Archive | November, 2014

Cheek by jowl: the evolution of Sam Allardyce

7 Nov

I’ve always thought Crufts was a funny one. For a while now, people have said that it was cruel: highlighting that entrants are artificially engineered to such a degree that some are in constant pain, due to unnatural body shapes. A valid grievance, I’m sure. But what no-one seems to think is strange is why we’re having a competition to see who has the most attractive dog in the first place. I simply cannot reconcile myself with how someone can look at a dog and think to himself “well this one isn’t anywhere near as good looking as that last dog”.

We worry ourselves sick about the level of violence in video games, yet we’re happy to televise this panel of “experts” – a troubling phrase in itself – give their tuppence on whether someone’s faithful pet is a bit of a looker. I’m fairly certain we’d take the piss if the North Koreans did this.


By late 2013, the footballing public had begun to see a great deal of similarity between Sam Allardyce and Crufts. Both outdated institutions from the Midlands engaged in questionable practices. Big Sam’s droopy jowls weren’t the only thing that hinted at a very particular breeding programme going on at Allardyce’s clubs. You couldn’t help but notice how his stock of players always had very distinct specifications. Tall. Muscular. Uncompromising. Good in the air. It had been tolerated in the past, but now Big Sam’s ugly eugenics agenda was toying with the pristine DNA of West Ham United. It had to stop. Things had to change.


And then, miraculously, change they did. They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but in an 89th minute Darwinian “Hail Mary”, Big Sam has evolved in a manner as surprising as if your Granddad had announced he’d taken up web design. At the time of writing, Allardyce is sitting pretty in fifth place with a team that, of all things, plays the West Ham way.

Additions in the final third of Enner Valencia and Diafra Sakho have provided some much needed fire-power, as well as bundles of excitement. The on-loan Alex Song adds a dab of Nou Camp polish to the East Enders’ midfield. Sam’s even managed to rejuvenate Stewart Downing from a mouse-hearted winger into a functioning central midfield playmaker. All in all, it’s fast, it’s on the deck and it’s, well, fun.

It took 24 seconds into Allardyce’s first ever interview as West Ham manager before he was asked how the “long ball” game would go down at the Boleyn Ground. After three years of trying to tempt Hammers’ fans and owners over to the dark side, the man himself has yielded to the pressure of playing attractive football. Most managers of teams in the lower half of the table spend their days battling the urge to play a little bit more agriculturally, trying to resist a mission creep of pragmatism from seeping into their tactics board. Allardyce, curiously, found himself in the opposite position. He’s being forced to play nice football.


To understand Sam Allardyce, you have to look at the remarkable seesaw journey on which, to this day, he continues to oscillate. Written off as a dinosaur at Bolton, he proved to everyone that he was actually a managerial alchemist, guiding them to sixth place and Europe, only to look a lot like a dinosaur again in successive spells at Blackburn and Newcastle. Now, at West Ham, he has contrived to pull himself out of the tar pits once more. He’s a self-appointed master tactician who turned out to be an actual master tactician, in the process exposing his emotional fragility and torment at the world’s lack of validating approval. His underrated abilities might garner more recognition were it not for the fact that he continuously overrates himself every moment that things start looking up. In an interview with Henry Winter this week, he’s already started talking about the England job again.


In Winter’s interview, Allardyce proffers an explanation for his genius:

There are two types of coaches. There’s coaches like me who weigh up the opposition and ask the team to adjust. Fergie was similar. Jose [Mourinho] is similar. Then there’s Arsène, who won’t adjust. There’s Brendan [Rodgers], who looks like he won’t adjust. There’s Manuel Pellegrini, who looks like he won’t adjust, even in the Champions League. He seems to favour what he’s got. City are quite open.

Their [Wenger/Rodgers/Pellegrini’s] philosophy is different to ours. Ours is more about who are we playing against. Their philosophy is more, “We always play this way”, and they won’t change, they carry doing on the same thing. That’s why you can beat them.

At a stroke, Sam has carved a line down the middle of the gaffer kingdom. Managers who adjust versus those who can’t, or won’t. The stubborn versus the wily. Sam has cast himself as King Improviser – one of the great ad libbers, along with Fergie and Mourinho. A supple and flexible managerial force somewhere between rope-a-dope and the A-Team.


The self-eulogy continues with Allardyce crediting his father, a policeman, for passing down the strong disciplinarian approach that has been the key to his own success:

Discipline was everything. Get up for work on time, don’t be late, shave, don’t let anyone down … We lack a lot of discipline today. It’s society. As parents we’re all guilty of not disciplining our children enough. I was strong-ish with my children. I don’t think my son, who’s married now, is as strong [on discipline] as I used to be. That’s the way society has gone.

It’s a touching admission that, while Allardyce himself was a model father, he’s big enough to admit that his son may carry a few parental flaws. It must be tough for Grandpa Sam watching on as the soft sod let’s his grandson play tippy-tappy stuff in the garden, trying silly flicks instead of concentrating on the basics. Four generations of Allardyce might be the perfect allegory to help explain Broken Britain.


But this grounding in discipline isn’t to say that Allardyce hasn’t also learned to “adjust” his moral compass from time to time, just as he has learned to adjust to opposition manager’s tactics. He let slip to Winter that his chairman at the Irish League team, Limerick, Father Joe Young, “called in a few favours” in order to pay player’s wages when times were scarce in the early ‘90s. “Divine intervention!” as Sam puts it, “[t]he collar has mighty powers over there”.

Now, some might construe ripping off the Catholic Church as a bit unseemly, but this was classic Allardyce. Identifying a weakness in others and turning it into a strength of your own. On the field of play, this might be getting at an inexperienced centre-half, or playing balls down the side of a full-back that lacks pace. In society, it was the gullibility of the spiritual that Sam could find the edge on. Questioning a congregations’ faith, while the collection tray hung heavy over them, was the ecclesiastical equivalent of firing a series of high balls into the opposition penalty area. Big Sam had been sent to test them where they were at their most vulnerable, their place of worship. Or the “mixer” as Sam liked to call it.


Most managers are charged with a fairly simple mandate. Win more games than the last bloke. Sam, though, has an altogether different mission statement, one that is unique in world football. Sam is required to keep West Ham in the Premier League until such time as they take receipt of the Olympic stadium. The analysis being, seemingly, that Championship football would be an insult to the resident phantoms of Farah, Bolt and that lady who performed a 24-hour sit-in protest in the Judo. Sam is keenly aware that the legacy of the Games simply cannot be stained by late night analysis from Manish Bhasin and Steve Claridge. He needs to keep the Hammers prime-time. Presumably, once top-flight status is secured as the club steps over the new threshold, the board can then get Guardiola in to take over the reins.

This task of heritage preservation has been made easier due to the long term layoff of Andy Carroll. That, along with the declining powers of Kevin Nolan, has forced Allardyce to play a more expansive hand. So far, it’s working. West Ham are nice to watch. And they’re doing really well, too. The keys to the Olympic stadium will be handed over in the summer of 2016, the exact same point in time that Roy Hodgson’s England contract comes up for renewal. Allardici might still show the world there’s some life in the old dog yet.

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