It’s fair to say that opinion is polarised on whether Sam Allardyce should be appointed as England’s new head coach.
His track record
Whatever anyone’s perception of the way Sam Allardyce’s teams have played at his various clubs, it is hard to deny that he has been anything other than successful. It is often pointed out that he has never been relegated in his managerial career. On face value, this isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of his methods. However, if you were to look at the list of clubs he has managed in the top flight (namely Bolton Wanderers, Newcastle United, Blackburn Rovers, West Ham United and Sunderland) and then analyse what happened to each of those clubs after his departure, it puts this achievement in context.
At Bolton, where Allardyce was appointed manager in October 1999, he achieved promotion to the Premier League in his first full season in charge, and then proceeded to establish them as a top ten team (with 4 consecutive top ten finishes between 2003/04 to 2006/07); achieving qualification to the UEFA Cup for the first time in Bolton’s history, with a sixth placed finish in season 2004/05. When he resigned in April 2007, the club lied in 5th place with two games to play. The following season they finished 16th and in 2012 they were relegated after an 11 year stay in the top flight. They never finished higher than 13th after Big Sam had left.
He took over at Newcastle ahead of the 2007/08 season and only lasted until January with the ownership deciding to appoint crowd favourite, Kevin Keegan, for a second term in his place. That season they finished a comfortable 12th, due in part to the foundations laid by Allardyce. The next season they were relegated.
Next up was Blackburn Rovers, where Big Sam was appointed manager in December 2008 with the club second from bottom in the table. In his first season in charge he steered them to safety, finishing in 15th place. The following season he achieved a comfortable 10th placed finish. He was sacked in December 2010 with the club 13th in the table. They eventually finished 15th and were relegated the following season.
Allardyce moved down south at the start of season 2011/12 to take over as manager of a West Ham team that had just been relegated after finishing rock bottom of the Premier League. He duly got them promoted at the first attempt and then achieved three mid table finishes (10th, 13th and 12th) before leaving in the summer of 2015.
Finally, at Sunderland he took the reigns in October 2015 with the club 19th in the table. Allardyce once again successfully led his club to safety, this time at the expense of arch rivals (and his former employer) Newcastle United.
Wherever he has gone, there has been an upward trajectory.
The playing style
Now for the more subjective bit – the playing style. The “long ball” tag was established at Bolton where he had a very physical and direct team, spearheaded by battering ram Kevin Davies.
Their style was also punctuated by an aerial threat most evident at set pieces – he generally likes his centre halves to be big, uncompromising and a goal threat from set pieces. Rahdi Jaidi at Bolton, Christopher Samba at Blackburn and Lamine Kone at Sunderland, all possessed those attributes.
That physicality runs through his teams, with an imposing midfield presence in the mould of Kevin Nolan, Steven N’Zonzi, Cheikh Kouyate or Jan Kirchhoff; and a big focal point up front like the aforementioned Davies or Andy Carroll. This is the Big Sam stereotype. And it has only been reinforced by comments from the likes of Jose Mourinho deriding it as “football from the 19th Century”. Whatever your views on it, it has been undeniably effective.
However, to characterise all of Big Sam’s teams in this way would be doing him a disservice. He is first and foremost a pragmatist; finding the best way to win with the resources at his disposal. He is not blinded by a philosophy but his teams have generally been direct.
Allardyce has always varied the way his teams have played depending on the personnel. For example, not many people would refer to Jermain Defoe as a “big man” and cast him in the same mould as an Andy Carroll. Yet he was the focal point up front for Sunderland last season, so Allardyce changed the system to a more counter attacking style to suit his game. Similarly, he managed Nicolas Anelka at Bolton and Roque Santa Cruz at Blackburn, both of whom played with more subtlety than a 6 foot plus sledgehammer.
Furthermore, Allardyce has always tried to accommodate more creative players into his teams, with Jay Jay Okocha the obvious example, but others to varying degrees of success, such as Youri Djorkaeff, Junior Hoilett, Geremi, Alex Song, Mauro Zarate and Wahbi Khazri.
Allarydyce’s football has all too often been lazily described as “long ball” football, when it is not synonymous with the kind we used to see from Wimbledon in the mid 1990s. That really was percentage football in its purist form, based on a theory that if you hoof it upfield to the big men enough times, you will force a defensive mistake and something will fall your way. Big Sam’s philosophy is far more nuanced and the instructions to his team far more detailed and advanced than that.
He’s not an archaic dinosaur as he has oft been portrayed in the media; in fact, quite the opposite. He has been an innovator. Preparation is key and in this respect Allardyce has always been meticulous and way ahead of most of his peers. He was one of the first, in this country at least, to use technology, sports science and statistical analysis tools like Prozone to try to gain an edge on others. From his early days at Bolton, he often sat up in the directors box during the first half, away from the hustle bustle of the dugout and technical areas, to gain a better view from which to analyse the pattern of the game. He would keep in touch with assistant Sammy Lee via a headset to filter down instructions, more akin to what we see on rugby. Anything to gain an edge.
The case for
The main reasons that I see Sam Allardyce as the best candidate for the England job are that:
1. he is almost undeniably a brilliant man manager; and
2. he would have a game plan, with simple and clear instructions that our players can easily digest.
There’s one glaring similarity between all of his teams and the players he fills them with. They’re all fighters.
His willingness to welcome troubled souls into his dressing room may count against him in some quarters – widely disliked players such as Joey Barton and El Hadji Diouf. Big Sam has probably been tainted by association.
But all of Allardyce’s players (likeable or not) are loyal to him and appear to enjoy playing for him. They buy into his ethos as it is proven to deliver results and they fight vociferously for the cause. Allardyce recognises that you need the loyalty and trust of your soldiers when you go into battle and, for all of his British bulldog spirit, it is his softer skills that are his greatest attribute. He has consistently got the best out of the often mediocre squad he has worked with and, to put it bluntly, that is what England are nowadays. Mediocre. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for our characteristic arrogance to distort that truth. We no longer possess a single truly world class player. What we now need is someone to turn an average group of players into a well drilled, functioning team who can perform under pressure.
And pressure isn’t alien to Allardyce, albeit a different kind. His Sunderland squad could have withered under the pressure of a relegation battle last season, but instead they rose to the challenge. He harnessed an “us versus them” mentality, which we rave about when Jose Mourinho is at the helm, but goes with feint praise when it is Sam Allardyce. He made them feel 10 feet tall and when they crossed the white line they stood up to be counted when the crunch came. There was no mental fragility, only an unwavering self belief which lead to their almost inevitable survival.
And so of England, who seem to be overburdened by past failures, which perpetuate the cycle of tournament disappointments. Add to that their freezing under pressure, which points to a fragility of mental strength. Our football currently has no identity and there appeared to be no gameplan in France, other than picking young players to go out and enjoy themselves. I doubt they did.
Sam Allardyce now looks to me like the best option to clear the wreckage of England’s Euro 2016 campaign and start the rebuilding job for the 2018 World Cup campaign. You can guarantee that under Big Sam there would be a clear and coherent game plan in place and that players would be picked in their best positions, to fit the shape he wants the team to play in. For too long, England managers have instead worked backwards by trying to build a system around the players. The Gerrard and Lampard conundrum for example, or shoehorning Rooney into midfield for the recent Euros.
For Allardyce, the English game is about pace, power and the prevalence of goalmouth action over “safe”, possession-based football. That is our deep-rooted identity, whether we like it or not. The Premier League is all blood and thunder. It captivates audiences the world over and we need to embrace that rather than trying to reinvent ourselves as disciples of tiki taka, gegenpressers or whatever the latest hipster tactic happens to be. Xavi once said “in England, Carragher hammers it out of play then the fans applaud. In the Nou Camp you would never be applauded for that”. Well, we’re not Barcelona and we never will be. But you don’t need to be play like Barcelona to win international trophies, as Portugal and Greece will testify. With Allardyce in charge there would be no identity crisis.
It might not be for the purists but with England that doesn’t matter so much. England don’t play once or twice every week, like your club team. You don’t buy an overpriced season ticket and demand that you are entertained on a weekly basis. England play around 10 times each calendar year so even if they play unattractive football, it doesn’t bother me. Winning is more important; not for the two largely meaningless years leading up to each major tournament, but at the tournament itself.
Restoring pride in our national sport is the main objective and I feel that Big Sam would embody that pursuit.