Malcolm Allison - 1927-2010


by John Helliar, West Ham United Historian.

When Ted Fenton, as the new manager of West Ham United upon succeeding Charlie Paynter in the summer of 1950, realised in order for the club to be successful in the future it would have to develop its own young talent he was pragmatic enough to see that it would be a long-term project.

Nevertheless, with the backing of his chairman, Reg Pratt, and the club's chief scout, Wally St. Pier, a youth development policy and programme was begun to be implemented. The fruits of that then far sighted policy Fenton knew would not be seen for several years - perhaps if at all. In the meantime his priority was to get the Hammers out of the Second Division and into the top flight of English soccer.

By an astute piece of transfer dealing Fenton was able to generate some much needed funds, and knowing he needed to strengthen his defence paid £7,000 to sign the then 22-year-old Malcolm Allison, a centre-half, from close rivals Charlton Athletic in February 1951.

The arrival of Allison was hugely significant in many ways and represented a watershed in the history of the Hammers. It was a move that would prove to literally end the career of club captain Dick Walker who had been at the Boleyn Ground since 1934. Now in his late thirties Walker had become a legend whilst playing in the claret and blue strip and was recognised as the leader of the team and its standard bearer with his powerful personality and imposing stature.

Allison, inspite of what some considered his supposed youthful age, was a hugely confident figure in his own mind and quickly showed that trait to his often older colleagues. Likewise, Allison was a keen student of modern, continental football and a man impatient for success as well as being a master tactician and innovator.

Despite their contrasting personalities, the manager and his new protégé were united by ambition, and the unlikely combination would prove to be the driving force throughout the ensuing decade of great change at Upton Park which would see the Hammers become one of the major players in English football with their style of play and a certain degree of success on the field.

The arrival of a new crop of players in the early 1950s, such as Frank O'Farrell, John Bond, Noel Cantwell, Jimmy Andrews, and then a couple of seasons later with Dave Sexton, Malcolm Musgrove and the emergence of Ken Brown led to a new era of more youthful faces making their mark in the first team.

It was, however, Allison who became the leader of this group; by way of his ideas and far sightedness ; who in later decades, as they moved into football coaching and management, would become the first graduates of what was soon to be known as the West Ham Academy.

It was often after having completed their training sessions in the grounds of the Boleyn Castle, attached to the Boleyn Ground stadium, that Allison and his colleagues met in the upper room of a local café. There they discussed tactics and everything concerning soccer in all its various elements from training sessions, fitness, dietary matters, the type of boots worn, and many other aspects of what was in the next few years to see the start of a revolution in our national sport.

As Fenton could be considered to be the "founding father" of the Hammers youth development scheme, Allison, similarly, could and should be attributed with the title and honour of being the "founding father" of the West Ham Academy system that developed during his time at Upton Park.

It was a legacy that not only Fenton but subsequent managers such as Ron Greenwood, John Lyall, et al would reap the benefits of in future decades. The youth development scheme was an integral part of what became known as the West Ham Academy, which in later decades many thought of as just the development of youth footballers but it also encompassed the ideals of coaching skills as well.

With Fenton's blessing Allison took charge of the coaching sessions that helped pave the way for the aspiring youngsters that Wally St. Pier and his team of scouts found as they watched the many hundreds of games of school and youth football they saw in East London, Essex and the surrounding areas throughout the year.

It was St. Pier's job to encourage the youngsters to come to the Boleyn Ground for training sessions, usually on a Tuesday and Thursday evening after school, where Malcolm Allison and his senior colleagues developed and honed the skills that would make the youngsters hopefully the stars of the future.

Although it would take until the conclusion of the 1957/58 season for the Hammers to finally get back to the First Division, it was soon evident that the youth policy instigated by Fenton and rolled out under the watchful eye of Allison was soon bearing fruit. Youngsters such as Bobby Moore, John Lyall, Geoff Hurst, and then Martin Peters, were just some of the more famous names to benefit from tuition under the ever watchful gaze of Allison and his fellow professionals. Soon successes were being seen, not only in the local leagues in which the Hammers youngsters played, but in the various national cup competitions they entered.

As a master tactician and innovator off the field Allison's contribution on the field is often overlooked but for most of the 1950's Mal Allison was the regular No 5 in the West Ham team.

In all he made more than 250 senior league and cup appearances, scoring ten goals, between his arrival in 1951 and 1957. It was at the conclusion of the 1957/58 season that the Hammers would return to the First Division after an absence of 26 years.

Unfortunately for Allison he was to miss most of that championship season as he was taken ill after a match at Sheffield United on 16 eptember 1957. The diagnosis was he had caught TB which resulted in him having one of his lungs removed.

Undeterred he battled tremendously hard to return to fitness, making steady progress in the reserves until in the following September in the sixth fixture of the new season he had an opportunity to return to first-team action. For all his playing career he had desired to play in the First Division of the Football League, but it would be an ambition he would never achieve.

With a number of his first choice No6's injured, manager Fenton had to make an agonising decision who to play in that position for the visit of Manchester United on an autumn evening in early September 1958. The choice was either the experienced Allison who had fought his way back to fitness, against all the odds, or a 17-year-old called Bobby Moore - the young pretender who was hungry for his first big chance and who Allison had been the mentor of since his arrival at Upton Park some four years before.

It was Malcolm's great friend, Noel Cantwell, then captain of the team, that Fenton turned to for advice and his opinion was to nominate Moore for his debut, well knowing that it would be a devastating blow to Allison to be second choice.

Moore later in his biography related the story of that night saying: "I'd been a professional for two and a half months and Malcolm had taught me everything I knew. For all the money in the world I wanted to play. For all the money in the world I wanted Malcolm to play.

"It would have meant the world to him. Just one more game, just one minute in that game."

That match would see the birth of a new career for a youngster as a professional footballer and the end of his career at West Ham United for a seasoned pro who had taught the youngster all he knew. Such was the bond between the pupil and his mentor that both would feel sadness over the manager's decision to opt for the younger alternative.

Allison in later years would say that Moore was always seeking him out as his career developed to constantly ask him questions and hang on his every word as he learnt his trade as a young footballer. The respect the two had for each other was enormous.

With the passing of Malcolm Allison today both are undoubtedly now reunited, in another place not of this world, talking tactics and remembering the better times when they forged a bond as each in his own way helped change the face of English football in the following decades.

Allison after finishing his playing career at Romford in the Southern League then took up coaching. Cambridge University and a spell in Toronto led to his first step into management at Bath City, from where he moved to Plymouth Argyle then a successful time (1965-71) with Joe Mercer at Manchester City, where they won all the domestic honours. He then had two years in charge on his own before going to Crystal Palace.

His champagne lifestyle where his flamboyance was characterised by his fedora hat, camel hair coat and big cigars earned him the nickname of "Big Mal" before a return to Maine Road followed by spells with Sporting Lisbon (and another championship) Middlesbrough, non-League side Willington and then back to the big time as coach to Kuwait and Bristol Rovers.

His philosophy of 'play to win - but do it with style' was a precept that the fans loved and with his outlook on life made him the fans favourite wherever he went.

One of the many who was to benefit from the knowledge that Malcolm Allison imparted to his many students was a former Hammers youngster, John Cartwright, who although his senior team opportunities were restricted at Upton Park did coach not only England Youth but also around the world.

In later years Cartwright said of Malcolm Allison : "He should be revered. They should have a statue to him at West Ham . . . he laid the foundations for the success of the club - not by what he did on the field, but the knowledge he gave to other people."

Perhaps no greater tribute could be given to Malcolm Allison whose like we shall not see again.