Sam Allardyce: The man nobody wants but everybody needs

In Depth

Everton fans didn’t want Sam Allardyce. No set of fans really want Sam Allardyce. But sooner or later you can’t help but respect the man. It happened at Crystal Palace. It happened at Sunderland. And it’s already happening at Goodison Park.

There are two types of people in this world: those who rate Sam Allardyce and everyone else who isn’t Sam Allardyce.

It seems to be widely acknowledged he is a relic from a bygone era, when the nickname ‘Big’ was a compliment rather than a thinly veiled insult. He’s a bit of a joke, a punchline in a modern world of football managers who wear cardigans and are more famous than their players.

And yes, actually it is lots of fun taking the piss out of Sam and his former 70s porn tache, or the fact he has previously run businesses including a motor spares company, a fast-food restaurant and a piano bar – and now we’re imagining just how incredible Sam’s Piano Bar really would be.

But all that changes when he joins your club.

The truth is no-one ever wants a Sam Allardyce. There are times when you need a Sam Allardyce, but even then you only take him reluctantly.

Like pumping your car tyres with air. It’s ridiculously boring, not sexy in any way, and your hands always end up dirty, but you know if you don’t do it now you’re going to end up with worse problems a few miles down the road.

And Sam would know having run that motor spares company, which of course we are all now imagining too. Sam, blue jumpsuit on, oily rag in hand, doing a sharp intake of breath and saying “it’s gonna cost ya” in his Dudley twang.

I’m a Crystal Palace fan and we were faced with just that situation almost exactly a year ago after the free-wheeling Alan Pardew had taken the car and just done endless doughnuts on the drive with it.

And after six months of having Allardyce in charge, watching him mould the team into what it should have been and saving them from relegation you end up with a grudging respect for the man. Never full-blown love, but an admiration for what he does.

Because he knows who he is. He knows exactly who he is and in a way so do we; we just refuse to acknowledge it. He’s been like this forever.

Big Sam the player

He was exactly the sort of player you think he was back in the 70s and 80s. According to his Wikipedia page he was “uncomfortable in possession, and played simple balls to his nearest team-mates when he found himself with the ball, while team-mates would be reluctant to pass to him.”

And after learning that, two things become a bit more obvious about Big Sam: 

1) All he ever knew was organisation and determination. It’s all he ever had as a player and it’s all he has as a manager. But it worked for him then, it works for him now, and no way is anyone going to tell him to do otherwise. 

2) His self-awareness and insecurity about how he is viewed as a manager. He may give it big balls to the TV cameras and journalists, but the number of times he talks about his so-call reputation for direct football and how wrong it is shows it does get to him.

Because he probably had the exact same accusations as a player from people. And in a way all that makes him more human, more fallible and thus a bit more likeable. He actually feels the same way we all do about our own failings and insecurities.

It’s what made his comment about being able to win the title with Real Madrid given the chance so great. You’re about 90% sure he was joking, but then again maybe not. Was it a truth bomb about the state of British managers or just a line chucked out there to distract from something else?

Debunking the myths

Once you have him as a manager at your own club it quickly becomes apparent that Sam’s approach isn’t solely about being direct or long ball, it’s about getting the best out of whoever is in the team. If that needs to be long ball because you have a big man up top and your midfielders are rubbish then so be it.

A quick look at Everton’s pass map for the Merseyside derby the other week shows one big arrow from Jordan Pickford to Dominic Calvert-Lewin, but hey, it worked.

Mostly, though, the long-ball merchant stuff is a myth. Palace last season actually played fewer long balls under Allardyce than they did under Pardew.

It’s more about maximising his players’ abilities and we saw that first hand at Selhurst Park; Wilf Zaha is good at taking people on and under Big Sam last season he completed the most take-ons of any Premier League player.

Andros Townsend likes crossing and ended up getting in the most crosses last season, while Christian Benteke is good in the air and, shock horror, ended up winning more headers than any other top-flight player. As a result of all that, Palace flourished.

That firefighter image of him as a manager that is only ever used to get teams out of trouble is also not entirely true, even though it is one that he himself has perpetuated, literally through using the word “firefighter” in interviews when referring to himself.

In fact, he has only saved three clubs from relegation in his 23-year career as a manager; Blackburn in 2008, Sunderland in 2015 and Palace last season. Even Everton were 13th when he took over. 

He has spent more time floating around mid-table. If he really was a firefighter he’d spend more time rescuing cats from trees and monitoring village fetes than actually putting out fires. 

And he gets results. Look how quickly the Toffees have improved simply from a little bit of tweaking of the car engine with that oily rag. 

Even the image of a bygone football manager is a bit of a myth when you remember Sam was one of the first managers in England to use sports science to encourage things like yoga. And now you’re imagining Big Sam doing yoga and I can only apologise.

Finally, there’s Big Sam the character. It’s not a vintage time for British managers, and that’s fine. These things come and go in waves, and Britain doesn’t have to rule the world at everything, but the selection of Brits in the Premier League currently looks more like the accounts team at the office Christmas party:

There’s account manager Paul Clement; lovely old doorman Roy Hodgson; Sean Dyche, who has all the charisma of a cup of tea; Eddie Howe, who is essentially a Lego man that was brought to life but can’t process human emotions; and Mark Hughes, the footballing equivalent of the Abe Simpson old-man-yells-at-cloud meme. And, of course, Alan Pardew, the Donald Trump of football management. 

And then there’s Sam. He gets it. He gets you. You know he isn’t that great, he knows he isn’t that great, but with a wink and a quick word into his bluetooth headset on the sidelines he can get on with cutting through the crap and doing his job of quietly being the best British manager out there.

Just don’t mention Real Madrid…

By Jim Daly


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