Big Sam – The Man Who Created His Own Nemesis

Sam Allardyce

Sam Allardyce – or is it ‘Allardici’?

Okay, colours to the mast – I didn’t want Sam Allardyce as England manager although, as an England fan, it goes without saying that I want him to succeed. However, the curious part of me is glad that Martin Glenn’s DNA Army has indulged him. Not so much ‘Big Sam’ himself, but more what he has come to represent, namely the ‘Proper Football Man’ (an epithet which no-one has yet thought to define although, weirdly, one only ever hears it applied to British managers, as if the foreign guys are just playing at it). No matter, the ‘Proper Football Man’ now gets his moment in the sun and we wait to see who was right all along

Allardyce is the figurehead for this peculiar breed of football manager or – as some would have you believe – the straight-talking, ‘Made In England’ antidote to those exotically-named foreign coaches, coming over here with their tiki-taka, catenaccio and gegenpressing and trying to seduce us with an aptitude for languages outside their mother-tongue. This is a scenario that Sam himself has perpetuated, most notably with the wry observation that, were his surname ‘Allardici’, he would be managing a ‘big’ club by now. To which any of you should feel free to point out that this might have been better-achieved by winning an actual trophy beyond the lowest tier of the Football League and within the last 18 years.

Go on, don’t be shy – Big Sam’s disciples certainly aren’t reticent in using his pioneering work with stats analysis as a stick to beat us with, so we shouldn’t hesitate to grab that stick and turn it on the perpetrators; I will concede that possession and long pass stats can be misleading, but the fact that his Sunderland side faced more shots on target last season than any other Premier League side is a spine-chilling omen for an England team that can’t defend for toffee. So too the fact that he has lost more games than he’s won with every top-flight club he has managed, with the exception of Bolton, at 80 apiece. Bolton is of course the rock that Allardyce’s supporters cling to like limpets; it was there that he dragged the once-great Lancashire club into the rarified atmosphere of European football on an alluring template of cussedness and flair. But that was a decade ago and hasn’t been replicated since.

Those of you who see this article through to the bitter end will discover where my club allegiances lie. The Davids Gold and Sullivan were evidently unconvinced that Sam was the guy to fulfill West Ham’s ambitions post-Olympic Stadium relocation, which might be considered a logical consequence of his having forged his reputation on not getting teams relegated. The truth is that he failed the audition; West Ham were in the Champions League places almost halfway through the season. Tellingly, they were also only three wins away from that mythical forty-point mark. And those three wins were the only ones harvested from the remaining 21 games of the season. It is tempting to visualise Big Sam reclining in his big chair, feet on desk, hands behind his head, ‘job done’ grin plastered across his face. Or perhaps it was the players who took their feet off the gas, in which case, so much for those celebrated man-management and motivational skills……

Anyway, now that Sam has got the keys to that office at St. George’s Park that the cleaning contractors stopped bothering with about 2 years ago, what should we expect? At this point, it might seem resourceful to tap the wisdom of the FA…..except that they probably don’t have the faintest idea. This, after all, is an organisation that began with a brief to get Arsene Wenger and ended-up with his philosophical polar-opposite. And to demonstrate that this wasn’t a singular aberration, the only other interviewee for the role was Steve Bruce, another ‘Proper Football Man’ (perhaps they’re identifiable by a special tattoo, like the SAS’s ‘Who Dares Wins’. And while we’re on the subject, could somebody please tell me in what reality Bruce and Glen Hoddle express an interest in the job and the latter doesn’t even get to print his CV).

So instead we turn to the Allardyce accolytes out there for enlightenment and this soon becomes an exercise in ‘Creative Predicament Contrivance’. You know those companies who market themselves as ‘solutions providers’ (and no, that doesn’t extend to anything useful like tomorrow’s Sudoku puzzle)? This is the opposite; the invention of problems that Allardyce has solutions to. Smell that? That’s the fusty aroma of old chestnuts being roasted; ah yes……’prima donnas’, ‘pride in the shirt’, ‘spoiled brats’, ‘flash cars’, ‘no passion’. It is said that one of Big Sam’s biggest assets is that he ‘won’t stand for any nonsense’. Nonsense from whom? The players? Nobody in the media who spent time in and around the England camp was of the impression that the hopes of a nation rested on a bunch of self-absorbed, money-grubbing indolents, but this is the default perception of many England fans who dared to entertain any degree of optimism. And it wasn’t really any more wishful than that, yet there are others who still think that aspirations beyond Allardyce are symptomatic of an arrogance which supposedly had the England set-up in general thinking that they would win the Euros. I’m sorry, but they didn’t. Nobody said that. It’s a fallacy designed to facilitate the notion that we’re not entitled to anything more sophisticated than an agricultural, sheepskin coat-clad philistine, which is plainly nonsense (and I’m not suggesting that Allardyce is any of these things). At least some progress has been made in the belated realisation that England’s problems at tournament finals are largely psychological, even if it has been excruciatingly evident since the turn of the century.

Most bizzare of all is the attempt to aggrandize Sam’s record of never having been relegated as a manager by applying a hypothetical league format to international football, the amusing inference being that England are effectively struggling to avoid relegation from ‘the top league’ in Europe. This is clearly nothing more than an absurd, abstract concept conceived to hoodwink the unthinking, but how is it to be quantified? What does survival in ‘Europe’s top league’ actually amount to, in real terms, in terms of measurable tournament success? Quarter-finals? That’s kinda where we’re at. So Allardyce’s remit is to plug the leak, stop us regressing further. But winning stuff? Nope, sorry, Sam’s not the man, as his record clearly attests. Forgive me, but I thought we were trying to get better? And now that Sam is required to pit his wits against the Allardici’s of this world at the pinnacle of professional football, he will be anxious that what might have been a crass, smart-arsed quip doesn’t bite back any time soon.

The overriding sentiment is that it is Allardyce’s commitment to a legacy which has clinched the deal for him. Glenn’s DNA project, ‘passing through the thirds’, is the antithesis of Big Sam’s MO, yet he is charged with the considerable task of embedding an alien philosophy throughout the age groups. What he shouldn’t be accountable for is the flawed conception; only the elite of European and international football (most demonstrably Barcelona and Spain, and even then not always successfully) enjoy the privilege of saying “This is how we play. Always”. For the rest, it is about adapting to fit. In the higher echelons of the game the opposition tends not to obediently accommodate your signature philosophy, so if you’re having difficulty playing through the thirds, then what? What sets those Spanish teams apart is the quality of their decision making, assessing in an instant a set of in-game circumstances and knowing precisely the right thing to do at any given moment, with and without the ball. We need to develop ‘thinking’ footballers.

Take cricket; no country would approach a test match from the perspective “this is how we play for the next five days” – there are far too many variables; the weather, the deterioration of the pitch, the state of the ball, player condition, the match situation, psychology and all of these are inter-dependent. Therefore, teams must adapt to the changing nuances of the match. An exaggerated example perhaps, but football is simply a microcosm of this and the same principles still apply. But that’s not all. It was ex-England cricket coach Duncan Fletcher who identified a lack of on-field problem-solving ability and so, with captain Nasser Hussain, set about empowering the players to think for themselves, to assess, diagnose and respond accordingly. Far better the FA allow their players a bit of responsibility instead of having minders chaperone them through the mixed zone.

One final thought; the tale of Allardyce’s unsuccessful application for the same vacancy 10 years ago is the stuff of legend – how he put together the mother of all Powerpoint presentations, only to arrive at the interview venue and find that there was no facility to show it. As a manager famed for his organisational abilities, you’d be entitled to wonder why he didn’t phone ahead. Just saying…….







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About Mark Scott

Mark Scott West Ham supporter and devotee of the sport for around 40 years and trying to marry this with my love of the English language, all for your entertainment.

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