Very few managers have to put up with the pelters that are hurled in Sam Allardyce’s face every day.
To many, he is not just Big Sam, he is Big Fat Sam. He is Mike Bassett, Fergie’s Friend, the King of the Long Ball and the Lord of the Earpiece. What is becoming increasingly obvious, however, is that it doesn’t matter what you call him, he’s still a bloody good football manager.
At this point, it is customary for the reader to react in one of two ways. The first is to scoff heartily and swear that they would rather sit and watch their lover take a ravaging from a passing bear than witness Allardyce at the helm of their football club, staining its reputation with his dark arts.
Unless they’re a Blackburn Rovers fan, of course, facing an uncertain future in the Championship. Or indeed a Bolton Wanderers fan, facing an uncertain future in the Championship. Or, while we’re at it, a West Ham fan, facing a future that, for the moment at least, isn’t in the Championship. Which brings us to the other reaction; the grudging acceptance that his football might be boring, but it’s certainly effective.
But is his football really that bad? I was at Upton Park on Saturday evening as The Hammers hosted the Premier League champions, and I certainly wasn’t bored. There’s something quite compelling about the way that Andy Carroll trundles into position like some terrifying experimental siege engine. I like the flash of fear you see in the eyes of centre-backs, the way they assess this ominous pile of flesh and elbows and then wonder if they should have tried so hard in that late fitness test.
Around him, Matt Jarvis, Yossi Benayon and Kevin Nolan brace themselves like dogs under the table at Christmas Dinner, waiting to see what will fall to the carpet. But brute force wasn’t all that Allardyce's troops had to offer against Manchester City. Out wide, Jarvis was the most concerning thing that Kolo Toure has seen since he spotted the label on those dietary supplements. In the middle, Mark Noble charged around snorting and sliding, giving further evidence to those who believe that he only recently woke from a coma and is convinced that it’s still 1986.
All across the pitch, West Ham’s players huffed and puffed and, while they didn’t blow Manchester City’s house down, they certainly rattled the windows and dislodged a few tiles. If I was one of their supporters, I don’t think I’d be too displeased with Allardyce’s flat-out refusal to build a Barcelona-by-Bow. This would do me fine.
I’ve been through the rulebook several times and I’m yet to find the page that says goals don’t count unless they come at the end of a 36-pass move. Yes, it’s lovely to see players deftly sliding the ball from instep to instep, passing, moving, feinting and darting, but sometimes you just want to see your team with their blood up, harrying, clattering and pointedly blowing thick streams of snot out of one nostril. With an Allardyce team, football is a military matter. There is careful preparation, diligent reconnaissance and you always suspect that he has spent at least three hours somewhere pushing plastic flags across a large map with a stick.
But when the planning is over and battle commences, it’s still one group of hairy-bottomed men against another, and Allardyce’s squad very rarely flinch.
Though some supporters of ‘big’ teams may not realise it, we don’t all watch football to bask in reflected glory. Some of us, immunised against expectation by decades of failure, are just happy if our team turn up and put a shift in, with any sign of a wider strategy coming as an unexpected bonus. Allardyce might think that Tiki-Taka is a filling for something you’d buy at Greggs, but his teams are organised, dedicated and occasionally decent to watch. And, as Blackburn fans will testify, that can be a lot better than some alternatives.
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