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Mercer/Allison and Zola/Clarke

John Simkin

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In 1965 Manchester City appointed Joe Mercer as their manager. The following year he employed Malcolm Allison as his chief coach. Mercer was 51 years old and had previously managed Sheffield United and Aston Villa. His only success had been to get Sheffield United promoted to the First Division. He was not rated as an outstanding manager but was recognized as one of the nicest men in football. What is more, he was known as someone willing to take orders from the chairman.

Allison was only 38 years old. He also had an undistinguished career as a manager and coach of Bath City and Plymouth Argyle. Allison mainly got the job because Mercer had heard about the great job he had done as unofficial coach of West Ham between 1955 and 1957.

Although Allison was in hospital with tuberculosis when the Irons won the Second Division championship in 1958 it was well-known in football circles that it was the unofficial coach who was mainly responsible for this success. Mercer was shrewd enough to realize that he would never be a successful manager unless he employed someone as talented as Allison to coach the players. However, Mercer was taking a terrible gamble with Allison who was a compulsive gambler and a manic depressive. He also had a serious drink problem, although at this stage he was not yet an alcoholic (that came later).

Allison took over complete control of team affairs. He not only took over all the training sessions (except when he had been on a bender the night before) but was also responsible for tactics and team-talks.

The first objective of Allison was to get the players extremely fit. This was the main change that was made when he became coach of West Ham. As he says in his autobiography, Colours of My Life: “Not only did West Ham know less about training than Charlton, a feat which I would have believed impossible, but they asked for less effort. The only difference in the training sessions were that West Ham's were shorter. The facilities were disgraceful. We used to train on a pockmarked, scruffy little track at the back of the ground. We used to have to run in and out of a copse of trees. It was impossible for the trainer to keep his eyes on all the players. If he was alert he might spot blue cigarette smoke filtering through the trees.”

Allison got his ideas about fitness from Stan Cullis, the highly successful Wolves manager in the 1950s. Allison had become aware of Cullis views on training while on a FA run course at Lilleshall. In his autobiography, Cullis explained why it was so important for your team to be fitter than the opposition.

“The object of the training curriculum is to ensure not only that Wolves are faster and stronger if possible than each team they meet in the League, but that they also have sufficient fitness to employ to the best advantage the team-spirit and the tactics which we try to inculcate into them.

Those tactics demand that Wolves play at a tempo which is beyond the capacity of the other side. Because our opponents are forced to play at a pace which is foreign to them, they are likely to make far more mistakes than would be the case if they strolled along at their own sweet rate.

Our players are consequently required to make short sprints of twenty or thirty yards more often and more quickly than most. It is essential that they are able to make those sprints without any effort, even at the very end of a hard game, for, in their ability to do so, lies the difference between victory and defeat.”

As with West Ham, Allison introduced a new twice a day training routine. Men at both clubs complained of being physically sick with exhaustion after training sessions but they were later to admit that by the time that Allison finished with them they had never been fitter and so their performance on the pitch improved

The other important aspect of Allison’s coaching concerned the use of psychological methods employed by Herbert Chapman in the 1930s. He would coach players as individuals. He told them that they had the potential to become the best in the world in their position. It is what he told Bobby Moore when Allison coached him as a teenager. This was at a time when Ted Fenton wanted to let Moore go because he did not believe he had what it took to become a top footballer. Moore was never to forget the faith that Allison showed in him and idolized him right up to his death.

Mercer and Allison led Manchester City to the Second Division championship in their first season together. This was followed by the First Division championship (1968), the FA Cup (1969), League Cup (1970) and European Cup-Winners Cup (1971). Allison then took over as manager of Manchester City and it was then downhill all the way. Allison was an outstanding coach but a terrible manager.

There are similarities with the new set-up at West Ham. Zola, like Mercer, is also considered to be the “nice guy” of football. Like Mercer he is unlikely to have success unless he is backed up by someone who can take the “nasty” decisions. Clarke, like Allison, is an outstanding coach. He also has strong views on the fitness of players.

According to today’s Guardian, Zola/Clarke are going to introduce twice a day training sessions at West Ham. The Guardian adds that this will give less time for Etherington to gamble his wages away. As he happens, West Ham players were also into gambling when Allison introduced his twice a day training sessions in 1955. However, Allison also organized trips to greyhound stadiums in the evenings so that they could have their daily flutter.

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