Sam Allardyce is the sort of man who walks into a packed room and immediately dominates it. If that hardly ranks as a rare trait among football managers, particularly those standing 6ft 3in, the difference with Allardyce is that he really listens to what people are saying – and with a surprisingly open mind.
This approach has helped create one of the English game’s most innovative, three-dimensional thinkers whose fascination with, among many other things, sports science and statistics is underscored by sure-footed intuition.
At 61, Sunderland’s manager is surely the right man, in the right place, at the right time to not only breathe new life into the England team but challenge all sorts of dubious received wisdoms currently pervading Football Association philosophy. If Allardyce really was the binary, “hoof and hope” manager of popular caricature he would not have been able to rescue a deeply flawed Sunderland squad from a once seemingly inevitable relegation.
The difficulty of that job – dubbed “impossible” by his predecessor Dick Advocaat, who resigned in despair last October – should not be underestimated and is unlikely to be forgotten by any player involved. “I don’t think Sam needed much time to analyse us as either footballers or people,” says Younès Kaboul, the former Tottenham Hotspur centre-half who morphed from being a liability to a big reason why Sunderland lost only one of their final 11 games last spring.
“Sam’s got so much experience that, for him, one week was enough to know us. To learn which way we should play and what we needed to do to improve. Sam knows football better than he knows his family. He knows exactly how to – how can I say it – upset the other team. He made us strong and solid. He’s shown us how to stay in games. And how to win. He’s also a very straight guy; you know what he’s thinking and, even if you don’t, he’s going to tell you.”
Fabio Borini, the team’s former Liverpool and Chelsea forward, is equally positive. “With some managers you switch off,” he acknowledges. “But you always listen to Sam.”
Allardyce’s imposing, sometimes misleadingly rough-and-ready presence is underscored by the sort of psychological and tactical subtleties that impressed Jan Kirchhoff after a midfielder coached by Pep Guardiola swapped Bayern Munich for Sunderland in January. “Pep’s the best coach in the world but Sam’s good,” Kirchhoff says. “His treatment of players, the way Sam speaks to us, is very good. His video analysis, too. I’ve had really bad coaches – but Sam’s a really good one.”
Perhaps it is down to Allardyce having “done the hard yards”. Allied to the sort of inquiring mind which has converted him to the benefits of near daily transcendental meditation, an impressively solid body of work embracing stints at Limerick, Preston, Blackpool, Notts County, Bolton, Newcastle, Blackburn, West Ham and now Sunderland dictates that he really does know how to set a team up for almost every occasion. Creditably, he has never been relegated from the Premier League but, despite leading Bolton into Europe and to the League Cup final, lacks the trophies to show for decades of mud-on-boots endeavour.
The absence of silverware is down to sheer lack of opportunity. As one of the first Premier League managers to deploy both psychology and Prozone analysis, he proved ahead of his time but was not seen as sufficiently “sophisticated” to be shortlisted for top jobs.
Increasingly chippy, the boy from Dudley in the west Midlands who had overcome undiagnosed childhood dyslexia lamented, repeatedly, how things would have been different if only his name were “Allardici”. Yet although those repeated digs contained uncomfortable truths about English football’s growing obsession with image and branding, there was more to his top‑table exclusion than sheer snobbery.
Despite signing some undeniably talented footballers, most notably Youri Djorkaeff and Jay-Jay Okocha at Bolton, he had a tendency to limit individual players’ potential by restricting them to performing very specific roles, often creativity stifling ones. If Bolton’s football was not quite as direct as advertised, assorted rival managers – most notably Rafael Benítez and Arsène Wenger – did not appreciate Allardyce’s deployment of gamesmanship. One notorious “black art” involved his teams’ ability to escape unpunished despite repeated indulgence in the Kevin Nolan speciality otherwise known as blatantly obstructing opposition goalkeepers.
A sometimes uneasy on the eye, safety-first modus operandi, bigger on destruction than construction, contributed to both his downfall at Newcastle and a frequently awkward relationship with West Ham fans. Many Upton Park regulars were apparently secretly delighted when José Mourinho deemed “Big Sam’s” football “19th century”. But people can change and Allardyce appeared to undergo an epiphany at West Ham, where he ultimately produced a surprisingly multifaceted side featuring the clever use of Stewart Downing in “the hole.”
Similarly, Sunderland proved unexpectedly low on balls crashed into the corners last season. Having taken the boldly controversial step of fielding the diminutive Jermain Defoe as a lone striker, Allardyce turned tactical chameleon and ensured team-mates supplied the low, smartly angled passes a forward capped 55 times by England craved. “Sam’s 100% good enough for England,” Defoe says. “Football’s about results – and he’s a winner.”
Infinitely less chippy and, by his own admission, “much mellowed” – he even has kind words for Benítez and Wenger these days – Allardyce is also a man finally comfortable in his own skin.
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