Mark Robins is the latest in a long line of Sky Blue Supremos, the men who have tried to bring success to City. In this series first published in matchday programme PUSB, writer Rob Mason reflects on the highs and lows on those who have occupied the hot-seat.
In this edition, Gary McAllister is profiled...
Currently assistant manager to Steven Gerrard at Rangers, Gary McAllister’s career hinged on his time at Coventry. It was in his second spell with the Sky Blues that an enormously lengthy playing career ended and his managerial career commenced.
McAllister was a top class player, a midfielder of vision and with the technique to execute the passes he saw a split second before anyone else realised they were on. Coventry Player of the Season in the year of the millennium, Gary had won the league title with Leeds in the last season before the creation of the Premiership. At Elland Road his midfield partnership with Gordon Strachan was one which the pair later resurrected as a G-Force at Highfield Road.
As well as winning the league with Leeds, McAllister won the UEFA Cup, the Super Cup and both domestic cups during his time with Liverpool. The first senior silverware in his personal collection came with his initial club Motherwell, with whom Gary won the Scottish First Division title in 1984-85.
On the international stage McAllister was Scotland’s skipper at Euro ’96, infamously having a penalty saved by David Seaman as the Scots lost to England. Before the next season kicked-off McAllister had come to Coventry. Twenty years ago next week the last of his 57 caps was won against the Czech Republic, after which Gary announced his international retirement. At this point he was still playing for Coventry, being ever-present that season as he finished a goal behind top scorer Robbie Keane.
McAllister was 31 when Ron Atkinson invested £3m in bringing him to the Sky Blues in 1996. He quickly demonstrated that experience did not equate to being unable to play week in, week out. Ever present in his first season, Gary scored the club’s only goal in the opening five games and went on to finish joint second highest scorer, one of his goals being in a Boxing Day win at his old club Leeds. In the previous season’s meeting at Elland Road he had bagged a hat-trick as Leeds beat the Sky Blues 3-1.
The midfielder’s experience was never more useful than when his opening campaign reached its climax. Hugely influential in wins away to Liverpool and home to Chelsea, he then contributed massively to a last-gasp win at Spurs. By this time Strachan had taken over as manager and under Gordon, Gary skippered the team. A 4-0 home win over Spurs in mid-December unfortunately corresponded with the end of the midfield maestro’s season.
McAllister missed the start of the following campaign too, not being able to return until mid-October. Once back, Gary Mac missed just one game and then went on to achieve another ever-present season for the second time in four years.
It wasn’t just Sky Blues’ fans that his form impressed. Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier didn’t baulk at bringing a player, by now 35, to Anfield on a Bosman transfer. He starred in a stellar midfield, usually alongside Gerrard as well as German international Dietmar Hamman and current Match of the Day pundit Danny Murphy, going on to play a total of 87 games for the Reds. His nine goals included a trademark free-kick against Coventry, an injury time free kick from over 40 yards that won the Merseyside derby and a penalty to beat Barcelona in a UEFA Cup semi-final. In the final against Alaves, McAllister was named ‘Man of the Match’ after having a hand in four goals as Houllier’s side won 5-4.
After a second season at Anfield, and by now 37 McAllister came back to Coventry, still registered as a player but now also with the added responsibility of being manager. The season started really well. Ten points out of the first 12 were taken and by the time a McAllister penalty won a mid-September game away to Wimbledon the Sky Blues were sixth in the equivalent of the Championship, with a game in hand on the two clubs a point ahead of them.
A bad run where McAllister’s only victory in nine games came when he scored both goals in a 2-1 home win over Rotherham saw promotion ambitions dimmed. Improvement arrived with a sequence of four successive wins around Christmas, the player/manager netting in two of them. This saw the Sky Blues back up to sixth and this time only three points behind Manchester City in the second automatic promotion place.
That was as good as it got in what proved to be a season of two halves. In the end only four points separated the Sky Blues from changing division – but at the wrong end. Just one of the last 21 games was won, and that due to an own goal and a penalty at Grimsby Town who finished bottom. It was a desperate decline.
For the start of McAllister’s second season in charge the squad was substantially strengthened in terms of numbers, albeit little money was invested in the newcomers. Nonetheless notable new additions included Steve Staunton, Dele Adebola and Michael Doyle, with Stephen Warnock coming in on a season long loan as McAllister utilised his Anfield connections.
Dispiritingly the dismal form of the previous season continued as none of the first four games were won. Improvement came at last with a run of four wins and a draw from seven games but by December it was once again the wrong end of the table that occupied the thoughts of the Sky Blue Army.
A point from a Monday night game against Sunderland lifted City to 17th. McAllister ignored the referee in that match to emphatically wave the opposition physio on as former Coventry loan player Colin Healy suffered an injury so bad he wouldn’t play again for over two years and never quite be the same player again. The injury dominated a game where the Sky Blues came from behind to take a point after the player/manager converted a spot-kick that came about via his own defence-splitting pass. Healy would play again but McAllister wouldn’t. It would be the last match of the Scot’s playing days.
It was an unhappy time at the club but back to back wins lifted spirits before Gary’s 39th birthday on Christmas Day. There would be no further league wins for McAllister at Coventry. Two single goal losses spoiled the rest of Christmas week but 2004 would at least start with a home FA Cup win over Peterborough, who had also been knocked out of the League Cup by City that season.
A goalless draw at home to lowly Watford left City in 15th place. Two days later came the news that Gary Mac had temporarily stepped down as Manager. In football, managers tend to leave because they have been sacked after a run of bad results, or because they have resigned prior to popping up shortly afterwards at another club. Sometimes bosses quit because they genuinely feel they have taken clubs as far as they can and voluntarily leave, passing up the possibility of a pay-off. McAllister’s departure came in especially sad circumstances. His wife Denise had been diagnosed with cancer. Consequently, Gary quite rightly wanted to devote himself totally to his partner.
Assistant Eric Black took charge of first-team affairs initially on a caretaker basis, before Gary resigned on 12th January, with Black succeeding his fellow Scot on 16th of that month.
Mrs. McAllister sadly passed away in March 2006 with Gary coming back into the game two years after that when he accepted the position as manager of Leeds, four years to the month after stepping down at Highfield Road.
At the time the Elland Road outfit were in the third tier and chasing promotion. Eventually they made it through to the Play-Offs, only to go down in the Semi to near neighbours Doncaster Rovers, a club who five years earlier had been plying their trade in the Conference.
Starting a season as Leeds manager for the first time, McAllister’s United started well. By the end of September they were just a point off the top and were still second late in October. A month later though the natives were restless as Leeds were dumped out of the FA Cup by non-league Histon. A few days earlier Leeds had lost to Northampton in the league and by the time high-flying MK Dons inflicted a fourth league defeat in a row Leeds were ninth, five points shy of the Play-off places. 24 hours later McAllister was sacked to be replaced by Simon Grayson who led the club to the Play-off final.
Out of the game for almost 18 months, Gary re-surfaced as coach for Gordon Strachan at Middlesbrough but having joined Boro at the end of the 2009-10 season, within a few weeks of the following campaign he left to re-unite with Gerard Houllier as assistant manager of Aston Villa. There followed a stint as caretaker boss at Villa when Houllier was taken ill, one of his wins coming against Liverpool who would become his next employers.
Having left Villa in the summer of 2011 it was four years later that he came back into the game at Anfield but like his time at Middlesbrough it lasted barely four months. At Liverpool Gary had been first team coach under Brendan Rodgers. Following his sacking Rodgers would move to Glasgow as McAllister would do much later, but while Rodgers took over at Celtic Gary Mac went to Rangers at the end of last season with former Liverpool team-mate Gerrard.
As a player McAllister made a phenomenal 720 league appearances, over 200 for Leicester – where he signed for former Sky Blue supremo Gordon Milne – and Leeds, as well as 174 in two spells with Coventry. Fifty-five of those were made while also being manager.
McAllister was a terrific player for Coventry and for that matter everyone else he played for. Top class. As a manager he took charge of the Sky Blues at a tough time but given the sad circumstances of his resignation it should remind everyone that even in the toughest of times in football, there are some things that matter so much more.
This article was first published in PUSB on 23rd March 2019 - all information correct as of that date. To read more articles like this, make sure you get your copy of PUSB for £3 each matchday.