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Book review: The Worst Of Friends

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By Julian Taylor, BBC Sport

Manchester City fans are, almost by definition, a philosophical breed.

High drama and, more often than not, mediocrity and disappointment, has followed the club for decades.

The Thai millions and the Abu Dhabi billions of recent times are the latest episodes in the ongoing Sky Blue soap opera, as City continually strive to succeed rivals United as Manchester's pre-eminent outfit.

Yet, for a few years in the sixties, City were on the crest of a wave, winning five trophies from 1968-1970, under the partnership of manager Joe Mercer and coach Malcolm Allison.

And in an intriguing departure from a normal football chronology, City fan, author and screenwriter, Colin Shindler has taken a dramatic approach to this era with a newly-released novel, The Worst Of Friends.

The Worst Of Friends, published by Mainstream
Malcolm Allison (left) with Joe Mercer

Shindler explores the psychological mindsets of both Mercer and Allison as they journeyed together from 1965, taking City as a club in the wilderness to a glorious culmination, clinching the First Division title in 1967/68.

Success in Europe followed, with the European Cup Winners' Cup in 1970, but before long the two unlikely bedfellows parted amid boardroom strife and personal acrimony.

Manchester was, like any other British city at the time, embracing the Swinging Sixties.

Matt Busby had assembled a swashbuckling side at Old Trafford, with City eventually emerging from the shadows.

The shy, but shrewd Mercer, a former England captain, appointed the brash and flamboyant Allison.

The new coach was, by common consent, years ahead of his time in his approach to changing the way football was played at the highest level.

What stands out is that The Worst Of Friends is notable for emerging in the slipstream of the much-hyped movie The Damned United, an adaptation of David Peace's novel of Brian Clough's short-lived tenure at Leeds United.

"If it's the last thing I do, I'll make this club number one in Manchester" - Malcolm Allison, The Worst Of Friends

So, is this the start of a new, vibrant genre of 'Kick-lit'?

"I hope so, because I wouldn't have written the book if The Damned United hadn't been published - it was a real eye-opener," Shindler told BBC Sport.

"Although it departed from the truth at times, it was well-written, but I haven't seen the film itself.

"I've written a lot about City in the past but this was different altogether as it was about exploring the psychology of men's minds. It was great to do.

Mike Summerbee
The stylish Mike Summerbee was signed by Mercer & Allison to revive City

"I knew both men well for a time and looking back it wasn't difficult, as a dramatist, to imagine and construct their conversations."

The arrival of Allison - a hitherto unremarkable coach making his way in the game -brought much-needed spark to a moribund Maine Road.

And thanks to his eye for a player, the Sky Blues added their own splash of colour to the football life of Manchester.

At Allison's behest, City assembled the trio of Mike Summerbee, Francis Lee and Colin Bell, rivalling their famous United counterparts, George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton for showbiz status.

"Malcolm had a connection with the players of that time as he had to retire early in his own playing career (with West Ham United) through injury, so he wasn't that much older than them," says Shindler.

"Through getting into the head of both Malcolm and Joe when writing the book it was possible for me to understand Malcolm's frustrations.

"Joe had promised to step aside after two years to let Malcolm take over but that didn't happen.

"The directors know how I can control Malcolm. If I wasn't around, God knows where he'd take the club" Joe Mercer to Matt Busby, The Worst Of Friends

"Malcolm's bombastic behaviour led to Joe leaving, so really it was a case of a seven-year marriage ending."

It was particularly ill-timed for City because their rise coincided with United's freefall after their European Cup win in 1968.

Mercer was not unlike Busby at United, Bill Shankly at Liverpool and Don Revie at Leeds United - all time-served, post-war football traditionalists.

But London-born Allison, known as 'Big Mal' was young, hungry and ambitious.

And while he commanded the player's respect, Summerbee told him that while he was a great coach, he would be a terrible manager, due to his volatility.

Shindler feels, when it came to it, Mercer simply couldn't let go and make way for his combative sidekick.

Malcolm Allison
The brash 'Big Mal' enjoying City's 1970 League Cup win at Wembley

"You have to remember that Joe Mercer was quite ill when he took over at City. People like that have no life outside football and it helped him. He just didn't want to leave.

"All City fans wanted the relationship to last, but with Malcolm agitating to take over, it raised questions over who picked the team and signed the players.

"It was quite different from most notable football partnerships, particularly if you look at Brian Clough and Peter Taylor at Derby, and later, Nottingham Forest," he adds.

"Taylor had no desire to become a manager and although they fell out later on, their partnership lasted for quite a long time, whereas Malcolm felt hindered."

The book has extra poignancy for City supporters from that era, with the death of Mercer in 1990, and Allison, aged 81, now suffering from dementia.

Indeed, while the champagne flowed (mostly by Big Mal, it has to be said) at Maine Road for a few buoyant seasons, there will always remain a sense of Manchester City imploding when sustainable glory was theirs for the taking.

Ironically, Allison did get his wish, years later, becoming City boss in 1979.

But the magic had gone (an "utter disaster" says Shindler), and since then, English football's perennial underachievers have never scaled those Sixties heights.

"All the high living took it's toll on Malcolm," notes Shindler.

The saga was, in retrospect, as frustrating as any chapter in the Sky Blues' unpredictable and turbulent history.

Shindler's evocation perfectly captures the fall from grace of two of the most significant men in Manchester City folklore.

The Worst Of Friends: Malcolm Allison, Joe Mercer and Manchester City is out now published by Mainstream.

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