The Royals’ former assistant manager speaks to TTE’s Marco Bader about his time watching Reading at Elm Park, joining Alan Pardew at the Mad Stad, and plenty more.
TTE: You were born in Reading. How do you remember your childhood in town?
Martin Allen: My memories as a little boy are all related to football. My life, everything was about football. In school at the break, I was the first outside to play and the last who returned to his desk. The same thing happened at lunchtime. All I wanted to do was play football. I had also my first training session ever in town at Coronation Square at the Social Club in a back play-area. We were 30 boys and had one ball between us. I still remember the match we played under floodlight.
TTE: Your father Denis was a hero in the 60s, making 377 appearances for the Royals, scoring 94 goals and being club captain in the 69/70 season. How big was his impact on your own career and also on your relation to Reading Football Club?
Martin Allen: When I was growing up Reading as a town wasn’t as big as it is now. In those days everybody went into the city centre to get their shopping, to do their things. Whenever I went with my dad, even if it was for the paper shop, everybody knew him. He was famous. In relation to my own career, he always pushed me hard into training. He let me run around Prospect Park, up and down the hills.
I went to Reading Athletic Club, Reading Boxing Club in order to become quicker because that wasn’t my strength in my younger years. The first big success came when I captained a Reading under-15 side in a final against Middlesbrough. We played at Elm Park in front of 9,500 spectators. That was a massive experience.
TTE: Do you have any other special memories about good old Elm Park?
Martin Allen: The biggest one was probably when I was still a very small boy and my dad had his testimonial game at Elm Park. There were nearly 11,000 people there. It was the biggest crowd of the season. Bobby Moore came, Geoff Hurst and Gordon Banks as well. My dad persuaded them all to come down. Half the Chelsea team was there, half the England team was there. I can still remember that incredible day like it was yesterday. My dad was the last to come on the pitch he received a standing ovation. Unbelievable!
There are so many great moments I enjoyed at Elm Park. One was at a Tuesday night game. I was about 13 years old and stood in the Tilehurst Road End with some friend from school. Floodlight, Elm Park, that match whetted my appetite! There was a small player in midfield with the shirt number four. His name was Richie Bowman. In total, he played in more than 200 games for Reading. When I watched him play, I wanted to be like him.
I can tell also a funny story about a match against Millwall. They were leaders and brought supporters with them. I went with my dad and sat next to the directors’ box. At half time Reading were winning. Some Millwall fans that sat to our left started to climb across the seats, came over and opened the door to the announcer’s box. They pulled the guy out and started shouting “Millwall, Millwall” through the microphone. It was one of the scariest and as well funniest moments I’ve ever been involved in!
And another great Elm Park story I have to tell is about my favourite player of all time. It was again a Tuesday night and Reading’s centre forward had his long-sleeve shirt out. He had his socks round his ankles. He had extra-large shorts. He had long hair. When the players came out for the warm-up they ran onto the pitch with a burst of enthusiasm.
But the player I’m talking about was the only one who would walk out at the back. And it was the slowest walk I’ve ever seen into the middle of the pitch! All through my life in my career I absolutely copied this guy. That night with my dad I saw for the first time Robin Friday! Watching that legend was the best night of football I could have imagined.
TTE: You started your career with Queen’s Park Rangers where you signed your first professional contract in ‘83 and stayed until 1989, playing in over 130 games. How important was that period for you?
Martin Allen: I signed for QPR when I was 14. But one year before, the Reading manager Maurice Evans came to dinner one Friday night. His wife Mary and him were very good friends with my mum and dad. We talked also about how I was doing. That time I just came back from a week training at Manchester United. Before I had been invited already to Chelsea and Aston Villa. He asked me then if I would like to sign for Reading. I said that I wasn’t sure where I would be going. So, he invited me to come to a training session the following Tuesday.
The training itself was a mixture between youth players and the reserve team. In the end we put two jumpers on the ground on each side and played a game. The other team had a centre forward called Mark Matthews. He used to play in Reading’s first team and had something of a cocky character. This guy scored the winning goal in the end. I will never ever forget his celebration. He stood still, pulled his shorts and pants down his ankles and his shirt up around his head.
I watched this pose being only 13 years old and couldn’t believe my eyes. It was a really funny moment. But to see this celebration one week after I trained with Manchester United wasn’t definitely playing in Reading’s favour. Unfortunately, it was my last training session at Elm Park.
In the end, I went to QPR where I had a great time and in George Graham a fantastic manager. He changed my mindset, he changed in some way my life. Before I was captain at Reading’s schoolboys. I helped the coach to pick the team, the tactics, told him how we should play. Of course, at QPR that went completely out of the window. George Graham shot me up. I had to play his way, not my way as I was used to.
It was the hardest training I ever had in my life. These were really tough years, but at the end, I learned so much from him, about discipline, character, manners, team organisation. What he did with us at QPR was exactly what he did also for Arsenal. We played just like them. And we were very successful.
TTE: You left Loftus Road for West Ham United where you remained for six seasons and became a fan favourite. Would you say that these years were the most beautiful ones as a footballer?
Martin Allen: Yes, you could say so. It was an amazing time and a special club. All my family were from Essex. My mom and dad were from Essex. All my uncles and aunts. And everyone used to support West Ham. The Hammers had always had a big, passionate crowd. So, it was a special club for me. I remember getting into the train from Reading Station to Paddington, where I met manager Lou Macari. Great days. With West Ham I also picked up the name “Mad Dog”. Nowadays they even got a hot dog named after me! That’s my claim. Some people have statues. And I got a hot dog! That´s fantastic!
TTE: After playing also for Portsmouth and Southend you hung up your boots in ‘98. During your 14-year-long career as a professional player, had there ever been a chance to sign for Reading?
Martin Allen: No, unfortunately that never worked out. But I still kept in touch with the clubs and watched matches at Elm Park even when played already for QPR and West Ham. I followed a lot the team under Mark McGhee, which I thought was just brilliant. Later as well the time under Jimmy Quinn and Mick Gooding when Reading established themselves in the first division. I used to walk from Southcote with my schoolfriends and sometimes also with Ron Grant, Reading’s kit man, along Prospect Park to the ground and watch the Royals play. And I’d stand there and still sang the songs like in my youth.
TTE: But luckily you found your way back to your home town a bit later in January 2000 when you signed a contract as assistant manager of Alan Pardew. What did it mean to you working for the club of the city where you were born and where your father was so famous?
Martin Allen: I didn’t even sign a contract! But first I’d like to jump back to some months before because it was quite curious how Alan took notice of me. By that time, I was the manager of Portsmouth’s reserve team and one Monday night we played at the Madejski against Reading’s reserve team managed by Alan Pardew. We beat them 4-0. Near the end, Reading player Jim McIntyre badly tackled one of my players just in front of me. I jumped froward, I had that “Mad Dog” face on that sometimes happens. Jim got sent off and walked into the tunnel. I got at him and stood my ground to defend my player. Alan Pardew never moved from the front of his dugout.
The next morning, I got a phone call from Alan who I didn’t know personally. He said to me: “That was the best performance of a reserve team we played against, but I loved especially the way you stood up for your player and looked after him.” I felt pretty honoured as I never received a compliment before like that.
Soon after I left Portsmouth and started scouting for Fulham. Kevin Keegan sent me out to watch Reading’s match, I think it was against Notts County. I went with my son George. Although we had a box reserved for us right above the corner flag, I searched for two spots out on the West Stand where you got a better view of the whole pitch.
The match was 0-0 and 20 minutes before the end, the now first-team manager Alan Pardew made a double substitution. He took off the right back and the right winger. He put a right winger at right back, moved his centre forward to the right wing and brought on another striker. I thought that was a pretty positive and brave move. As he did that change some bloke next to us shouted: “Pardew! You don’t know what you’re doing.” I just didn’t like that and thought it was unfair. So, I stood up and shouted back “Sit down! You have no clue what you’re talking about! He is trying to win the game.”
A guy in the row in front of me turned around some seconds later, looked up at me and said: “Thanks for that! I’m Alan Pardew’s brother.” The lady next to him turned around as well and said: “I don’t know who you are, but thank you very much for sticking up for my husband.” Later on, I found out that they had told also Alan about that situation.
So, when John Gorman, Reading’s assistant manager, left for Tottenham soon after, I was cleaning gardens at Gerrard’s Cross to earn some extra money. I went directly from one of these gardens to meet Alan Pardew, who needed a new assistant, at the Copthorne Hotel in Slough. After one hour of chatting, I said: “Alright, thanks a lot. I’ll be then first at the training ground tomorrow morning.”
As I walked out, he handed me over an envelope with the contract. I responded, laughing: “Don’t worry about that. I don’t need a contract. See you tomorrow in the morning.” I didn’t know how much they would pay, how much the bonus was to avoid relegation or how long it was for. I started the next day. And it was the start of a dream!
TTE: After supporters had seen a disappointing first year and a half at the new Madejski Stadium, you turned the fortunes around with Pardew and built a squad that was pushing for promotion. How difficult was it to get the team out of the bottom of the table at first?
Martin Allen: Oh, I didn’t find that especially difficult. You got to remember that I’ve been taught by George Graham. You got to say that I was something like a sergeant major. And fair play to Alan Pardew to give me that reasonability and impact. It was all very strict, very disciplined. Self-belief, confidence, passion were key characteristics we wanted to implement. We wanted to play with no boundaries, it was black or white. There were no grey areas.
One of the things we did was that if one person was late – player, staff member, whoever – every one of us had to come half an hour earlier. I used to stand on the entrance door at the car park with a board and controlled it like in the military. One day we had to train at 7am! So, the players knew that if one single person wasn’t doing it right, everyone would be punished. After a while, that culture within the squad changed totally.
I also remember when we had beaten Colchester at home, the trip was to Preston North End, who were leaders at that time. We warmed up at the other end in their half. They threatened to arrest me on the pitch. A police officer marched on trying to get me. And I just said to my players that there would be no way that they were moving off the pitch. If I got arrested it doesn’t matter. They had to carry on warming up in the Preston goal area. As they were leaders, we just wanted to try everything to upset them.
I was walking around with proper arrogance, Robin Friday-style and I knew we would get a result, which we did indeed, drawing 2-2. After the match, we had the dressing room door open. We had the ghetto-blaster on full volume. Our players were exhausted sitting there and I was outside on the corridor with only a white pair of pants on, laughing, dancing and singing in front of all the Preston people. It was the maddest thing you could do. But this attitude was needed. We needed that passion, that team spirit. There was only one way where we were going.
Another good example is also related to our following away game when we played Blackpool on a Tuesday night. When we had an away game, I was doing the food list for the hotel the day before. The players used to have soup or melon as starters, chicken, steak or pasta as main course and fruits or rice pudding as a desert. When I hung up the list for that match there were no starters and no pudding.
After some minutes the first player came and asked if he could have tomato soup. I said: “No, there is no tomato soup.” Five minutes later, six or seven players came to discuss with me why they couldn’t have tomato soup or rice pudding. I told them: “Look, from all the away games you have won only one. If you win tomorrow you can all have tomato soup next time.” That Tuesday we beat Blackpool 2-0!
After some weeks we managed to turn fortunes around. But I have to say that I wasn’t surprised about it, I was full of confidence right from the beginning. I remember also one meeting with Sir John Madejski after my first day. He nervously said to me: “I hope we won’t go down.” I answered: “We definitely won’t be relegated. I believe there are still enough points to play for to get the last playoff spot.” I said it totally convinced, staring at him with that horrible face I got sometimes, a mixture of self belief and arrogance. And I think he didn’t really know where to look or what to think about.
I was sure that this boost of confidence was what everybody needed after underachieving for such a long time. Some of the players hated that and absolutely hated me. But those were the ones that were unfit, out of shape, lacking discipline. The others totally loved it. And we needed this willingness from the players to create a group with whom we could move on.
TTE: What positives and negatives did you take with you from that time? Do you still feel a special bond with the club?
Martin Allen: Oh, gosh, I still have and will always have a special bond with Reading Football Club. If it’s not for the virus I usually go to watch matches at the Madejski on a regular basis. The fans were unbelievably good to me. I can call myself also very lucky to be invited later on to come to the director’s box and have dinner with Sir John Madejski. I got so well looked after, it’s just fantastic.
And I have to say that when I left as an assistant manager it was time for me to move on. Alan Pardew as we have seen is a very good manager. He needed to make that change because he needed to flourish himself and put the project with his own marks and characteristics to the next level. I had done my job. I did what was needed at that time. It served its purpose. Of course, it was a difficult situation for me. I was upset first. But now, in retrospective, I have absolutely no regrets. I’m still good friends with Alan.
There is definitely no doubt about that. I will always have a strong relation to Reading. These days for example, there is a player that I used to call my son. A player I had a really special relation to. He used to send me Christmas or birthday cards. I’m still in touch with him, we meet and have a chat. This player is Andy Yiadom. He was my captain at Barnet. Andy is a great player, but more than that he is a tremendous person! I’m really happy for him that he is now back from his injury.
TTE: After you left in November of 2001 you started a long career as a manager, coaching the likes of Barnet, Brentford, Leicester, Notts County and last Chesterfield in 2018, only to name a few. What have you been doing recently? Are you still involved with football?
Martin Allen: I’m doing the hospitality at West Ham. That means each home game of the Hammers I work in the restaurant, in the lounges. I tell a few stories and try to make everybody feel well and comfortable, have a bit of banter. I would say that it’s totally stress-free. I think it’s fair to say that I worked 24/7 in football since I was 15 years old.
I kind of got to the point after having a few health scares that I have enough of driving up and down to that motorways. Standing in the technical area at Halifax on a Tuesday night, getting stressed out. Luckily my dad gave me the best advice of all when I was earning quite good money when I was at QPR and West Ham. He told me to put the earnings aside for later. I don’t need to be rich. I just want to enjoy what I’m doing.