The FA chief executive and former biscuit baron Martin Glenn was guilty of over-sweetening his patter when he described Sam Allardyce as the “ideal candidate” at Friday’s presentation of the new England manager.
A strong candidate, for sure, but the perfect fit for the job would have been someone who has previously thrived in a role of comparable magnitude, not a man who has been hounded out of his two biggest club jobs to date, at Newcastle United and West Ham United, and lost the only major Cup final of his career to a side managed by Steve McClaren. No, without saying that Allardyce is the wrong man to lead England, ideal is not the right word.
To an extent Allardyce was a victim of circumstances during his two most prominent previous gigs but the criticism he attracted from supporters in the north-east and east London – the main reason for it and his reaction to it – still leaves room for doubt about his ability to keep the English public and press onside. And that will probably be an important facet of the job given how vulnerable England players seem to be negative vibes.
As the trustee of the national team’s hopes Allardyce will be more exposed to flak than ever. He has always had thick skin but there were times at Newcastle and West Ham when the panning seemed to wound him. Maybe those experiences have made him stronger and thus even more equipped to lead his country, which will be just as well because the two-year contract that he has signed comes with a guarantee of unprecedented pressure.
“The first two years can be a lonely, terrifying nightmare,” said Sir Bobby Robson while recalling his time in charge of England for Niall Edworthy’s book The Second Most Important Job in the Country. Robson had been in charge of Ipswich Town for 13 years and, unlike Allardyce, won a couple of major trophies before his ascension to the national throne in 1982, but he was still taken aback by the weight of expectation with England, admitting: “I thought I was prepared but the first time I led England out at Wembley and heard God Save the Queen the realisation of my responsibility to the nation came as a shock.”
Allardyce is not easily daunted but he too may be jolted by the sense of responsibility when he leads out England at Wembley against as yet undetermined opponents for a friendly on 1 September, and even more so in the subsequent competitive matches. His first will involve a journey to Bratislava for the World Cup qualifier against Slovakia on 4 September.
Then again, although scrutiny now is even more intense than during Robson’s tenure, perhaps Allardyce has inherited a slightly lighter responsibility thanks to the sheer awfulness of Roy Hodgson’s tournament performances and, indeed, the clever, low-frills Premier League triumph of Leicester City in a season in which woolly thinkers such as Roberto Martínez and Brendan Rodgers fell from grace. This is no time for fancy talk about the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age seems warm to Allardyce.
Allardyce has often been unlucky with timing during his career – arriving at Newcastle just before it was taken over by Mike Ashley, at Blackburn Rovers just before the club was bought by the Venky’s consortium and at Sunderland just before Adam Johnson was imprisoned for child sex offences – but not now. If a team is only as good as its last match, then England are absolute muck so their followers are in no position to start carping about style.
The defeat in France to Iceland and, more broadly, that England have made embarrassing shows of themselves under recent managers while attempting to look slick in clothes that did not fit, should give Allardyce the freedom to tailor a team devoid of pretence. At their lowest ebb England may be ready for Allardyce’s bottom-line approach.
But maybe not. It remains to be seen exactly how tolerant England followers – and a group of players better than any Allardyce has previously worked with – will be of unadorned functionalism. Will they really be content to play the percentages and eke out counterattacking wins against Slovakia or Scotland?
Graham Taylor, who admittedly took over England at a time when they were jubilant from reaching the semi-final of the 1990 World Cup, had a reputation similar to Allardyce’s. Thanks to his success at Watford, Taylor was presented as a canny troubleshooter who could do wonders with modest resources and, unlike Allardyce, one who had also restored a feelgood factor to a big club by bringing happy days back to Aston Villa.
But his style, not unlike Allardyce’s, was such that when results dipped, criticism came drenched in venom. Will one disappointing result for Allardyce trigger an explosion of scorn about the inclusion of, say, Andy Carroll ahead of Daniel Sturridge? And if so, how will Allardyce react?
Although Allardyce has always been right to protest that his Bolton Wanderers’ team were not as crude as depicted by bitter caricaturists, the teams he managed more recently often were. West Ham, for instance, were regularly gruelling to watch, which was why many of their fans booed even when winning.
Allardyce condemned their delusions of grandeur and scoffed at fables about the West Ham Way but for a while the criticism seemed to have the effect of clouding his normally clear-headed approach, as he strayed from pragmatism into dogmatism.
His most recent assignment demonstrated the savviness from which England may hope to benefit, as, after an ominous start, he gave a flaky and disjointed team a method and mettle that brought redemption. He was not afraid to jilt the captain, John O’Shea, to solidify a brittle defence, although that was because he was able to buy better replacements, an option not available to him in international management. It will be interesting to see who he picks at the back for England.
At Sunderland he also introduced a degree of counterattacking flair and even proved that Jermain Defoe could operate as a lone striker, something other managers had previously said was impossible. And, of course, he could, as at West Ham, point to the fact that the club’s results were generally positive.
But while he was doing that West Ham fans could point to the fact that both their results and style improved under his successor at Upton Park, Slaven Bilic. With that, and that the former Croatia manager already knows what it is like to lead a country to glory, in mind, perhaps Bilic, if he actually wanted the job, would have been the ideal candidate.
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