After leaving Preston, 34-year-old Allardyce – nicknamed Super Sam Bionic Man during his Bolton career – takes a player-coach role with West Brom.
It ends in a mess – manager Brian Talbot and Allardyce both sacked in January 1991 after a red-faced 4–2 FA Cup defeat to Isthmian League side Woking. But Allardyce’s self-belief isn’t shaken: he moves to Bury as a part-time coach, before being handed his first big management chance in Ireland.
Allardyce is unveiled by Limerick. It’s an eye-catching season: he leads them straight to the second-tier title, and earns a coaching job back in England with Preston. Ten games later he becomes Preston’s caretaker manager when Lee Chapman is sacked – but misses out on the full-time job to John Beck. He’s then tasked with instilling Beck’s brand of long-ball football in the youth team instead. He later details the experience in his autobiography: “It was ludicrous … I told the lads they had to do what the manager wanted, and placate the parents who threatened to take their sons to other clubs. It was hard defending the indefensible. I was in the dressing room telling them: ‘Target those corners, hook it on when you’ve got your back to goal.’ How did I feel? Shit.”
Three years later, he is free, replacing Billy Ayre as Blackpool manager. He sets about building a side in his own image, spending a club record £245,000 on “horrible in-your-face nutter” Andy Morrison to lead the defence. He takes them to 12th in his first season and third a year later – but chairman Owen Oyston, in jail at the time, responds to play-off defeat by sacking him. Allardyce later accuses Oyston of a “cold, calculated, pre-planned” decision – but says the experience taught him a lesson. “When Oyston sacked me I didn’t have a contract – he said I never ever needed one while I was with him. I swore that day I would never carry on without a properly written, formulated contract.”
And – after a spell as academy director for Peter Reid’s Sunderland – he gets one: hired by Notts County to end their crisis. He fails to stop them falling into Division Three via an 18-game winless run – but then takes them to a spectacular promotion as champions the following season, finishing on 99 points using a solid system built on a three-man defence. But after regular rows over funds, and with a sniff of the Bolton job, he phones in his resignation in October 1999. “I told them: ‘I can’t work for you any more, I’ve packed my bags and gone back to Bolton. I’ve had enough of all the stuff you’ve done to me. Thanks for the opportunity. Bye.’”
Back at Bolton he replaces Colin Todd, who resigned in protest at the cash-raising sale of Per Frandsen. Among his first big decisions: selling Todd’s son, Andy, after the defender breaks assistant manager Phil Brown’s jaw during a team-bonding session. Allardyce then leads them on a stirring run – taking Bolton from the bottom half to play-off defeat to Ipswich, and FA Cup and League Cup semis. He blames the play-off defeat on referee Barry Knight, calling his performance “bordering on criminal, the worst refereeing performance in the history of football. Barry Knight lost it, completely lost it.”
Bouyed by a new 10-year contract, Allardyce leads the Bolton charge to a play-off victory in Cardiff, 3-0 over Preston. They then power on into the new season, starting with a 5-0 win at Leicester, securing a total of nine points from the first three games, and, after a rough patch, beating Manchester United. Critical pundits are unconvinced by it all – Mark Lawrenson pledges to shave his moustache off if they stay up – but January signings Stig Tofting, Fredi Bobic and Youri Djorkaeff help defy the odds and secure 16th place. Lawrenson gets his razor out.
A personal landmark moment. Having avoided relegation again in 2002-03, the following season – with a side now featuring Kevin Davies and Emerson Thome – Bolton reach the League Cup final, Allardyce’s first final as a player or manager. It ends badly, though: a 2-1 defeat to Middlesbrough, with Allardyce blaming referee Mike Riley for not giving them a late penalty. “I’ve never liked him as a ref for us. He cost us the chance of winning. We had our concerns about him before the match, and he lived up to them as far as we were concerned. Our fans showed their feelings when they booed him as he went up for his medal.” The season ends with a much-improved eighth-place finish.
A European adventure. After securing a Uefa Cup spot the previous season with a sixth-place finish, Bolton reach the last 32 – but are beaten by Marseille. Allardyce, repeatedly linked with Newcastle, then makes a four-man shortlist for the vacant England job, alongside Alan Curbishley, Steve McClaren and Martin O’Neill. “Steve looks slightly ahead of me in the running,” says Allardyce, “but who knows? I haven’t given up hope. Anything to do with England would be extremely positive.” The FA go with McClaren, and Allardyce stays put. Bolton’s form collapses, and they finish eighth.
Amid mounting tension over Bolton’s transfer budget and links with the Manchester City job, Allardyce resigns– walking away with the club in fifth place and two games left to play. “The decision to leave the football club, which has been my spiritual home for over 18 years, as both player and manager, is one of the hardest decisions I have had to make in my life,” says Allardyce. “But I do feel confident that I am moving on with my life, content with a legacy that I have tried to create for this special club.” Bolton fail to win the last two, and end up in seventh.
After a setback – the Manchester City chance disappearing when Thaksin Shinawatrabuys the club – Allardyce makes his long-rumoured move to Newcastle. He spends heavily – incoming deals including Joey Barton, Mark Viduka and Alan Smith– and they start with a win over his old club Bolton. But form fades and, after 24 games, it’s over. Newcastle call his exit “mutual consent”, Allardyce calls it “a shock”. He adds: “I didn’t expect it. But you can’t be bitter, you just have to move on. Me and my wife will get away in the sunshine, have a little bit of a break and then come back and refocus. When will the next job come? Who knows? We will just have to wait and see.”
The chance comes just under a year later – Allardyce hired by Blackburn after Paul Ince left the club in 19th, five points off safety. His first game in charge is a 3-0 win over Stoke, kicking off a nine-game unbeaten run. On the way to securing safety Allardyce takes the plaudits, but reflects on his lot. “It wouldn’t be mentioned at all now would it, Sam Allardyce for the England job? But at the time I should have got it. Maybe my external look isn’t to everybody’s liking and one or two seem to dislike Sam Allardyce – but it was the right time and the right job for me. It is a political FA board and a real shame in terms of my life. That job doesn’t come around too often.”
After a season of relative success with a mid-table finish and a League Cup semi, Blackburn are put up for sale, and Allardyce is offered the Al-Ahli Dubai job. Blackburn block it. He later assesses where he should be in the game: “I’m not suited to Bolton or Blackburn, I would be more suited to Inter Milan or Real Madrid. It wouldn’t be a problem to me.” Later in the season he lays into Danny Murphy for calling his Blackburn side dirty. “People like Danny Murphy are giving a perception that isn’t true. I hate perception. There’s far too much of it in the game.”
A body blow. With Rovers 13th, Allardyce is sacked by new owners Venky’s, and replaced by Steve Kean. Alex Ferguson calls the decision “stupid, ridiculous, deary me”. Allardyce heads south for relegated West Haminstead. He reassures Hammers fans that he’ll play “attractive football”, then embarks on a massive overhaul, with 25 players leaving and 19 arriving. Criticism of the playing style builds, but results are strong, and they go up, via the play-offs.
Feeling vindicated, Allardyce reflects on that problem again: too much perception in football. “It rankles with me at times that I have to remind people what I’ve done. If you start talking about it too much, you just get labelled big-headed, people go: ‘He’s blowing his own trumpet again’, but if no one else is going to talk about it, you have to talk about it. The lingering long-ball shit, the old style, all that rubbish – that’s never been me and never been a part of what I am.” He then invests heavily again in 11 new arrivals including Andy Carroll on loan, before returning to the theme. “I won’t ever be going to a top-four club because I’m not called Allardici.” West Ham finish 10th, and Allardyce signs a new two-year deal.
Midway through the following season, Allardyce clashes entertainingly with José Mourinho after a 0-0 draw at Chelsea. Mourinho calls West Ham’s style “football from the 19th century”; Allardyce responds: “He just can’t take it. He just can’t take it. I knew he would say that. He can tell me that all he wants, I don’t give a shite. He can’t take it that we’ve out-tactic-ed him and outwitted him. He just can’t cope. I love to see Chelsea players moaning at the referee, trying to intimidate the officials, and José jumping up and down. It’s great to see.”
Days after picking up the Premier League manager of the month award for a run of four wins and one draw, Allardyce sees West Ham fans stage a protest against his style of play during an away game at West Brom – a banner reading: “Fat Sam Out, killing WHU”. A month later, fans take a “Fat Sam Out” banner to co-chairman David Sullivan’s Essex mansion. The club respond by backing him, and hiring attacking coach Teddy Sheringham to “ensure the team provides more entertainment”.
Under pressure, he again defends his style. “All this tippy-tappy stuff everybody keeps going on about as the right way to play football is all a load of bollocks. Getting the ball in the opposition’s box quickly with quality is sometimes the best way.” A month later he assesses his standing in the game: “I don’t think there is any coach more sophisticated than me any more. I’m just as good as everybody at this stage.” But, despite some praise for an improved style and another manager of the month award in April, Allardyce leaves on the final dayof the season. “I didn’t want to stay. I suppose you could say it was mutual.” West Ham finish 12th.
It frees him up for one more challenge: saving Sunderland after Dick Advocaat’s exit. In his second game they beat Newcastle 3-0 – but are seven points from safety at the turn of the year. He attracts controversy in February while denying Jermain Defoe elbowed Nicolás Otamendi, saying foreign players “make a big fuss of it. That’s in their nature. They react in a more volatile way to incidents like that than we do”. But after February a brilliant run brings safety – and another shot at securing his dream England job.
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