The First City Documentary
Long before All or Nothing, there was City! and all the chaotic glory of Malcolm Allison
“You have to show it as real as possible. The good things, the bad things, maybe incidents, whatever,” insisted Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne prior to the airing of the Amazon Prime fly on the wall documentary All Or Nothing in August. In places, the series delivered. Pep Guardiola’s passion and feistiness is at the fore. His worry about the damage that Liverpool could inflict upon City in the Champions League showed introspection. Guardiola’s concern for David Silva’s daughter gave an insight into the manager’s claim that the club is “a family”, Sergio Agüero’s admission of loneliness in Manchester reveals that being a multi-millionaire footballer can be isolating, and Pep’s fury at his side’s loss to Wigan Athletic in the FA Cup demonstrates that once a team crosses the white line, a coach is (sometimes) powerless to influence events.
Yet there were missed opportunities with All Or Nothing. The documentary makers failed to probe – for instance – the reasons behind John Stones’s initial loss of form after joining City, Raheem Sterling’s treatment by the tabloids, and viewers never learned why the technical assistant Manuel Estiarte described Guardiola as “a pain in the arse”. Even Guardiola’s famed nuanced approach to man management often appears a little basic. He utters the word “fuck” a lot, urges his team to “score goals, we must score goals”, uses the magnetic tactics board a great deal and concludes team talks with, “Okay guys, let’s go.” Doubtless Guardiola was conscious of the cameras’ presence, but his team talks appear almost rudimentary at times. The issue of whether or not City have simply bought their way to glory, and the extent to which Guardiola’s success in management is (at least partially) due to the fact he’s coached three gilded clubs – Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City – isn’t addressed at all. Neither is the spat with José Mourinho’s Manchester United following City’s derby victory at Old Trafford in December.
The main flaw is that City – April’s septem horribilis aside – were so peerless during the 2017-2018 campaign that there is little genuine tension. Amazon paid City a reported £10 million for unrestricted access, and produced a highly polished and glossy series. But that’s frequently to its detriment. The narrator Sir Ben Kingsley informed viewers that All Or Nothing would give them “a never before seen look inside the world of professional football”. That’s stretching the truth. Premier Passions, broadcast by the BBC in March 1998, was a fly on the wall view of Sunderland’s unsuccessful attempt to stay in the Premier League during the 1996-1997 campaign and the distinctly low-budget 1995 documentary Orient, Club for a Fiver showed manager John Sitton struggling to motivate his players at the impoverished Brisbane Road club.
In Fact, All Or Nothing isn’t even the first ‘inside’ documentary on Manchester City. In early 1981, Granada TV broadcast a 50-minute documentary entitled City! A Club in Crisis which focussed on the club’s trials and tribulations during Malcolm Allison’s second spell at Maine Road, and his dismissal by Machiavellian chairman Peter Swales the previous October. If All Or Nothing is overly varnished and triumphalist, City! is the polar opposite. After an eight-match winless start to the 1980-81 campaign, the still charismatic Allison is already under huge pressure to turn around City’s form.
The fraught relationship between Swales and Allison lies at the heart of City!. Allison had stood down as manager at Maine Road in 1973, unable to replicate the success he’d enjoyed with City as coach under Joe Mercer in the late 60s and early 70s. Although Peter Swales was never in awe of Allison as many City directors were, he believed that City had plateaued out when they finished second in 1977 then fourth a year later. Allison, who’d attempted (none too successfully) to plough a lone furrow at Crystal Palace, Galatasaray and Plymouth in the subsequent years, was nonetheless invited back to Maine Road at the start of the 1979-80 campaign to work alongside the manager Tony Book and given assurances by Swales that he would be given time and money to rebuild the team. In subsequent years, both Swales and Allison blamed one another for offloading crowd favourites Peter Barnes and Gary Owen to West Bromwich Albion during the 1979 close season and the decision to sign the inexperienced striker Michael Robinson from Preston for £750,000 and the Crystal Palace starlet Steve MacKenzie, who was yet to play a league game, for £250,000.
The furnishings at Maine Road during that era can best be described as high schlock. A smarmy and over confident Peter Swales frequently holds court sitting behind formica tables and framed by chip board walls. There’s an air of impending doom throughout. The sheer brownness of the surroundings adds to the sense of gloom. Clad in his Cuban heels and polyester suits, the bewigged Swales darts across the brown shag pile carpets “like a malevolent circus ringmaster”, as David Tossell memorably wrote in his Allison biography Big Mal.
The most toe-curling aspect of City! is the desperate effort made by a frustrated Allison to coax any kind of quality from midfielder Steve Daley, then Britain’s most expensive footballer. Daley, who cost City £1,437,500, cuts a forlorn figure and frequently looks disconsolately at both Allison and the camera, often appearing to want to move out of the frame altogether. In one sequence, following a chastening 3-0 home defeat to the champions Liverpool, Daley and Allison have a prolonged argument. Daley (who hadn’t tracked back against Terry McDermott) is accused by his manager of “agreeing with me on Friday, and then going out and doing something completely different on Saturday.”
Allison had already made it public that in his opinion, Daley wasn’t even worth £600,000, and accused Swales of “sticking his nose in with the Wolves chairman and hiking up the fee.” On Match of the Seventies, Allison recalled: “He [Swales] told me that he was a financial genius. I said, ‘Okay…’” Allison smirked and laughed at the end of his comment. When asked on BBC’s Football Focus in 1979 whether million-pound transfers were morally wrong, Swales responded, “Possibly yes, but no one will go to the wall because only the clubs who can afford to spend big money will spend big money.”
Shortly before City! was broadcast, Swales was quoted in the Manchester Evening News as saying, “Malcolm raised no objection at the time about Steve Daley’s fee, and indeed assured me that Robinson, MacKenzie and Kevin Reeves, whom we signed for £1.25 million, were worth the outlay. So no one can suggest that I haven’t backed Malcolm. But now it’s down to him to get the best out of the players and mould the side.” Swales was getting his verbal attacks in early.
It is abundantly clear however that Allison’s days of nurturing talent – young or old – were behind him. Prior to the Liverpool match on 4 October 1980, with City third from bottom of the league, Swales was asked by journalists if Allison was a minute from the sack. Swales didn’t say no, and arguably if the team hadn’t salvaged a 2-2 draw at Old Trafford a week earlier, the axe might have fallen on Allison there and then. But he was given a temporary stay of execution, and as Liverpool headed to Maine Road, he is filmed in the dugout, attempting to convey basic instructions to the latest crop of City youngsters. The full-back Nicky Reid and MacKenzie are told to “get in there” and defender Ray Ranson is instructed to “move with him [an unnamed Liverpool player].” But City are powerless to stop Kenny Dalglish firing Liverpool ahead by half time and in the second half Graeme Souness and Sammy Lee put Liverpool 3-0 up. Allison, crushed by disappointment, appears to shrink further back in his seat and sees out the game in sullen silence.
The post-match inquest sees discussion over whether Liverpool’s opener was the fault of the City goalkeeper Joe Corrigan, and Allison laments the fact that Liverpool “are one of the best teams in the world. If my team are going to learn they’ve got to learn to play these teams.” Peter Swales is now at his most cunning and menacing. “Are we gonna stick with what we’ve got?” he asks rhetorically about Allison’s situation, drumming his fingers together as he speaks. Later, as both men puff away on huge cigars, Swales suggests that City should re-sign Scottish midfielder Asa Hartford (“the fella we let go”), who’d been sold little more than a year previously. “Do me a favour,” harrumphs Allison from behind a cloud of cigar smoke.
The narrative tallies with what remains arguably Swales’s most infamous one liner. Shortly before City! was broadcast, Swales claimed: “You can’t plan in football, it’s day to day.” And for the best part of 20 years, with Swales – who’d made his pile by selling his HiFi business to Thorn for £500,000 in the late 1960s – at the helm, City was his personal fiefdom. It was ad hoc. “Swales did have the interests of the club at heart, but City was run according to his personal whims,” Allison said years later.
The axe finally fell on Allison after City lost 1-0 to another fallen giant, rock-bottom Leeds United, at a half-empty Elland Road. Allison sinks into the comfort of his sheepskin coat and at half time MacKenzie, who’d barely had a touch in the first half, gripes: “I’m stuck in fucking limbo land.” Ray Ranson appears baffled by Allison’s instructions and the look of befuddlement on the players’ faces ties in with an observation made by Dennis Tueart in his autobiography My Football Journey. “[Allison] struggled to get his grand vision across to the young players, and indeed to the rest of us. You had to have been in the game for some time to understand Mal. Often his instructions were bewildering.” After a particularly complex training exercise at Platt Lane, Tueart recalled asking the midfielder Tony Henry if he understood Allison’s instructions. “Haven’t a fucking clue,” came Henry’s reply.
In many ways, Allison was ahead of his time and City! reveals that he deployed dance teachers to improve the players’ balance, psychiatrists, university lecturers, played music in the dressing room, advocated shadow play in training and players rotating position to hone their skills. Yet after 10 games City hadn’t won a league match and the following morning, the polyester raincoat-clad Swales informed the assembled press that he’d invited both Tony Book and Allison to resign, which they duly had. Allison is firstly interviewed at his desk, and his deflation is clear: “It is a very, very sad day. I thought the joy was just coming, just developing, and I was going to get some of the pleasure. Now I am not going to get any of that pleasure.”
Later, he is shown bidding the City players farewell in a local park. Some of the youngsters, including Tommy Caton, Roger Palmer and Dave Bennett, appear genuinely upset, but the older professionals seem nonplussed by the whole thing. Allison also disputes with his interviewer whether he is egotistical. “If I had an ego, I wouldn’t be sitting here with you now,” argues the man who wore a fedora for show on Crystal Palace’s route to the 1976 FA Cup semi-final, who was photographed in the Palace players’ bath with the glamour model Fiona Richmond in the mid-70s and milked his role as ITV pundit during the 1970 World Cup.
And there, City! might have fizzled out. Swales appointed the Norwich City boss John Bond, who was a close associate of Allison’s when they played together for West Ham, as Allison’s successor (it is clear that Swales had already tapped Bond up several times regarding the job) and Bond, after a mock interview in front of the cameras, trots out platitudes at a hastily convened team meeting about the need for “discipline” and “desire” from the players in his country burr. In the months that followed, Bond bought bargain-basement experienced campaigners like Gerry Gow, Tommy Hutchinson and Phil Boyer, who added much needed steel to the team. Tueart returned from injury and City slowly climbed the Division One table. Then, Bond’s City were drawn against Crystal Palace, now managed by Malcolm Allison, in the FA Cup third round at Maine Road. The City! producers must have rubbed their hands with glee.
The verbal brickbats flew before the match. Allison lambasted Bond in the press by saying: “If John Bond is so good why hasn’t he won anything in his previous years as a manager?” Bond responded: “It’s because of his behaviour, which has little changed… that I can never see Malcolm being a manager in his own right.” Bond also gives a revealing insight about his friendship with Allison to the City! film crew, explaining, “I think Malcolm always saw me as the worst part of the Allison, Cantwell, Bond partnership. He always saw me as the one least likely to succeed.” Bond also claims that Allison once viewed him as a “country bumpkin up from the sticks”. In front of the heaving Kippax terrace, Allison is given a hero’s reception, but his team, rooted to the foot of Division One is destroyed 4-0 by a rejuvenated City. Throughout proceedings, he’s powerless to influence events, despite screaming: “Stevie Lovell, hold your ground” on regular occasions.
After the game, he seems a broken man. His head is bowed and he is speechless. The documentary concludes with a highly revealing boardroom interchange after the FA Cup clash between Bond, Allison and Swales. As they chomp away on their cigars, Allison is forced to listen to Bond telling him that “he needs someone to manage him.” Bond hits the nail on the head when, referring to Allison post 1972, he explains, “There is absolutely no doubt that he has the capacity and the ability to make players better, but I am not sure, honestly and truthfully, that he has the capacity to make teams better if he has the ultimate control.” Despite Allison’s retort – “I have found that man to control me. Me.” – there’s an unconvincing snigger from all those present.
In the years that followed, Bond’s observation of Allison proved sadly accurate and his career fizzled out amid increasingly lurid stories of alcoholism and gambling debts. Bond quickly dumped Daley out on loan to Seattle Sounders (“I had to get out of the country for my own peace of mind,” Daley recalled) and, on Swales’s instructions, re-signed Asa Hartford.
City reached the FA Cup final where, despite a superb MacKenzie volley in the replay, they succumbed to Ricky Villa’s fabulous winner and lost 3-2. Allison, of course, insisted that it was his team which had come good, as he knew they would. But Bond lasted little longer at Maine Road than Big Mal, and after being forced to offload million-pound forward Trevor Francis to balance the books, he resigned in March 1983, with City destined for relegation from Division One. Swales remained at Maine Road until 1993, hiring and firing managers with (often) reckless abandon, before finally being forced out by “Forward with Franny” protestors. Under the chairmanship of Francis Lee, City plummeted into the third tier of English football. Swales later reflected on Allison’s second coming: “I was too obsessed with trying to match what they were doing at Old Trafford. I should have minded my own business.”
City! is a stark reminder of the (often) shambolic nature of the club pre-2007. Peter Swales promised City fans “the moon on a stick” when he became chairman in the mid-1970s and after winning the league in 1969, Malcolm Allison vowed that City would be the “first club to play on the moon”. The documentary shows the sheer folly of false promises at Maine Road and the fallout from the early 80s million-pound transfer madness. It shows where City once were.
All Or Nothing demonstrates that Manchester City, with its almost unlimited wealth, could well become a football behemoth in the not so distant future. It’s revealing – to a point – and informative. But City! is akin to spying on an already dysfunctional family plunging into meltdown. With its disparate band of charismatic villains and rogues, political intrigue, misfiring million-pound players, and smoky boardrooms, it makes for far more compelling and raw viewing.