In 2006 the FA rejected Sam Allardyce in favour of Steve McClaren, after the former was unable to deliver his desired presentation due to a lack of PowerPoint facilities. Ten years on, and with the technology of the Football Association presumably improved, the divisive Allardyce seems poised to take on ‘the impossible job’.
Considered by some an arrogant, anachronistic Mike Bassett-esque figure worthy of hatred or derision wedded to a style that José Mourinho described as “19th century football”, and others a forward-thinking, subversive, management genius that is deprived of a richly deserved reputation by an elitist sporting and cultural snobbishness, who is the real Allardyce? Should he be appointed, and what might be in store for England if he is?
Even Allardyce’s detractors concede that the 61-year-old is effective at what he does. However, what that actually is has been much debated over the years, with the man himself always testy when presented with the perception many will always associate him with. Allardyce is almost synonymous with ‘long-ball football’, a situation that is arguably legitimate given his three-club affair with Kevin Nolan, and apparent affection for physical strikers who thrive on such approach play – see Kevin Davies, and Andy Carroll for starters. Either based on empirical evidence, or perhaps as a general by-product of this assumption, and his overall image as a footballing regressive, Allardyce is also often strongly associated with a traditional 4-4-2, where the midfield is more destructive than creative. Allardyce has fallen foul of several of his foreign counterparts, not just Mourinho – he is always eager to play up his ‘feud’ with Arsene Wenger, and Rafael Benitez is another with whom there is little love lost. Though on Mourinho Allardyce famously mused “he can’t take it…because we’ve out tactic-ed him, we’ve outwitted him…I don’t give a shite”, some of these falling-outs were based more on Allardyce teams’ often worthy reputation for being overly physical, and endangering opponents.
These premises are either somewhat erroneous, or out-dated though. Allardyce teams have been much more functional than stylish in general, but this has invariably stemmed far more from pragmatism than ideology. When working with the resources and players of Blackpool, Notts County, Bolton, Newcastle, Blackburn, West Ham and Sunderland this is unsurprising, and inevitable. To a certain extent, each club has seen an evolution in Allardyce’s modus operandi too, and his Sunderland team were perfectly easy on the eye, and a far cry from the limb-lopping days of the Reebok. Though not possession-based (Sunderland had the majority of the ball only once in their last ten games, at home to West Brom), Allardyce’s Sunderland have been reasonably progressive, and in line with recent tactical and footballing trends. He has largely played a robust 4-3-3, based on quick transition (but not thuggish hoofball), with at least one inverted forward, rather than two conventional wingers, opening up space for his two very attacking fullbacks (Yedlin and van Aanholt). Needless to say, Jermain Defoe, who has thrived under Allardyce, is no Andy Carroll, highlighting how Big Sam is more than happy to adapt his style to suit the players available to him.
This quality in particular is well suited to international football, where time available with the playing squad is limited, making managers who wish to instil a deep-rooted and heavily detailed tactical philosophy hampered. In international football, more so than club football, pragmatism and building a functional team is vital – just look at the Euro’s, where Santos’ unambitious but well-organised Portugal overcame a France team that prioritised names over the system in the final, whilst Iceland and Wales lit up the tournament, with Chris Coleman employing a 3-5-2 he had never before shown a dogmatic preference for, because it enabled him to play Joe Ledley, Joe Allen and Aaron Ramsey in the same midfield and free up Gareth Bale effectively.
England under Allardyce may be a bit dull on the pitch, but what they would lose in Harry Kane goals against Eastern European teams in boring qualifiers, they would gain in tournament success. No, I’m not saying Big Sam will be lifting the Jules Rimet trophy before a vodka-fuelled night on the rampage in Moscow. But, for a moment, imagine if he had been England manager instead of Hodgson 4 weeks ago. Would his England not have topped that group, and at least replicated Wales?
In mitigation, many of the Allardyce ‘plus points’ outlined here could have been said about the utterly disastrous Roy Hodgson prior to his appointment in 2012. The same Hodgson who abandoned the pragmatic method that made him relatively successful at club level after a, if unspectacular, decent, quarterfinal showing at Euro 2012 where England were only knocked out on penalties by finalists Italy, in favour of compromising an effective system for the sake of cramming in out-of-position offensive players in Brazil and France. But Hodgson, seemingly an FA ‘yes-man’ dominated by the demands of the media, is nothing like the commanding Allardyce, who is very much his own man, and more than happy to take the ‘my way or the high way’ approach. Younes Kaboul stated recently, “He’s [Allardyce] a very straight guy; you know what he’s thinking and, even if you don’t, he’s going to tell you”, whilst Fabio Borini explained “With some managers you switch off – but you always listen to Sam”. Allardyce displayed his ability to work with egos and ambitious players at Bolton, where he brought in experienced World Cup and Champions League winners, Fernando Hierro, Youri Djorkaeff and Ivan Campo.
Indeed, Allardyce’s personality is one of the main reasons I think he is a great fit for the job. There is something intangibly and inexplicably likeable about Big Sam. For so many reasons I should dislike him – arrogant, Brexit-voting, foreigner-condemning. But in an age where football managers are increasingly platitudinous, speaking in vague, pretentious terms that are detached from the day-to-day lexicon of the average fan, there’s something quite refreshing about Allardyce, who suffers no fools, speaks honestly and whose press conferences are invariably entertaining. His appointment would go to great lengths to appease understandably frustrated fans that feel players both don’t care about their country, and are materialistic “headphones”, (Chris Waddle), given too much, too young.
Endorsed by Sir Alex Ferguson as “the obvious choice” for England manager, a pioneer of Prozone, Allardyce’s open-mindedness and modern use of statistics and heavy video analysis is often unfairly overlooked. With a proven track record, including taking Bolton from the Championship to the UEFA Cup, Allardyce is experienced, and reliable – almost every team he has managed declined rapidly following his departure – and capable of moulding England’s defence from shambles to strength, à la Sunderland. Although some have logically observed that Allardyce is stylistically potentially at odds with the overarching reforms the FA are ambiguously implementing, such change really must come at a grassroots level, and from the bottom-up – who the England manager is for the next four years really has little bearing on it. There really is a paucity of domestic alternatives, and ten years after he was originally overlooked, the time is genuinely right for Allardyce to smugly don an England blazer.
Plus even if we’re crap under him it’ll be a laugh.