Saturday, 4 June 2011

The Hard Route

A Saturday evening in 1991 and Sam Allardyce is tramping the streets of Limerick with a priest. They are searching for local businessmen willing to help pay the wages of Limerick City footballers. It is difficult finding the £100 a week that keeps Allardyce's better players happy and it is a routine that manager Allardyce and the club chairman, Father Joe Young, will repeat through the season. Intent on ensuring his team will be as prepared as possible for the next day's League of Ireland game, Allardyce then heads for one of the most popular nightclubs in 'stab city' in search of any player enjoying a dance too many.

Since being sacked when assistant to Brian Talbot at West Brom two years earlier, Allardyce had been working as a youth development officer at Sunderland waiting for an opportunity to restart his coaching career. "The guy said he was the chairman of Limerick. I thought somebody was taking the mickey," Allardyce would recall years later. "There he was, a priest with a dog collar and chairman of a football club. I spent one season there as player-manager and we won the championship. It's not something I ever want to experience again. But these are the kind of things you never forget."

In his first week in the job he was taken to the offices of the local Limerick Leader to meet the sports editor, Cormac Liddy. "Ah, Mr Alderdice, when are ye ever going to stop killing each other up there?" he was asked. Sam had been mistaken for John Alderdice, the then leader of the Alliance Party in Northern Ireland. "It opened his eyes. He became more innovative when he joined," remembers Billy Kinnane, who lived with Allardyce and was his assistant. Limerick were bottom and skint when he arrived in 1991, but despite the job's particular demands, Allardyce won the league by several points. "Even in those days, he was into sports psychology," adds Kinnane. "He would fly in on the Thursday for the weekend, but the finances were so poor that I put him up, and I got to know him very well. And yes, he would go to the Brazen Head nightclub in Limerick to drag the players out. The money he earned was only a pittance. It went on the few pints he had after a game. But he was here to gain experience. It was a tremendous learning curve."

After his one successful season on Ireland's west coast, Allardyce returned to England and to Preston North End for the start of the 1992–93 season to take up the role of coach/assistant manager under Les Chapman. Ten games into the season however Chapman was sacked and Allardyce was given the role of caretaker manager. His short spell in charge was an impressive one with Preston putting in some fine performances, picking some much needed league points along the way. The club's board though felt that Allardyce's managerial inexperience at league level worked against him and opted in December 1992 to appoint the more experienced John Beck who in turn appointed Gary Peters as his assistant. Allardyce carried on with the club in his original coaching capacity for another 18 months but the disappointment of missing out on the Preston job spoke volumes and when in July 1994 arch rivals Blackpool offered him the manager's job after sacking Billy Ayre, Allardyce jumped at the chance.

Allardyce's spell at Bloomfield Road included his leading the club, in 1995–96, to their most successful season in years; however, he was sacked in late May of that year, at the end of the campaign, after failing to guide them to Division One. Blackpool finished third, missing out on automatic promotion on the last day of the season, and were then beaten in the play-off semi-finals by Bradford City after winning 2–0 away at Valley Parade, only to lose 3–0 in the reverse leg on home soil. In matches in the Football League, Allardyce still has the highest win percentage (44.57%) of any Blackpool manager.

Five years after that sacking, Allardyce stated that he still had no idea why the club relieved him of his position. "We had missed promotion to the First Division by a point," Allardyce told the Daily Mail. "Yet it had all been done on next-to-nothing, and during the months leading towards the end of the season, I hardly ever saw Owen Oyston [the former Blackpool owner who was imprisoned]. But he always assured me that, no matter what, my job would be safe. I turned up for that meeting having been told it was to discuss new terms. Instead, I was told that I was being sacked. It was cold, calculated, pre-planned, whatever. I walked out of there with ₤10,000, no job, and desperately worried that my reputation would be damaged forever." Allardyce then had a brief spell on the coaching staff under Peter Reid at Sunderland.

In January 1997, Allardyce made his return to football as manager of Division Two basement club Notts County. Terry Bowles, who ghosted a local newspaper column for him during his time at Meadow Lane, stated: "Owen Oyston sacked him from a prison cell when he just missed out on the play-offs. He clearly wanted to prove a point here." As at Limerick, Allardyce managed that. He arrived too late to save them from relegation, but they won promotion at the first attempt by finishing top of Division Three at the end of the 1997–98 season. Notts County broke several club and national records, winning the title by a 19-point margin and becoming the first and only post-war side to win promotion in mid-March.

He also sold Jermaine Pennant to Arsenal for £2m the following January. "He was instrumental in negotiating the deal that took him away," adds Bowles. It proved controversial. Allardyce's agent, Mark Curtis, was fined £7,500 and ordered to pay £10,000 costs by the FA after he was found guilty of four charges, including paying £700 to Pennant's father at an M25 service station and attempting to represent Pennant when he already had an agent. That Curtis continued to work for Allardyce shows the manager's loyalty. He remained in charge until mid October 1999, when he returned to Bolton Wanderers in Division One and became their new manager.

Allardyce inherited a First Division side with Premiership aspirations, remembers David Walsh. The team’s three best players were Eidur Gudjohnsen, Claus Jensen and Mark Fish and when the side was beaten in that season’s playoffs, all three were cashed in. "Our best players were sold, they were replaced by lesser players," recalls Allardyce. "It was a fact of life. At that time I had to have a real look at the football club; I couldn’t let them get relegated out of the First Division, I had to beg, borrow or steal to get new players, create some extra revenue through cup runs. They wrote me a business plan that said, 'You don’t have to get into the Premiership for three or four years' and I said, 'Bollocks to that, I’ll do it sooner'. When people say you can’t, I say I can."

In fact, the worst night of Allardyce's football career was also the one that turned around the fortunes of Bolton. Barry Knight refereed the 2000 play-offs semi-final, second leg between Bolton and Ipswich Town at Portman Road. It was a finely poised tie at 2-2, but Knight booked nine Bolton players, sent two off, did not book any home players and awarded three penalties to Ipswich. Despite scoring three goals, Bolton lost 7-5 on aggregate after the match went to extra time. "Going through Barry Knight's hugely controversial performance is something I'll never, ever forget," Allardyce says. "He nearly destroyed that football club and the career path of me and Bolton Wanderers as a team with his inept performance."

The memory gave him the courage to ignore the derision of Bolton fans and the incredulity of his support staff a year later when his team looked set to be beaten at the same stage again. "I couldn't face another disappointment in the play-offs, going out in the semi-finals, going on holiday and not enjoying it, planning for a division that we didn't deserve to be in," he says. "I would have to scrimp and save and keep the team motivated." Allardyce recalls a story about the first-leg semi-final tie at West Brom that portrays him as he would wish to be seen. "We were 2-0 down and playing a 4-4-2," Allardyce says. "We had Colin Hendry playing for us - a Braveheart who'd done a great job for us. He'd already been booked and I said to Brownie [Phil Brown, his assistant], 'I'm going to take Hendry off and put Mike Whitlow on.' They all thought that was probably insane, but my view was it was hard enough to get anything out of this game with 11, never mind ten, and we were going to be ten very shortly, given the tackles Hendry was making. We also needed to challenge the West Brom system more, which was a back three with two up front. I had the wisdom of taking off my leading goalscorer, Dean Holdsworth, which everyone thought was insane and you've got the Bolton fans thinking I've gone mad."

Allardyce sent on Per Frandsen to match their midfield and ordered his three quickest players - Michael Ricketts, Ricardo Gardner and Bo Hansen - up front. "I took a calculated risk so we could compete better in midfield and we told the three up front not to bother coming back, just to stay up there," Allardyce says. "Two-nil, 3-0 doesn't make much difference, but if it gets to 2-1 they're going to get worried. Nobody agreed with me, the fans vented their frustration, but we scored off a corner and equalised in the dying minutes."

His team, feeling invincible, beat Preston North End 3-0 in the 2001 play-offs final and, against the odds, made a fabulous start to the Premiership, beating Leicester City 5-2, Liverpool 2-1 and, after a few blips, went to Old Trafford and won 2-1. "That gave the lads the belief that the division was not as daunting as we had expected and a cushion to stay out of the bottom three, which is the hardest place to live in football," he says. He tells this story for no particular reason other than to say that Sam Allardyce, the old centre-back who paid his dues with hard tackles and firm headers, is a little smarter than you may think. Once he got to the Premiership, he proved that. The club didn’t have a transfer budget and he had to find a way to get players good enough to keep his team in one of football’s most competitive leagues.

What he did was at once novel and ingenious. He went to football’s equivalent of Oxfam and searched for designer labels cast off by the well-off. Unwanted, they didn’t have a price tag but they came with baggage. Fredi Bobic, Youri Djorkaeff, Bruno N’Gotty, Okocha, Emerson Thome, Ivan Campo, Ibrahim Ba and Fernando Hierro were among those persuaded by Allardyce to enjoy the autumn of their careers at wintery Bolton. "The financial devastation suffered by this club meant that the players who were willing to join us were mostly players discarded by their previous club. They were written off because their attitude wasn’t right, their motivation had gone, they were disruptive, the coach couldn’t work with them, or some other reason. Our job was to assess whether that player wanted to rediscover his old self."

To get players to join Bolton, Allardyce used honesty and the force of his personality. "I lived with a club that has a great history but it is not a great club. What attracts the foreign lads is the lure of the Premiership and the fact that over here their contracts will be honoured in full. Many foreign players have told us they have been at big football clubs and have not been paid. We are talking the Spanish and Italian leagues, we are talking serious places where they have decided they don’t want the player any more and just cut the guy off. Not just from the playing point of view but from the financial point of view as well. This gave us something we could use in our favour, a huge advantage. What I said to the lads was, ‘Look, this country, never mind what the football authorities might say, this country would not allow any footballer who is under contract to be cut off like that.’ It is one of the major reasons more and more foreign players want to come to this country."

The difficulty that confronted Allardyce was the motivation of his players. How could a man perform for Bolton after spending most of his career at Real Madrid? "It wasn't just Campo and Hierro," says Allardyce. "Take Stylianos Giannakopoulos, who came from Olympiakos having won seven Greek championships on the trot. This sounds really bad on the club, but the reality is that it is not quite big enough to demand the best out of these players. So I had to drag it out of them. Because of what they had achieved elsewhere, we knew they were capable of taking Bolton to where it hadn't been. My job was to make sure they did that and it was a difficult job. But my strength is my DNA; with Sam Allardyce, what you see is what you get. My desire to be successful is very strong and I am good at infecting others and inspiring them to strive for the same thing."

By early 2006 it had been confirmed that Sven-Göran Eriksson would leave the England manager's job after that year's World Cup. As a successful English manager who had taken unfashionable Bolton into the Premiership and given the Lancashire club their European debut, Allardyce was touted as a major candidate for the post. Bolton confirmed that they would let him talk to the FA if they approached him.

Not everyone, though, was sure about Allardyce's credentials. "The [next England] manager has to have a certain amount of experience. That's part and parcel of being a top-flight manager. To be able to handle big games like in the Champions League and the World Cups." So said then England captain David Beckham in a slight directed at Allardyce and two of the other English candidates, Alan Curbishley and Stuart Pearce. When Allardyce characteristically reacted angrily through the press, Beckham apologised. But the impression remained that Allardyce, who never played international football and had only a single season in the top division, might not have the respect of multimillionaire superstars such as Beckham and Wayne Rooney. Allardyce, though, could argue that his experiences in the fleshpots of Limerick and as a player and manager in all four divisions of English football had been an adequate preparation for curtailing any excesses of the modern footballer.

A frequently heard criticism of Allardyce's teams is that they can be negative. Allardyce would point to Okocha, Nakata and El Hadji Diouf as flair players who contradict the critics' view of a stereotype. They are certainly evidence of Allardyce's nous in the transfer market. "The best captain I found was Jay-Jay Okocha," he told Alyson Rudd. "He was as good off the field as on it. He could handle himself in most positions, he could speak three or four languages so he could communicate with most of the team and was so, so talented on the field, a great entertainer, one of the best in the Premier League for two years." Okocha might seem an odd choice because the Nigeria midfield player rarely set ProZone, the match analysis tool, alight. "What might look lazy might be a lull in terms of him getting ready to produce the big moment," Allardyce says. "The frantic never take the time to compose themselves to make the big pass or the big moment that changes the game in your favour."

It is the same reason he dislikes it when managers are criticised for not jumping up and down enough. "The calmer you are, the better judgments you'll make," he says. "You can get emotionally really wound up in the dugout. You feel the atmosphere there much more. You only see 22 pairs of socks, but some managers like the emotional attachment. They feel they need that to be the best manager they can be. I've always felt up in the stand was the best way for me.”

Allardyce is a cute operator off the field, using favoured journalists to good effect, especially during transfer window time when stories about job offers from elsewhere would help to raise funds from the Bolton board. He is also a canny protector of his players and himself, and would successfully employ former FA compliance officer Graham Bean at disciplinary hearings. The FA have taken note. "He's well-known for having a go at the ref," said one Soho Square source. "I don't know how well that goes down."

There were other concerns as well. Two days after Allardyce's meeting with Brian Barwick, the FA chief executive leading the search for Eriksson's successor, there were embarrassing reports that Allardyce's son Craig might have acted improperly in a deal that was to have taken Idan Tal, the former Everton midfielder, to the Reebok Stadium. The claim was that Bolton had used an unlicensed agent to broker the deal, though Allardyce denied this. He maintained that Bolton had acted 'professionally and properly' and added at the time 'because it's me and my son, we have to be squeakier than clean'. Bolton chairman Phil Gartside is an FA board member who has repeatedly spoken to the governing body of his former manager's integrity after the Tal episode. Allardyce was never offered the job, which was eventually given to Steve McClaren.

'Big Sam' struck a chord with supporters when he remarked during a spat with the Arsenal manager that if his name was 'Allardici' his status would be the equal of that enjoyed by foreign coaches. "People respect Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho as foreign innovators who brought new ideas," says a senior source at the FA. "Sam Allardyce has quietly been doing the same things for a long time. He's not quite the classic throwing-cups-of-tea, old-school English manager you might think."

Allardyce was one of the first managers to use ProZone, the computer system that tracks every physical detail of a player during a match. He is wired up to an earpiece during games and has consulted the expertise of Humphrey Walters, the business guru Sir Clive Woodward credits as being a big influence in England's 2003 rugby union World Cup victory. The Bolton squad were offered massages, t'ai chi, yoga and Pilates. "He is an old-fashioned manager at the same time as being a guy very open to new ideas," says Walters. "Very unusual. Bolton had ProZone before the England rugby team did - that's how Clive Woodward latched on to it." Does he believe Allardyce's flexibility is natural? "No. Woodward has always been a bit wacky. Sam has trained himself. I think if you asked him he would say he's just good at adapting."

Allardyce once revealed to Alyson Rudd his secret is not being afraid to delegate. Indeed, his managerial philosophy is built around his preference to employ specialists. "The delegation to highly qualified staff in their own field is an area that's quite difficult - to relinquish responsibility," he says. "Managers can easily get paranoid. Football is full of paranoia. I found that if you try to look after everything and try to be all things to all men, you are diluting your own strengths. It's not about me going to a football club and saying I need 22 backroom staff; that could be quite scary for somebody. It depends on the size of the football club and what it wants. Eventually we might get there."

The origins of this approach can be traced back to the day Allardyce joined the Tampa Bay Rowdies. He lived in a condominium close to the players of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the American football team and an altogether more professionally run club. "They had physiotherapists, masseurs, dieticians, psychologists, psychiatrists, coaches, doctors, all looking after these highly motivated professionals," he says. "The mind is the all-powerful thing. If you're not in the right frame of mind it's going to be very difficult for you to produce your best. Americans are stat-mad, but there was no system in the game until recent years that could give you that here." So he was forced to watch "regurgitated videos which could only give you a blinkered view as it just watches the ball, which is what everyone does - except managers and scouts".

Bolton Wanderers were the first club to code a match for instant decision-making. "The opposition were mistrustful of our man with the laptop," Allardyce admits. He believed that it was important that the players were not shown only their errors, because they would reject the technology. "You must make sure there is a really positive element all the time or the players will get fearful," he says. Perhaps unsurprisingly, thinks Rudd, Allardyce talks about intuition in terms of statistics. "Your intuition comes from knowing when to discard all the information you might gather," he says.

His favourite example of this is when he took Bolton to play Chelsea at Stamford Bridge several years ago. Allardyce's team were beset by injuries, so "I decided we would forget all that information for once and we would play a snooker team, darts team and pool team and we would have a round-robin tournament before we set off for Chelsea. All the other staff who were getting ready to produce a training session for Chelsea were completely thrown and said, 'You can't do that'. But we had a lot of players with knocks or who were under the weather and I didn't want to risk losing them. I said to the staff at the time, 'We're never going to mention this if we lose.'" Bolton won 2-1.

Allardyce made Bolton his second home and transformed the club's fortunes. "It was my stamp, I ran the club how I wanted to manage it in order for it to be more successful than it had been for 50 years," he says. The club overachieved under Allardyce, but were rarely loved for it. Asked if he is proud of his revolutionary approach, he says "not really" because there were sneers that he was in some way not good news for football. "We had to turn that negative into a positive," he says. "We could never compete financially with the vast majority of the teams in the Premiership, so to beat them we had to be adaptable. If we beat a team by outplaying them and outpassing them, we got no credit. When we beat a top team on a consistent basis, the manager would say it was because we kicked them off the park and were not very nice to watch, which was most disappointing. But I was much happier having a glass of wine with the opposing manager and him going to his press conference and criticising the way we played than I was sat in there and being told how nice it was we tried to play the right way but we had just got beat 3-1."

By late April 2007 speculation was rife that Allardyce would quit as Bolton manager at the end of that season, a move that the board initially denied. However, Bolton announced the next day that he was to leave the club after eight years, with immediate effect. Allardyce told the Mail on Sunday, that part of his reason for leaving was because he wanted to win silverware. "I have had praise for what I've done, but there's nothing at the end of it," he said. "I want silverware. I'm determined to get it before my days are over."

A little over two weeks later Newcastle United announced that Allardyce had signed a three-year contract to manage the club. A further week and he had already axed six players from his inherited squad. He brought in Australian international striker Mark Viduka from local rivals Middlesbrough, utility man Alan Smith from Manchester United, José Enrique from Villareal, Joey Barton from Manchester City and concluded his summer business with late scoops for defenders Habib Beye and Abdoulaye Faye from old club Bolton. Despite building what looked to be a promising squad and promising start to the season, after a series of disappointing results in the run-up to Christmas, and after gaining only one point from a possible six from bottom-of-the-table Wigan and Derby, there was speculation that Allardyce's tenure at Newcastle could be under threat, with fan protests seeing him unpopular for poor results. On 9 January 2008, Sam Allardyce parted company with the club by mutual agreement.

Speaking a month after the dismissal, Allardyce blamed the club’s owners, his players and the media for his departure from St James’ Park. "Looking back over that short period of time I don’t think any of it was particularly my fault," he is reported as saying. Allardyce insists that he arrived on Tyneside that summer expecting a significant budget for signings, which did not transpire in the wake of Mike Ashley’s takeover. "We didn’t have as much money as I expected," he said. "I came to Newcastle to spend big. As a manager, you’re dependent on two sets of people - your owners and your players. Life is not in your hands. You’ve got to make the right decisions and I did so on the basis of my track record. I hope it hasn’t damaged my reputation. I told the owners we’d get stick at some point and obviously they hadn’t been able to withstand that."

Allardyce later laughed off suggestions that, as a job, Newcastle was too big for him. "That’s an absolute load of rubbish," the former Bolton Wanderers manager said. "I don’t think the fans didn’t like me, but it was the agitators who were the problem, the press and one or two of the ex-players. All the old managers that I’ve spoken to have said the same." A year on since the sacking and few argue, states Rudd, that he lost his job because the club were taken over rather than because he failed to cope. "Not such good timing in the end," he would say of Ashley's purchase of Newcastle. "I don't bear grudges, I just move on."

Although it took almost a year, in which time Allardyce accepts that football could have forgotten about him. "There's no doubt about it," he says. But he is not one to panic. "There was time to wait for the right opportunity to build another football club. I missed management and looked forward to getting back to it. I just never had concrete offers, just the odd brief moment where something had been suggested." He was eventually appointed as manager of Blackburn Rovers on a three-year contract a week before Christmas 2008. Despite a nine-game unbeaten run to start his stewardship, Rovers eventually finished 15th. The following season saw a final placing of 10th and a League Cup semi-final defeat to Aston Villa. In mid December last year, Allardyce was sacked by Blackburn following a 2-1 defeat to former club Bolton Wanderers, with Rovers lying 13th in the league. Sir Alex Ferguson called the decision "absolutely ridiculous", while the Rovers players were taken completely by surprise. "He phoned me at 3.10pm today saying 'can I have a cup of tea tonight?' because he was coming to the game," revealed Ferguson. "Then he phones me at half past four and says 'I've been sacked'. I've never heard of such a stupid decision in all my life. I don't know what they're doing up there, but deary me."

Allardyce says he had been "shocked and disappointed" by his dismissal by Blackburn's new owners following a row over the club's transfer policy. Just four days previous, he had been named as a potential England manager by Fabio Capello. Allardyce (with his assistant, Neil McDonald) was sacked by the Venky's Group after he had objected to plans to impose players on him in the January transfer window. The Indian poultry conglomerate had acquired the club, for £43m, from The Walker Trust less than a month prior to the decision being made. Its chairperson, Anuradha Desai, had told a local newspaper the week previous that Allardyce "deserved a chance" and that "the group have promised manager Allardyce funds to spend in the January transfer window".

Those funds amounted to £5m, a sum Allardyce accepted, having worked without a budget surplus since he had replaced Paul Ince. However, he had misgivings over the sports agency Kentaro's influence on transfer policy, who he saw as diluting his input. Kentaro, which had advised Venky's in the takeover process, discussed transfer strategy with Blackburn's new owners before Allardyce did and is reported to have provided a list of potential signings. Allardyce wanted to retain complete control of transfer policy. With the owners and manager at an impasse, the club's chairman, John Williams, was instructed to dismiss the 56-year-old. A Venky's statement said at the time: "We have taken this decision as part of our wider plans and ambitions for the club."

Richard Bevan, the chief executive of the LMA, remarked: "When new owners take over a club, sadly the manager's position often hangs by a thread. To Sam's great misfortune this has happened twice and on both occasions it has been extremely difficult to understand. It is ironic that one minute Sam can be proposed as the next England manager and the next he finds himself out of work."

It is now five years since Allardyce sat before Brian Barwick, Dave Richards and Noel White, writes Andy Hunter, and attempted to convince the Football Association's international selection committee that he should replace Sven-Goran Eriksson as England manager. Their rejection hurts to this day. The belief that he is the right man for the job – even after Steve McClaren's reign was brought to a mercifully swift end and despite Allardyce's own ill-fated tenure at Newcastle United and Blackburn Rovers is also unwavering.

Allardyce knows his days as an England contender are over, although he will not go quietly. "It wouldn't be mentioned at all now would it, Sam Allardyce for the England job?" says the man himself. "But at the time I should have got it and I really don't know why I didn't. It had to be political for me, rather than my credentials. Maybe my external look isn't to everybody's liking and one or two people seem to dislike Sam Allardyce for whatever reason. But as a person, in terms of knowing what he is doing, where to go and how to get there, and helping players do the same, I have the credentials. It was the right time and the right job for me but not from the FA's point of view. It is a political FA board and a real shame in terms of my life. That job doesn't come around too often."

Allardyce has never hidden his longing for the England job but the insistence that he remains perfectly suited for the position suggests a flame-resistant exterior. "I am probably even better equipped to do the job now but would never get a mention," he adds. "I never got a mention when Steve went, they just went straight for another foreigner. It seems foreign coaches are still all the craze for the top jobs and that is a great shame. I also think that Steve not being successful was a massive blow for British or English managers, because it has put us down a peg or two. I thought I was really equipped, well-versed and ready to make England as successful as they really wanted to be. More importantly, I thought I would have had the squad and the players to do that, but somewhere along the line they thought it wasn't for me."

September 2006, when Panorama's documentary on Football's Dirty Secrets aired a month after McClaren's appointment, was arguably the precise point when Allardyce's international hopes disappeared. The BBC and the subject remain off-limits for the new West Ham manager, who also denied Lord Stevens' claims of a "conflict of interest" in transfer dealings involving Allardyce's son, Craig, while at Bolton, but his belief that the allegations removed him from the England equation is clear.

He ventures: "I think they [the FA] went safe, but I don't quite know why they did that. I couldn't have given them any more about the way forward than I did. From all accounts that thoroughly impressed them so it couldn't have been my credentials. It must have been something political. Perhaps the people on the board are influenced by outside factors too much, because of the pressure they are under from the media. Maybe that affects them somewhat when they should be making cold, clinical decisions on who is the best. It was a great run for me right up to a big disappointment at the end."

Allardyce, rather like Brian Clough before him, appears destined to take his theories for his England rejection to the grave, although that rollercoaster spell when he first interviewed for the FA, walked away from Bolton and then found himself unemployed after only 21 league matches in charge of Newcastle, has not left him consumed with regret. "I really relaxed and enjoyed myself for many of those months," he says of the 11-month period between leaving St James' Park and returning at Ewood. "Not having to constantly make decisions on a day-to-day basis, even in the summer or on holiday, was nice. Waking up in the morning was not about who wants what or how do I sort this problem out, it was about do I want porridge or toast for breakfast. Once we'd decided that, it was then what to have for lunch. Should we jump on a plane to Dubai or should we go to Portugal? Just doing what me and my wife wanted was very important and it showed me there is a life after football. I wasn't quite sure there was one before."

The FA may have overlooked him, but the former Limerick, Blackpool, Notts County, Bolton, Newcastle and Blackburn manager was approached by several businessmen during his sabbatical as they considered investing in the game. Allardyce reveals: "I was asked by a consortium about the prospects of Leeds United as a football club, and not just Leeds United, there was a few other clubs. They wanted an expert opinion from the football angle and how the club was and how it could develop on that side. I was offering an expert opinion for potential buyers but I wasn't involved in any of the buying."

Allardyce says he is really pleased to see any British manager but there are British managers with a big football name who have been getting the opportunity," he says. "No disrespect to them, but a lot of it is based on their achievements in playing football rather than the longevity or success they have gained as a manager. That is one of the key areas that should be looked at a little bit more. This league will find anybody out, not just players but coaches and managers. You do need longevity and the experience of making mistakes in the lower divisions, as you can see from most of the foreign managers or the likes of myself who have made it to the top. I think there are some great managers in the Championship, in League One and League Two, who deserve the opportunity to manage in the Premier League and I hope they get the chance. But, in general, to do that you've got to promote your own club there."

Which brings Big Sam to the Boleyn; Allardyce hopes, "a better man and a better manager" for his recent experiences and his disappointment with England. Gone are his plans to retire early, originally envisaged when he was on a 10-year contract at Bolton and long before he took the "massive, massive decision to leave based on the lack of ambition from that club in terms of wanting to finish in the top four. Or to push on and be better than what we were."

Just when it seems there is no more he wishes to give, Allardyce revisits his childhood. His mum and dad had come in search of work from Scotland to Dudley, near Wolverhampton. His father was a policeman, his mum had a part-time job, they lived on a council estate but they didn’t lack for anything. They used to say that baby Sam was a mistake, coming 15 years after his sister, five years after his brother. "It must have been a good Saturday night, Dad," he would say to his father when he was old enough to make such jokes.

But he comes back to childhood because it is remembered as the only unhappy time of his life. "Lots of people recall their school days as their best. I hated school and my life has been so much better since they ended. At the age of nine, I stood on the North Bank at Molineux and watched Wolverhampton Wanderers. Derek Dougan, Peter Knowles, Frank Munro, Dave Wagstaff, Ernie Hunt, and I decided there and then I was going to be a footballer.

"After that day, I never really watched much football, just dedicated myself to playing the game. In school I wasn’t good at reading and writing and all I wanted to do was go to the gym or play football." By the age of 14 he was playing semi-professional football for Dudley Town, alongside his older brother, Robert, "until me teacher found out and stopped me". Allardyce remains pretty cynical about how the state education system treated him. "I have never said this before but as my life went on, I realised I was dyslexic but that wasn’t recognised during my school days. You were deemed thick because you got your letters mixed up and couldn’t spell and you had to go to remedial classes. As a result, I had this great inferiority complex about that, which, in my younger days, held me back enormously.

"As a young professional footballer, the other guys would see that you couldn’t spell and they dismissed you as thick. Being dyslexic meant my other senses were very sharp. I could take in huge amounts of information by just listening and if anything was shown to me visually, the picture would stay in my mind. But none of this surfaced during my time at school and the system and its teachers failed me, left me at a disadvantage that had to be overcome."

He joined Bolton Wanderers at the age of 15, already imbued with a sense of how tough the game would be. Wolves, Aston Villa, Walsall and West Brom said no and, grateful for the opportunity, he stayed at Burnden Park for 11 years. He was 26 when he surrendered to one of the inevitabilities of professional sport. Loyalty is honourable but it can also be costly. That thought didn’t so much strike him as pierce him one Saturday afternoon at the City Ground in Nottingham. Bolton’s team coach arrived into the car park at the same moment as Trevor Francis steered his new Jaguar XJS sports car into a space nearby.

"I was marking Trevor Francis and I am thinking, 'My Morris Marina is almost three years old, it’s an okay car, I have a nice house, we’re comfortable but I am supposed to outplay this guy who drives a Jag. Something’s wrong here.' I had been at one football club and when you stay with one club, they take the mickey.

"I had a wife and two young kids but there was no money in the bank. They said, 'Oh, you’ll never leave, you are Bolton through and through, you’ll finish here.' But I had seen enough. The game uses and abuses you, and in the end they just get rid of you. I didn’t expect to earn what Trevor Francis earned but neither did I expect the gulf to be so great. I became mercenary in my attitude and decided to look for a new club.

"It wasn’t easy. My wife was a Bolton girl who didn’t want to move but I had to say, 'This is the way I am, you married me, you know what I’m like, you’re going to have to come. Bad luck. You are going to have to be upset, you are going to have to be miserable but we’re going to have to get on with life, make new friends, find a new home. I’ve got to get out there and try to make a shit-load of money because when I am finished, I will be a long time finished.' And so, his boots and suitcase in hand, Sam went on a tour of one-season stands — Sunderland, Milwall, Tampa Bay Rowdies, Coventry, Huddersfield, Preston and West Brom and, by the standards of the day, he made a lot of money.

"My wife and kids have always given me great support," he says. It explains why he has a dream, too, of life after football, vaguely hoping the last third of his life could be catching up on the things he lost along the way. "I don’t intend to do what Sir Alex (Ferguson) is doing, I will get out much sooner," he insists. "I want more time for family. During my career, especially my one-year contract phase, my family didn’t see that much of me. Family life is passing me by again. My grandchildren can be two miles down the road and I still don’t see that much of them. It bothers me that when they come around, I am so tired that I can’t give them the time you would want to give them. There are so many things to do, a world that I want to see.

“When I played for Tampa Bay, we trained alongside the Buccaneers (American) football team. They had psychiatrists and psychologists working with their players. The English football man would have said, ‘Effing shrinks, don’t need them’. The Americans said, ‘You gotta use them’. I thought, ‘You have got to be weak to need that crap’, but I was wrong. We had to find out what made El-Hadji spit, a psychologist is better qualified to explore that than I am. Learning stuff like this fascinates me."

Nothing demonstrates that willingness to learn - and explodes the myth that he is a one-dimensional character - more than his love of art. A short while ago Allardyce decided to get a hobby, something to take his mind off the strains of football. 'I started going to art galleries and I spoke to art dealers,' he says. 'I wanted something totally different to football and art interested me. The problem is that art needs so much research if you are going to do it properly. It's not something you can dabble in.'

Finally, you ask Allardyce about the book on his left and its author, Jose Mario Santos Mourinho Felix. Five names for the man with five languages? "He intrigues me," says Allardyce. "What fascinates me is that he has built this great career when he was never really a footballer himself. That’s the hard route. He’s had to convince everybody he could do this job because there was no track record as a player. What was he? Interpreter for Bobby Robson? (Roman) Abramovich gave him the means to have the best players but he moulded them into a team and he seemed to achieve that almost immediately. That’s not down to his coaching, that’s his man- management. He has a hard exterior but I don’t believe that is what he is about. There is a compassionate side, a side that shows a lot of humility, and that is why he is as good as he is. In public, I know he can come across as arrogant but I don’t see him as that. John McGrath, my old coach at Preston, used to say, 'The arrogant man doesn’t learn because he thinks he knows it all.' John is dead now, God rest his soul, tremendous advice."

And so there you have him, Sam Allardyce. Not young, not renewable but still learning.


Anonymous said...

What an outstanding, detailed and well written article. All West Ham fans should read this. Thank you.

Remy said...

Fantastic post Trilby. It should be compulsory reading to all those deluded Hammers fans who think Sam isn't good enough for this club. We are lucky to have him (and we are lucky to have you too!)

Old Rag Man Reg said...

What a great insight to the man.

You have excelled yourself with this one mate.

Thank you

Anonymous said...

Anything that can make me think that employing Allardyce might not be a terrible idea must have a touch of genius about it. Congrats.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article.A fantastic read.
Thank you

@BaronCarrick said...

A great read,well done. COYI

Paul said...

Great insight in to his history, motivations and methods. Interesting stuff about the Blackburn, Newcastle and England jobs.

Well written piece.


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