Soon after exercise bikes and weight training were introduced to the players. The introduction of weight training was particularly incredible given the general apathy of most coaches to strength development and the fear of players becoming ‘muscle bound’.


Allison helped normalise weight training in Soccer

Somewhat a man of his time in this respect, Allison encouraged weight training for younger players and placed less of an emphasis on it as players grew older and matured. Finally, Allison would regularly set up training sessions between City players and Rugby League side Salford at Wythenshawe Park in the belief that it made his players tougher, both mentally and physically.

In an interview upon Allison’s death in 2010, Mike Summerbee, a player under Malcolm told reporters

“Malcolm is the greatest coach this country ever had, without a shadow of a doubt…Malcolm was the key to the door, really. He brought fitness levels to football that are still there now. He was the forerunner of fitness and tactics way beyond his time.

We were doing things in 1965 on running machines at Salford University with massage-based fitness. We trained in Wythenshawe Park with some of the Salford rugby league lads. That’s how hard it was and how good it was.”

h_00250740Summerbee in Training with ex-Great Britain Runner Stan Taylor in 1969. Courtesy of Manchester Evening News

Within two years of his appointment at Assistant Manager, City had won the First Division under the guidance of Joe Mercer. This was followed by FA Cup, League Cup and European Cup-Winners Cup victories. As Gary James argued in Manchester City: The Complete Record

“Allison arrived at Maine Road in July 1965 as assistant manager to Mercer, and by the time he left City had won almost every trophy possible. During those seven years Allison worked closely with the players and it’s worth noting that this relationship fostered a great team spirit, which helped the Blues succeed. His influence was felt throughout the club and his approach was refreshing. His charisma and style brought excitement to sixties Manchester.”

When Allison was appointed Manchester City manager in 1972 hopes were high that his successes would continue. Unfortunately his time as Manager was marked by poor relations with the City board, poor performances on the pitch and discontent amongst the fans. Allison left City in 1973.

Allison went to work with Crystal Palace after City and soon the legend of ‘Big Mal’ was born. Newspapers began to fill column after column about Allison’s outspoken nature and womanising. In 1976, Allison was on the end of an Football Association disrepute charge after a photograph emerged in the British Tabloid The News of the World of Allison in the Crystal Palace players’ bath with porn star Fiona Richmond whom he had invited to a training session.

His love of Fedora Hats and Cigars made him a loveable icon at his clubs after City but in many ways such attention began to overshadow Allison’s revolutionary nature as a coach. Speaking after Allison’s death four years ago, Middlesbrough’s conditioning coach Roger Spry 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 Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger, and I would put Malcolm in that category. He really was that good.”

Malcolm Allison helped to revolutionise English football by bringing in training methods that were decades ahead of his time. This, rather than his outlandish reputation, is his legacy in football.


Allison putting his City Players through their paces, 1969-70

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