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The Sad Story of Malcolm Allison

John Simkin

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I highly recommend David Tossell's new book, "Big Mal: The High Life and Hard Times of Malcolm Allison". I thought forum members might be interested in reading the opening two pages:

It was still only late August, the opening weeks of the 2006-07 season, but the familiar pattern had been re-established already. Even on their own ground, little consideration had been given to the likelihood of Manchester City achieving victory against a multinational, multi-talented Arsenal team whose ambitions of winning another Premiership title contrasted starkly to the home club's more modest aspirations for the coming campaign. A penalty scored by City's Joey Barton appeared merely to be delaying the inevitable. For most fans in the City of Manchester Stadium, games between these sides had usually conformed to this recognisable blueprint.

Spotting a recognisable face in the crowd, the Sky Sports cameras homed in. Here was a man whose influence almost 40 years earlier had made things very different. A man whose vision, planning, motivational powers and, often, sheer force of personality had made Manchester City the team against whom the likes of Arsenal measured themselves. The graphics operators hurriedly got to work. Up went the caption, "Malcolm Allison, former Manchester City coach". Commentators were sufficiently distracted from the latest piece of Thierry Henry trickery to purr at the memory of Allison's achievements at the club: four major triumphs in a three-year span, including a complete set of domestic trophies and a European success.

Young viewers knowing only of life in the glossily packaged days of endless live televised football - even those who had flown in the face of the modern trend by following City instead of rivals United - blinked unknowingly at their screens. Those a little older might at least have been somewhat familiar with the name, perhaps heard some of the outrageous stories with which it had become associated. Anyone who had been watching football when Allison was in his glorious, exaggerated prime in the 1960s through to the19'80s, was shocked by what they saw, even those who had heard the stories of his mental deterioration. The imposing physical figure was still evident under his grey jacket, even if it was hunched forward in his seat, but the eyes that used to sparkle with a potent mix of charm, wit and cunning seemed glazed and distant. The expression behind which a thousand schemes used to play, whether planning the next big game or deciding where to dine with his latest female companion, appeared bereft of any indication that he was aware of his surroundings.

On one hand, it was painful to see how one of the most expansive minds and sharpest personalities in football's recent history had been diminished by the illness of dementia, into whose grip he had been slipping more completely over the previous five years. At the same time it was a chance to turn to younger companions and say, "See that guy there? Well, let me tell you..."

Preparation of this book was already well under way at the time of Allison's televised visit to the club where he had written himself into football's lore. Those interviewed in the aftermath shared those mixed feelings: sorrow at Allison's plight; pride that their careers, and lives, had been touched by him; and gratitude that, at least fleetingly, he had emerged from a regimented existence in his council-run nursing home and was back in the public eye, being acknowledged for something more than the fedora hat and fat cigar that had become the enduring image of the man they called Big Mal.

The ravages of his illness were something that Malcolm was powerless to prevent, although reports have suggested that his excessive alcoholic intake over the years contributed to the onset of his Alzheimer's-type affliction. His achievements in the game should, however, have afforded him the ability to live out his years in a little more physical comfort than has been the case. Scarcely any personal possessions survived the excesses of a man who placed no import on the accumulation of long-term wealth. Instead, his idea of being rich in his final days, he used to tell friends, was to be able to sit in a rocking chair with a big smile on his face, remembering - without regret - all the good times: the on-field success, the cigars, the best wines and all the beautiful women he had bedded. The cruel irony is that not only did the money all go, but many of those precious memories were eventually taken from him as well.

Malcolm Allison is of course not the only footballer suffering from dementia. Only today it was announced that Bill Shorthouse, who played for Wolves after the war, died in a nursing home after suffering for many years with dementia. Joe Mercer and Bob Paisley both suffered from dementia before they died. As pointed out by The Encyclopedia of British Football: "On wet days the ball grew increasingly heavy as the leather soaked up large amounts of liquid. This, together with the lacing that protected the valve of the bladder, made heading the ball not only unpleasant but also painful and dangerous." A large number of football players in the past have suffered long-term brain damage because of repeated heading of a heavy, wet ball.

Stan Cullis, the Wolves centre-half was warned by a doctor in 1946 that even heading a heavy leather football could prove fatal and despite now being England's captain, Cullis decided to retire from playing game. In his later years, Cullis suffered from dementia. In 2002 a coroner said it was likely that the death of former West Bromwich Albion centre-forward, Jeff Astle, had been caused by "repeated small traumas to the brain".

Research carried out by D. R. Williams in 2002 concluded that repetitive mild head trauma over the course of an amateur and professional footballer's career may increase an individual's risk of developing dementia in later life.


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