It was one of the most emblematic images of English football during the 1970s. In 1976, Third Division side Crystal Palace beat Chelsea, of the Second Division, 3-2 at Stamford Bridge in a thrilling fifth round FA Cup tie.
During the game, in addition to shots of fans fighting on the terraces, the camera kept cutting away to the Palace manager, Malcolm Allison – in the main stand due to a touchline ban – raising his ‘lucky fedora’ after each Palace goal. It was both a gimmick and a superstition following a Palace victory in an earlier round and so Allison, playing to the media, continued to wear it.
Yet the nature of the media coverage was also reflective of Allison’s career trajectory. As his biographer has noted, during this period, he made the transition from football man to ‘Big Mal’, the celebrity.
In the first part of his career, Allison had established a reputation as one of the most forward-thinking coaches in post-war British football. He had been a member of the West Ham Academy where players would discuss tactics at a local café, Cassettari, and was part of an emerging football technocracy.
Coaching was Allison’s calling. He regularly attended courses at Lilleshall and was highly regarded at the Football Association.
Malcolm Allison was a celebrity as well as a football manager.
Between 1965 and 1971, he formed a successful partnership with Joe Mercer at Manchester City, winning the league (1968), the FA Cup (1969) and the European Cup Winners’ Cup (1970). Allison had coveted the manager’s job, but when he took over in 1971, Man City were unable to replicate past successes.
Two years later, he swapped Maine Road for Selhurst Park.
Allison had also cultivated a reputation for maverick-like tendencies through the media. Most famously, he was a pundit on ITV’s 1970 World Cup panel, where he was unafraid to voice his opinions. Following his departure from Man City, his managerial career was not only bound up with his colourful lifestyle, which became a magnet for the tabloid press, but it was also a peripatetic one and he never won another trophy in English football.
His appointment at Crystal Palace (1973-76) would be the first of 15 jobs over the next 15 years, including second spells at both Maine Road and Selhurst Park. Virtually every job was without success except for a brief spell in Portugal with Sporting Lisbon (1982-83), who won a league and cup double.
His final job was with Bristol Rovers in 1992/93.
Despite this lack of success, Allison's career reflected wider changes in the role of the football manager, in particular, the game’s ever-closer relationship with the media. Not only were the boundaries of sport and entertainment becoming increasingly blurred, but the growing media spotlight on managers also highlighted how the figure of the manager itself was gaining greater cultural legitimacy, and Allison had been at the centre of this relationship.
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