The veteran manager is an unimaginative appointment who is unlikely to progress the national team
A mere 14 months ago, Sam Allardyce was sacked within 10 minutes of the final whistle in West Ham’s last game of the 2014/15 season. He now stands as England’s manager, tasked with taking the national team back to the glories of…well, Sven-Göran Eriksson’s regular quarter finals, at least. While Allardyce is a perfectly adept Premier League manager to a point, there is little correlation behind that status and success at international level; his is an appointment borne out of precious few alternatives and a circle of selections which have led the FA to believe that good old fashioned English attributes are the way forward being as all the other approaches have been exhausted.
We should remember that Big Sam was very much in the running for the top job after Eriksson announced he would be leaving after the 2006 World Cup. There was a similarly uninspired field of candidates then; indeed one could argue that Alan Curbishley and Martin O’Neill had greater credentials a decade ago than Steve Bruce or Eddie Howe have now. As the media began to focus on Sven’s nationality and perceived coldness when results and performances tailed off in his latter reign, the FA decided that a British manager was the only way forward and eventually plumped for McClaren, so embattled a short few months previously that a Middlesbrough season ticket holder confronted him pitchside during one of many chastening home defeats. With Allardyce’s departure from West Ham barely a year ago unmourned by many regulars at Upton Park, there is a parallel where a manager not long disliked by supporters who had to watch his football regularly has now been catapulted to what is, at least nominally, the top job in the country. A strange state of affairs. It’s extremely hard to imagine Spain, for example, appointing someone who’d recently been sacked by Real Sociedad, with unattractive football being one of the explicit driving reasons behind his departure.
Allardyce does at least have the advantage of being more toughened and savvy than McClaren was a decade ago. It’s unlikely he’ll be driven to dropping one of our better footballers purely to prove that he’s his own man and not connected with the previous regime, as McClaren did with David Beckham. It’s an extremely remote possibility that Sam will see fit to take lessons from PR gurus as to how to speak to the press, try out new formations in crucial qualifying games without the players being properly drilled, or indeed fail to ensure that England qualify for the next World Cup. So this is unlikely to be a disaster quite on the scale of the Steve McClaren era. It is, however, quite possible that Allardyce becomes a Graham Taylor figure a quarter of a century on; the style of football is similar, the bluff manner rings true, the nagging sense that no-one in top level international football really plays like a Taylor/Allardyce team is familiar. England were, of course, recently beaten by Iceland who played in a fashion that it’s likely Allardyce greatly appreciated, but it’s not that feasible that such tactics would really progress England to the level desired. Besides which, Iceland (or, one could easily argue, Wales) perform relative to the expectations of their nation and their tiny population. Playing on a regular basis as if you’re a League One team up against a Premier League team on an off day is unlikely to prove successful or popular in the long run.
At present, Allardyce has a reasonably good standing with the media. He has a reasonable knack for a soundbite and it sells well when one of his teams rough-houses an expensively assembled team such as Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United, or a predominantly foreign team such as Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal (with Wenger’s previous propensity to complain about the physical treatment meted out making for easy copy). This though, is relatively small potatoes; as with the Iceland/Wales example above when looking at tactics and approach, you can get away with that kind of siege mentality when you’re a legitimate underdog. There are relatively few occasions when England should be considered in such a way, perhaps only when they’re facing teams well established as one of the top ten in the world, so this is not a play Allardyce will be able to make often. This extends to other elements of his media handling; self-aggrandisement by suggesting you would regularly win titles at big clubs is an easy throwaway line when managing Blackburn, but a similar attitude won’t play well if England’s results are underwhelming. Throwing players under the bus is pretty much considered a no-go area for national managers, after all these players are only with you quasi-voluntarily in the first place. Belligerence is also a dangerous area, as it’s relatively small news if you goad your own fans at Upton Park when West Ham have scraped past 10 man Hull in the least impressive way imaginable, but try pulling that stunt when England have drawn at home with Slovenia. This is a job where Allardyce is going to be subject to more media attention than he’s ever come close to previously enduring and he has much work to do to convince that he has the gravitas (in the case of Bobby Robson) or genuine charm (cf Terry Venables) to convincingly pull it off. Should he indulge the worst excesses of his behaviour (which can be over-confrontational at very least) then his will be a very short honeymoon. While the media in this country might delight in documenting English failures (real or imagined), they also have on the whole sky high expectations of the national team. The skills of a diplomat are often required before a ball’s even been kicked.
Dissecting Allardyce’s career in club management also gives us few clues as to why the FA have decided he is the man to take English football forward. It is undeniable that he did an excellent job at Bolton where he regularly exceeded expectations and dealt with big name players such as Jay-Jay Okocha, Nicolas Anelka, Fernando Hierro and Youri Djorkaeff; he also left the club over nine years ago. This is, in football terms, as good as ancient history. It also remains overwhelmingly his high watermark in club management and yet was deemed insufficient a decade ago to earn him the England job. In deference to Steve McClaren. As such, it would seem a weak argument to use in favour of him taking the reins in 2016.
His spell at Newcastle was unfortunate from the point of view that he was appointed by owners who subsequently sold the club mere weeks later, and apparently never finding favour with Mike Ashley, was always to an extent on borrowed time. However, his sacking was merited on footballing terms when it came in January 2008. Despite reasonable investment on deeply questionable signings such as Alan Smith, Adboulaye Faye, Joey Barton (drummed out of Manchester City for assaulting a team mate and imprisoned for a separate assault months later) and Geremi, his team had slumped to a run of nine points in 12 games by the time he left the club. The style of football had devolved into aimless long balls at a strike force of 5’8” Michael Owen and 5’7” Obafemi Martins and Allardyce led Newcastle to haul of one point from two games against Derby County – the four points the Rams picked up in those games represented over a third of their entire haul for the season. While Newcastle proceeded to decline over the following 18 months and were subsequently relegated, this was more a consequence of Ashley deigning to appoint Kevin Keegan, Dennis Wise (as Director of Football), Joe Kinnear, Chris Hughton and Alan Shearer during that period rather than any of Allardyce’s fine work being undone. Interestingly, many Newcastle fans view Glenn Roeder’s tenure as superior to Allardyce’s. That’s Glenn Roeder, ladies and gentlemen.
In that sense, we find a similar story at Blackburn. Yes, it is true that Sam did much better work than the man who directly preceded him. It is also true that he was a vastly superior manager than the man who followed him. Those two men were Paul Ince and Steve Kean; it really is not much of a stretch for any competent manager to outperform them at Premier League level. Allardyce did a reasonable stabilising job at Rovers but all he did was to return them to their natural place in the order while owned by the Walker Trust; a stable, mid-table Premier League team. It would be hard to argue that he did a superior job at Ewood Park in relation to Mark Hughes, who incidentally would seem to have a much better case for consideration for the England job than Allardyce should we choose to ignore nationality – younger, with better recent results in the Premier League, what is widely considered to be better football, a good understanding of international football thanks to his earlier time in charge of Wales and with experience of a club job at Manchester City that is much bigger than anything Allardyce has ever faced. As Jürgen Klinsmann was reportedly under serious consideration before Sam’s coronation, it can’t be that nationality was a particularly decisive factor and it’s odd that in such context, Hughes barely merited a mention in the press while what I and many others would consider a deeply inferior version of the same thing has taken control. It may be that he had no real interest, but nor does it seem the FA were especially interested in him.
Sam took over from another disaster area of a manager in Avram Grant at West Ham; another easy tick for the CV, be better than a man who’s just relegated the club. His brief was to get the Hammers back into the Premier League and remain there. While it’s true that in bald, raw terms, he succeeded, the devil as ever is in the detail. West Ham finished 3rd in the Championship in 2011/12, despite their budget dwarfing everyone else in the league by a factor hitherto rarely seen at that level, and were forced into the playoffs where they narrowly succeeded in the final against Blackpool. His final season saw West Ham limp to the finish line with a mere three wins in their final 21 league games. There was plenty of perfectly acceptable work along the way with three successive mid-table finishes but that is all it was – perfectly acceptable. Managers don’t generally get handed better jobs because of “perfectly acceptable” work. Especially when that work has started to tend in the exact opposite direction of “perfectly acceptable” and you’re sacked because the football is abysmal to watch, as proved to be his fate at West Ham. Nor does it generally reflect well when your media-friendly, highly popular successor proceeds to turn the squad into one which plays extremely attractive football, qualifies for Europe and improves upon the previous season by a full 15 points.
So, we move to his work at Sunderland. This can surely only have been the defining metric by which it was decided he was the best candidate available to manage England. With Jermain Defoe – arguably the best striker at any club outside the top eight – already on board before he arrived, Allardyce picked up 36 points from 30 games. Along the way he went on separate runs of five straight defeats and one win in 11 games. Now, the points haul he managed was sufficient to save Sunderland – mission accomplished for him and them, and kudos is due on that front (there’s a sad poetry in that survival being attained at the expense of a club managed by Steve McClaren for the majority of the season). But is that really evidence of a man cut out for managing an international team with continual designs on reaching the latter stages of tournaments? Extrapolated over a season, that ratio of points per game would earn Allardyce’s Sunderland around 46 points. He managed 46, 40 and 47 in his three Premier League seasons at West Ham. This is the mark of a manager who can get average teams to churn out average performances, heavy on defensive organisation and with a first instinct for survival…very similar to a certain Roy Hodgson (for the record, 46 points in his final season at Fulham, 47 in his final season at West Brom). If Hodgson failed, why should Allardyce succeed? If the skills of Hodgson proved to be incompatible with the England job, why should a man with a worryingly similar record do any better? The evidence seems extremely thin on the ground. Hodgson did at least have a track record of international management behind him and had reached two European finals at club level, so didn’t purely specialise in mid-table monotony.
It remains to be seen what the future holds for the England team under Allardyce. As previously stated, he almost certainly has the wherewithal to negotiate a moderate qualifying group, not that winning 10 qualifying games out of 10 appeared to give Hodgson much credence with the media ahead of Euro 2016. In terms of raw results, it’s entirely possible that he may marginally improve on Hodgson’s tournament record of three wins in eleven games. But when we assess whether this is a man capable of producing tangible improvements, genuine achievements, progressing the many quality young English players who need encouragement to play naturally on the big stage, playing anything approaching attractive football or unifying the country behind a single cause, it seems doubtful. It’s fair to say that the pool of candidates was uninspiring at best; it wasn’t just the hot weather that’s been keeping me up lately, it’s also the thought of having Steve Bruce as England manager, and we dealt with the credentials of Glenn Hoddle in a previous blog at great length. But that doesn’t excuse the FA’s decision, this is one which will condemn the national team to two years of stasis, at best. Appoint an average manager and get average results will likely prove to be the message. Eventually they might learn.