Saturday, 23 April 2016


The washing out of a long planned trip to Northallerton has left me with nothing much to report footballistically (as Arsene Wenger might say) except...

At Brunton Park two weeks back a bloke along the barrier in The Paddock bellowed 'Get it in the middle for Christ's sake!' every time Carlisle crossed the half-way line, and, when the Cumbrians responded by hoofing the ball into the penalty area, groaned 'Fucking route one again, Jesus.'

He reminded me of the gnarly old bird at Ironworks Road who yelled 'Stop interfering and let them get on with the game, man' every time the ref signalled a foul and 'Did you leave your bloody whistle in the dressing room, referee?' whenever he didn't.

It's not just match officials who need to 'show a bit of consistency...'

Lunch with David Roberts, author of The Bromley Boys followed by Benfield v Guisborough for me today. And it looks like it won't rain...

A story told me by another Dave Roberts - the Teesside version - coincidentally features in this piece about former Boro boss and local radio commentary legend, Malcolm Allison. I met Big Mal once in a pub near Durham. We'd been filming interviews for a documentary about the England national team. I was surprised how short he was. In football bigness isn't about physical stature - there are large players and managers who aren't Big and medium sized ones that are. And Big Mal was definitely Big, however small he was.

In October 1982 when the Dartford-born Malcolm Allison took charge at Ayresome Park he was pretty much the apotheosis of cockney swank. Fedora hats, big cigars, champagne and snaps of him wallowing in the communal baths at Selhurst Park with the Crystal Palace team and soft-porn star Fiona Richmond had established the personality known as Big Mal as an internationally renowned flash wideboy. Even Terry 'El Tel' Venables, a Palace player at the time of the Richmond incident (he sensibly ducked out of that particular photo opportunity), looked modest and dull when set beside him.

Eighteen years ago the arrival of Allison, who had recently won the Portuguese double with Sporting Lisbon, caused a mssive stir on Teesside. The club was in huge trouble. Bottom of the Second Division with crowds rarely breaking five figures they had moved from flirting with financial ruin to groping with it in the coat pile. In such desperate times Allison was hailed as the Messiah and toured round town on an open-topped bus. He averted relegation.

That summer the public responded to Big Mal's appeals and turned up by the hundred to help re-decorate Ayresome Park. They were joined by a number of players. How times have changed.

Allison's response to all this excitement was suitably mysterious. He employed Lenny Heppel - owner of  Fandango's, a Hexham nightclub and father-in-law of Bryan 'Pop' Robson - as a body movement coach and ordered thousands of badges bearing the motto "I was there at the beginning" to be distributed with season tickets at the start of his first term. Later he suggested that the Ayresome Park pitch be dyed orange and that the club should close down. He was sacked after 18 months. 
The story of Allison's life is a cautionary tale about the media and the dangers of self parody. Despite the trauma of having his playing career cut short by TB, Allison’s early years were full of promise. He was one of a generation of young British players awakened to a brave new world by Ferenc Puskas’s Hungary – a team that were to football what Elvis would be to popular music. The youthful Allison, whether he was talking tactics in Cassetari’s Cafe with Frank O’Farrell, John Bond and Noel Cantwell, coaching Cambridge University, or introducing the sweeper system to Bath City, was then the very epitome of an earnest young radical, brimming over with ideas. He wanted players to eat properly, to attain high fitness levels, to switch formations at the click of his fingers. He was fascinated by continental methods, willing to embrace techniques from the coaches of other sports. He brought all his thoughts together in a cerebral, serious book, Soccer for Thinkers, which was hailed as visionary. Bill Shankly came to seek his opinion. It seemed that everything and anything was possible.

Then, after the title success at Maine Road, came the 1970 World Cup and a seat behind a desk in ITV’s studios next to Derek Dougan, Paddy Crerand and Bob McNab. In a matter of weeks the cerebral Allison became a loudmouthed champagne-swigging, cigar-chewing TV personality, Big Mal was born. 

In many ways Allison’s career mimicked that of Brian Clough. Clough’s playing days ended suddenly, too. He became famous as a coach and then as an outspoken TV personality, and, like Allison, had a problematic relationship with alcohol. The difference was that after Leeds United Clough consciously stepped out of the limelight and went back to focus on football. Big Mal never did. A fly-on-the-wall documentary team even captured his departure from Maine Road after his disastrous second spell at City.
“Having won four major trophies in three years, Allison did not win a single thing in English football after the birth of Big Mal,” David Tossell his biographer wrote. “It seems to be more than coincidence.”
Despite his sacking by Boro,  Allison stayed on Teesside, managing Northern League Willington for several months (he succeeded Alan 'If the fans want entertainment they can go to the circus' Durban). For a while he worked in the commentary box for local radio as an expert summariser. Unfortunately his language was sometimes too salty for comfort. After an incident during a derby match with Newcastle in which Big Mal made use of what the late Brian Close memorable called 'the conjugative verb' it was decreed that he could continue in his job only if he was given a special microphone button. The button had to be pressed to make the microphone live, an arrangement it was thought that would prevent any more on air outbursts.
The button proved troublesome however. By them Big Mal was getting on in years and his co-ordination was poor. Quite often by the time he'd pressed the button he was already half-way through a sentence.
Big Mal hit on a simple solution to the problem. Once the game started he put the button on his seat and sat on it. Listeners no longer missed the start of his comments. Unfortunately they didn't miss the swearing either.


  1. Hi Harry. I remember Big Mal's first game in charge of Boro because it was against my lot, QPR, who were riding high in Division 1 under the management of Terry Venables, in the days before he was lured off to a supposedly bigger club and became El Tel. Needless to say, 'new manager syndrome' kicked in and your lot won. These days, if new manager syndrome still worked, some clubs, most notably the two in Nottingham but mine too, would have more false dawns than a nuclear winter.

  2. I like this place. I was here the other night, I've been there for about four or five hours and found the prices reasonable on all fronts and the staff to be so friendly. I would be the perfect person to have on an infomercial for these home studios NYC if they ever had one.