This interview bit of Malcolm Allison by Garth Crooks is a bit cringe-worthy. Who told him to wear the cap? Who told him to ask such cheesy questions? Who kept him on television for years afterwards? these questions and more are worthy of the Twilight Zone. Yet the clip is worth posting as an introduction into this review of a most intriguing book. Just a bit of background first.
I was searching through the blog and discovered I never did a book review of the Malcolm Allison biography Big Mal: The High Life and Hard Times of Malcolm Allison, Football Legend. It’s one of the best football biographies I’ve read and thoroughly riveting in giving an account of the insecurities and character flaws that made for such a tragedy of a story of a man who could have had it all. That’s why for Garth to say the brother had such a wonderful life, is a bit of a joke. Here was a man who has such potential but never struck that balance, that maturity that level of responsibility that allowed your judgement never to be overblown by your ego. He may have coached Man City to their most successful period in their history, but to anyone’s mind for the potential he had he surely blew it in the 1970’s and 1980’s on many occasions flattering to deceive.
I’m not a Man City fan, but I like a good read, and that biography was a good read. So recently when I was perusing the options available in the library I was interested to look at The Worst of Friends: Malcolm Allison, Joe Mercer and Manchester City by Colin Shindler. When I read the blurb I was further intrigued and decided to read it. That was a very good decision. If the biography was a brilliant read, this book was very much of the same quality. What was particularly intriguing about the premise of the book was that it was written as a piece of fiction based on real life events. The Damned United is another book recently written on the same premise of a novelised account of recent events.
So the book recalls the rise and fall of the relationship between Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison between 1965 and 1970. It is a story of how two men who were both at a low point in their careers took over a club that was also down on its luck and in five years transformed their lives and the club into a trophy-winning giant. Yet behind the success was the importance of the relationship between both men – Mercer the older man whose health is suspect through a hard managerial career to that point and very much rooted in his values and memories of the past. Allison the younger guy, very ambitious and looking to make his mark on the game by being innovative and forward-thinking.
When I read the book and relate it to what the biography depicted there’s something there about blurred lines between what is fiction and creative liberty and what is fact. Such is the blur of the line based on the media portrayals of the events that it’s not difficult to conceive that although it was not the actual events and conversations, the ethos behind it and the characters portrayed were all too real. This is particularly pertinent as the main characters are such rich, full-bodied, three dimensional beings with appealing features and tragic flaws. There’s Mercer’s chirpy exterior that everyone appreciates and makes him such a loved figure, but behind that is the old glory hog who cannot let go of his love of the game and the success it’s bringing him. There’s also the ever ambitious larger than life Allison who tries to hide the level of his ambition and his own doubts that niggle inside of the brash flamboyant personality.
The best of friends became the worst of friends. It was the tragedy of success. (p288)
Shindler writes the tale their relationship superbly well and even if you don’t know anything about the club or the men at the centre age old themes and issues of the human condition come flooding through the story – themes like greed, ambition, friendship, success, love, sex and the ever elusive quest for contentment and satisfaction. Themes like generational divides and what happens when clinging to the past clashes with ever changing values. Themes like power, control, image, substance, betrayal, loyalty, misguided intentions and unchecked ego.
I loved reading the book because it is more than just a book about football, you don’t have to like football to like this book at all. The enduring question is about those blurred lines of fiction and reality and as these clips have indicated as you’ll read between the lines that truth is always more fascinating that fiction. That’s why I love biography – even the retelling of real events can be a drama, comedy, romance and tragedy in itself.
Great read – highly recommended – 8/10. Enjoy.