Big Sam Allardyce: Big myth busted
Once upon a time there was a football manager called Sam. He was known as Big Sam. This was because he was big. Big in stature. Big in personality. Big on balls. Big, long balls, that is, up to a big striker who would knock it down to a team mate who would then score. Bosh. One-nil.
Big Sam’s big teams were rather good at this and did rather well. This upset some of the other managers whose sides lost to Big Sam’s. They said Big Sam’s teams were too big, too strong and just a bit too rough. Their smaller, prettier, players never seemed to have enough time to play the way they wanted.
Big Sam used to smile at this and say that was the whole point of what was known as tactics. He added that his teams also had prettier, smaller players who often helped his teams play prettier football. It was true, they did. But no-one listened. They only remembered the Big Bosh stuff.
And no matter how hard he tried Big Sam could not shake off this reputation. Big Sam got teams into Europe. Big Sam saved teams from relegation. But it seemed to make no difference.
When he was mentioned as a possible England manager, many people laughed. Boy, how they laughed. A Big laugh. A Big Bosh laugh. Big Sam? Big Sham more like they would say.
When he found himself out of work and unable to get a job, Big Sam wondered whether it was all worth it. Maybe he should stop being a football manager? People had their views about him and that was that it seemed. Things needed to change, Big time. Big Sam needed to become Big on fashion - and that did not mean getting a new pair of trousers.
But Big Sam was to get much more fashionable.
And it started one summer’s day in June...
It was June 1 2011. It was the day Sam Allardyce took charge of West Ham United, and was the beginning his redemptive slalom towards respectability in the eyes (and in some cases eye) of those who doubted.
In the beginning, the accepted maxim about Allardyce was a rigid as ever and the idea of getting him as boss was not the easiest sell to the majority of the club’s fans, despite the dire nature of the situation it found itself in at the time: freshly chewed up and chundered into the Championship by the Premier League’s ruthlessly ravenous inhabitants.
After all this was West Ham. The Academy. They simply did not employ managers like Allardyce. They play football. Nice football. What about “the West Ham way?” Dear oh dear, this could not be happening.
So the Big Sam jibes still lingered.
There were sniggers about how the club shop would be doing a booming line in claret and blue club-embossed neck braces for the fans. Tittering over how all the midfielders would be asking to leave through lack of employment opportunities. And about how crowds at the Boring Boleyn would be dwarfed by those at the dictionary reading nights at Newham Town Hall.
Allardyce’s early exchanges with the skeptics both in the media and in home stands were refreshingly honest and did their best to deliver a shockingly overdue reality check.
West Ham were rubbish. They had been for a few seasons. And the only thing symbolic about the ‘West Ham way” had been losing. Ouch. But it was the perfect truth-tipped dart arrowed straight into the bull of all the debate about the club’s traditional style and Allardyce’s compatibility to it.
Big Sam had a Big job to do. And he proceeded to get on with it.
The club had to be brought back to its feet; a leader needed to pump believe back into a saggy, wrinkly psyche. So Allardyce bought Kevin Nolan.
Then the squad needed some Championship nous and with someone who could ping a pass. So Allardyce bought Papa Bouba Diop and Matthew Taylor.
And when the going got tough and the team needed something a bit more explosive. A bit more exotic. A bit more capricious. Allardyce brought in Ricardo Vaz Te.
He knew winning promotion was everything and was the shortest route to being respected again.
He knew it was all about actions, not words. He knew in the cloying swamp of the Championship, how you get out is utterly unimportant as long as you get out. And Allardyce got them out.
Yes there was a bit of biff and bosh and a few big balls along the way but there was also some silkier stuff too. Some very good stuff at times actually.
Allardyce even had the chance to deliver the prize in the most emotional way possible when Blackpool were seen off in the Play Off final at Wembley.
It came close to disaster though. They could easily have lost that day and their survival owed plenty to the resilient backbone off of which everything hung under Allardyce. No one was complaining about style any more. It had been remarkable achievement.
So West Ham were back and Big Sam was back. But there remained one huge examination: survive and prosper in the Premier League. Big Sam had a Bigger job to do.
But what a start he has engineered.
After 17 games the club sit unusually comfortably in mid table, well clear of the relegation zone and four points shy of potential european football. They have really only stunk the place out twice this season - at Swansea and Wigan. Progress indeed. That sort of thing has not happened at West Ham for a while.
In recent years Hammers fans could never have contemplated so many clean sheets (six so far, three more than Manchester United and Spurs with only Stoke boasting more), let alone the arrival of a £35 million pound striker. That sort of thing has not happened at West Ham for a while either.
The defensive improvement is more impressive when you consider the personnel. Who would have thought Jussi Jaakaleinenn, Joey O’Brien, Winston Reid, James Collins, George McCartney and Guy Demel - a seemingly motley crew of frees and wanderers would prove so durable and resolute in the Premier League? Yet each has excelled and, in Reid, Allardyce has on his hands one of the most improved players to grace the Premier League in recent seasons.
Oh and remember that jibe about midfielder’s having no worth in an Allardyce side? West Ham’s top scorer is a midfielder and two of their most outstanding players this season are midfielders. Ironically it is the big men up front who are not earning their corn.
That solidity has given West Ham the foundation to construct their best top flight start since the heady days of Harry and Paulo and, with the toughest run of games this season now over, trepidation can now give way to a smidgeon more optimism for the remainder.
A promising run was all very well but to really silence those that persisted to mock, Big Sam needed a Big result. One great defining moment. Where he could really show ‘em. And it had to be against one of the Big boys.
Then December 1, 2012 arrived when along came the european champions, Chelsea.
West Ham’s 3-1 win was their biggest over Chelsea for more than 20 years. And it was done in style - a thrusting, energetic and slick style. No bashing. No boshing. No argument. Proof at last. A tactical as well as footballing triumph, it was a night that must spell an end to Allardyce myth that his ‘brand” is somehow not worthy of a place among the elite.
Here he was at a fashionable club, in a fashionable city, beating one of the world’s most fashionable sides in the world’s most fashionable league by playing fashionable football. Sam Allardyce could not be more fashionable. If England came calling tomorrow, he would get my vote and, I admit, I never thought I would ever type that. And, tantalizingly, the future promises so much more. With the move to the Olympic Stadium edging closer, the club stands on the cusp of the most revolutionary period in its history. West Ham’s commercial, corporate and financial profile is set to go intergalactic.
They could even become one of the most fashionable clubs in the world.
Allardyce’s appraisal of the situation is typically pragmatic. He is gnarled enough to know results have to keep coming for him to have the chance to pilot the club through those times. But whatever happens, Big Sam is back. Still Big in stature. Still Big in character. Now Big in fashion.