Last week, the worst-kept secret in international football was spilled when Sam Allardyce was announced as the new England manager.
Apparently, the FA’s first choice was Allardyce’s old critic and sparring partner, Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger, who once accused the one-time Bolton manager of producing “anti-football”. Wenger preferred to remain in his current job.
That the Frenchman was first on the FA’s list and Allardyce second paints a vivid picture of the confusion that has bedevilled English football at all levels of coaching and administration for at least a generation. It’s rather as if a film studio, on finding that the auteur Terrence Malick was unavailable to direct a film, decided to go for Guy Ritchie instead. What kind of film, you would rightly ask, do they have in mind?
By the same token, what kind of football does the FA have in mind? Because there could be no two more divergent philosophies of the game than Wenger’s and Allardyce’s. If the Arsenal man is all about the aesthetics of possession, intricate passing and swift movement, then the Englishman has built his career on blunt pragmatism that more often than not takes the shape of intimidating physical strength and emphatically direct football.
The new Manchester United manager, José Mourinho, who is no martyr to the school of art for art’s sake, once referred to Allardyce’s football as “19th century”. Elsewhere, he has been regularly pilloried for practising the crude “long-ball” tactics that held English football in aspic for decades.
In his two biggest jobs, as manager of Newcastle United and then of West Ham United, Allardyce was sacked not because of any great failure, but because his style of football was unpopular with the fans. To some extent, these criticisms are unfair. Leicester City played a brand of football to win the Premier League last season very similar to the kind Allardyce preaches and they couldn’t have been more adored.
Part of the reason for this inconsistency comes down to personality and appearance. “Big Sam” had the misfortune of looking like the archetype of a manager from another era. He’s a large man with a meaty, implacable face and a confidence that borders on the egomaniacal. He can often seem as though he is figuratively clothed in a sheepskin coat.
“Unfortunately, I cannot help the way I were born and the way I look,” he told one interviewer. “If people see you skin deep, then they’ll make a skin-deep judgment. The ‘rugged’ perception comes from the past, the career history: not a flamboyant or cultured footballer, a fairly straightforward, basic defender that played in all four divisions of the Football League… But it’s never really worried me. I do whatever I think needs to be done.”
But in spite his protestations about not caring, there is a sense that the cocksure manner is the product of poorly concealed resentment at not being fully appreciated by the football establishment, the media and the fans. Lesser men would have buckled under the negative reactions that Allardyce has provoked. But his outlook has remained balanced by a chip on both shoulders. He famously said that he would never manage a top-four side because his name wasn’t Allardici.
However, he seems to be motivated by an ever-deepening desire to prove the world wrong and gain the acclaim he feels he deserves. And nowhere provides a better opportunity than the England job. Nor does any other position offer a greater chance of personal defeat. If all political careers end in failure, then the England manager’s job ends in national humiliation. Only Sir Alf Ramsey has ever won anything – the World Cup in 1966 – and he was sacked and practically erased from public view.
Others have not been treated quite so kindly. Bobby Robson, Graham Taylor, Glenn Hoddle, Kevin Keegan, Steve McClaren and Roy Hodgson: all of them departed with boos ringing in their ears and vicious lampoons in the newspapers. And that’s not to mention the lavishly paid foreign imports Sven-Göran Eriksson and Fabio Capello, whose teams were studies in underachievement.
The only advantage Allardyce has is that, after such a sustained period of disappointment, the level of expectation is at a historical low. Perhaps the position was inadvertently best summed up by the football writer who, recalling the stubbornly defensive performance by Allardyce’s West Ham that earned Mourinho’s condemnation, asked: “What wouldn’t England’s supporters have given for such an approach against Iceland.”
In other words, so far have national prospects fallen, that our greatest hope is that a team from the wealthiest football nation in the world might set out to gain a 0-0 draw against a sparsely populated volcanic island with a league that is ranked 36th in Europe. In a way, Allardyce’s job is to turn England into the new Iceland. His expertise lies with plucky underdogs, making small clubs punch above their weight.
Brought up on a council estate in Dudley in the West Midlands, he enjoyed a journeyman career as an unflinching centre half for unglamorous sides such as Bolton, Millwall and Preston.
Turning to management, he took the Irish side Limerick into Ireland’s top flight before making his way back to Bolton. He took the club back into the Premier League and kept them there, finishing as high as sixth place in 2005. He made Bolton into the proverbial location that no one wanted to go to on a wet Tuesday night in November. Particularly Wenger, whose slick Arsenal side were frequently bullied into unlikely defeat.
By his own estimation, his natural position is among the European elite. When he was manager of Blackburn he suggested he was better suited to Real Madrid. People laughed. Are they laughing now? Probably in Madrid.
In truth, it’s hard to think of a better candidate for England than Allardyce. For one thing, he’s openly craved the job for a decade and more. For another, there are very few realistic options. Even if Wenger had accepted the offer, he’s probably too old now.
Football managers, with only a handful of exceptions, tend to be like rock bands – they have a few golden years, and then repeat themselves with ever dwindling results. Young, hungry managers either don’t want the England job or are not sought by the FA, which prefers a proven track record.
And if it comes down to football managers who are English, the list of those who have enjoyed real success is vanishingly short. No English manager, for example, has ever won the Premier League title, let alone the Champions League.
It used to be said that English coaches were inward-looking with poor levels of study. In this globalised world of international players and coaches and Uefa badges, that’s no longer really true. And indeed Allardyce, who has been willing to learn from abroad, is known for his innovative methods of data collection and fitness analysis. Yet in terms of the weird business of encouraging young talented athletes to pass the ball to each other in an attractive and effective manner, as the French, Germans, Italians and Spanish seem to do, then that’s where English football managers go missing.
The closest we’ve come is getting them to pass the ball in an occasionally attractive but invariably ineffective manner. That’s been the story of England in recent years. Lots of possession but no end product. And despite the FA’s flirtation with Wenger, it looks as if that experiment has now been put to rest.
“I take great satisfaction from the way I’ve managed to evolve,” Allardyce said a couple of years ago. “I’ve changed styles, changed methods. I’ve always had an open mind, always been prepared to listen.”
Perhaps, but no one has ever accused one of Allardyce’s teams of epitomising the beautiful game.
And just as Big Sam never minded Arsenal hogging the ball when they played against Bolton, if his side could nick a goal from a set piece in the 87th minute, so we can imagine that he will be more than ready to accept England’s inferiority and make a virtue of it against our stronger rivals such as Germany, Brazil, Argentina and, of course, Iceland.
Is this a step backwards? Quite possibly, but given that England has made such a hash of stepping forward and, come to that, sideways, then it’s no surprise that the new direction might come with a retro feel. The question is, can he take English football back 50 years, to when we last won something?
THE ALLARDYCE FILE
Born 19 October 1954 in Dudley, the youngest of three children to police sergeant Robert Allardyce and wife, Mary.
Best of times Right now. He has been unsuccessfully interviewed for the England job before and never made any secret of his desire to take control of the national team. Not even beating Arsenal or keeping Sunderland in the Premier League can match this.
Worst of times Getting sacked from Newcastle and West Ham. On both occasions, he felt he had been unfairly characterised and prematurely judged by hostile fans egged on by a dismissive media.
What he says “I don’t think there is any coach more sophisticated than me any more – that’s not trying to criticise any other coaches.”
What others say “He’s certainly the top Englishman. You can search the world for a top manager, but it was right to appoint an Englishman.” Alex Ferguson
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