Book Review: Big Mal
Big Mal: The High Life and Hard Times of Malcolm Allison, Football Legend
By David Tossell
September 2009, £7.99, ISBN: 9781845964788
We recently introduced to the sidebar a table of links to some football-related book reviews that we (well, mostly LR) have written, either on here or Goodreads. Having since enjoyed two splendidly thoughtful pieces from LR on Inverting the Pyramid and Why England Lose, I thought that it was about time that I got in on the act. The literary fiction was put to one side and I dusted off mum’s Christmas hardback, David Tossell’s biography of Malcolm Allison — a man that I didn’t really know the first thing about even though, along with Tony Waiters and Paul Sturrock, he is lauded as one of my team’s greatest managers.
My intentions were good. A comprehensive and witty review has been in my head for weeks. It was going to be great. But then I got apathetic. I’m not saying that it wasn’t a good biography. I enjoyed it. Allison played and started his coaching career in a time of flux and change, and Tossell vividly describes the role he played in ushering in a new era of skimpy shorts, gleaming white footballs and the end of the maximum wage. Cafe Casseteri, the Hungarians and all that. It’s just that I’ve read a few of these now — I went on a little Clough spree a while back when I notched up the brilliant Provided You Don’t Kiss Me and the not-so-good Damned United. A mild interest in Reading also saw me pick up The Greatest Footballer You Never Saw, a quite stunning biography of the mercurial and fatally troubled Robin Friday. The correlations between these characters are clear — each were extraordinarily talented, sometimes successful, but ultimately flawed. And that’s where my apathy comes in. How many of these dilettantes do we genuinely have in the game today? At this minute? Even if they do still exist, the circumstances for them to evolve and shine are so different, so sanitised, that it just doesn’t happen. Instead, we’ve now got to a point where we park up our cars in B&Q and nip in for a zinger on the way to the Madejskis and the Walkers, and pretty much know that, in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter.
Fans watching a team of Allison or Clough’s wouldn’t have said that. Teams could rise up through the divisions and challenge. There wasn’t a league-within-a-league, or a Champions League Group stage in sight and that’s what I find so depressing about reading books like this. The ‘Big Mal’ moniker, the establishment of West Ham as the Academy of Football, climbing the pyramid with spells at Cambridge University, Bath City and Plymouth, winning the First Division with Man City just two years after promotion to it; it’s all like a distant dream. And that was just half the story. Like Harry Pearson’s favourable WSC review describes, Allison’s was a life that was lived to the full. At least that’s what I thought. I read this presuming that Allison had died because there’s no dialogue with the subject whatsoever, and it’s written in such an elegiac tone. How wretched it was to find out, then, that ‘Big Mal’, riddled by alcohol and dementia, is still clinging on in a Sale nursing home. That’s where Tossell ends, and it’s with genuine sorrow that one comes to terms with how Malcolm Allison, once at the vanguard of the game loved by millions in this country, is seeing his days out so lonesomely. That’s on another level of poignant sadness to a stop off at KFC.