Friday, 3 June 2011

The New Remedy

He that will not apply new remedies must expect new evils; for time is the
greatest innovator.

William D. Leahy said the bomb wouldn't go off; Lord Kelvin thought that heavier-than-air flying machines were impossible; Charlie Chaplin was convinced cinema was little more than a fad; Neville Chamberlain promised it would be peace in our time and Bill Gates insisted 640K ought to be enough for anybody. Yet all would have balked at the limb Frank McAvennie danced along this morning when he predicted Sam Allardyce will bring Champions League football to Upton Park and transform the club's ailing fortunes. The Scot, who scored 49 goals for West Ham between 1989 and 1992, said: "Harry Redknapp went to Tottenham a couple of years ago and suddenly they were in the Champions League. I don't see why the same cannot happen to West Ham. They have definitely got the right man. My biggest gripe is why we failed to get him in January when we were still in the Premier League. But I have no doubts he will bring us straight back up."

The right man he could be agrees Jeremy Wilson, but possibly at the wrong time for West Ham. Writing in today's Telegraph, he states the ink was barely dry on Allardyce's new two year contract before the club were installed as the bookmakers’ favourites to win promotion straight back to the top flight. If only it was that simple. Some credit is due to co-owners David Gold and David Sullivan. They have certainly got one of the best available options. The problem, however, is they have secured his services a good five months too late. Allardyce, claims Wilson, would have kept West Ham in the Premier League if decisive action had been taken once it became obvious that a mistake was made in the appointment of Avram Grant. It is now a much more difficult challenge to inspire the club to promotion.

The problem for Allardcye is that winning promotion is a very different test of his managerial skills to ensuring Premier League survival. In recent years, his first priority with Bolton, Newcastle and Blackburn has been the latter. That means pragmatism and sometimes winning ugly. The main concern is to make your team difficult to beat. That is why he would have been such an ideal choice at West Ham when they were embroiled in a relegation battle, thinks Wilson. Had Gold and Sullivan acted swiftly back then, Allardyce would surely have led the club to safety in a similar fashion to Mark Hughes at Fulham or Roy Hodgson at West Brom.

To gain promotion from the Championship, he will need to organise an attacking team that scores goals and wins plenty of matches. Being difficult to beat will not be enough. Just look at QPR, Norwich and Swansea City, three sides who got promoted from the Championship and who all play an expansive brand of football. The Championship is also a most unpredictable league. Even with good managers at the helm, clubs who have just been relegated often suffer a hangover effect and fall further. The examples of Middlesbrough, Southampton, Charlton, Leeds and Coventry all loom large.

Conversely, clubs who have the momentum from being promoted out of League One often challenge strongly in the Championship. It can often cancel out the benefit of parachute payments. Brighton and Southampton will figure prominently next season, predicts Wilson, while Cardiff City, Nottingham Forest, Birmingham City, Blackpool, Reading, Leicester City, Leeds United, Hull City, Portsmouth, Derby County and Crystal Palace are all sizeable clubs with fans who will think they can get into the Premier League.

Even though a huge challenge awaits, states Wilson, too much has been made of his supposed style of football. It is nonsense to think West Ham supporters will put all this ‘academy of football’ stuff before winning. They, like Allardyce, will be happy if the club simply gets good enough results to secure promotion. There is a time to be a purist and there is a time to be pragmatic, agrees Steve Stammers in the Mirror. At West Ham, it is the hour for the latter. Allardyce may not fall into the bracket of Ron Greenwood and John Lyall when it comes to his approach to the game - the two most gifted managers in the history of the club relied on instinct and judgement rather than statistics - but there is no doubt in his mind that Pro-Zone Allardyce is the man for the moment at Upton Park. Stammers writes: "His track record is impressive. He organises and motivates. And the way he's lost his last two jobs, at Newcastle and Blackburn, has been nothing short of scandalous. Neither club could be accused of over-achieving following his departure. One thing is assured - he will not allow West Ham to drift like a barge in the Thames the way they have in the last year."

Stammers insists the appointment of Avram Grant - the man who finds a reason for every defeat, the man who made a career out of failure at both ends of the football spectrum - was a disaster from day one. He lacked just about everything, and what on earth possessed Messrs Sullivan and Gold to appoint him only they know. Whatever advice they sought and eventually took was clearly wrong. At last, he states, the right name has come along at the right time. Allardyce will make West Ham tougher, more resilient, more durable. He will give them the edge in fitness that was so lacking last season.

For Allardyce is nothing if not a modern, adaptable coach willing to adopt new methods and communicate with media, observes Sam Wilson. Writing in today's Independent, he states when 'Big Sam' was just 27 and an uncompromising centre-half at Millwall he was offered the manager's job by the club and turned it down. Eventually, George Graham was appointed, he promptly got rid of Allardyce and launched a career that would peak with two league championships with Arsenal. For some West Ham fans, Allardyce's Millwall association will be unpalatable, and for others it will be the perception that Allardyce's style of football is not suited to a club that styles itself as the "academy of football". Even if the academy of football now finds itself in the second tier of English football, looking up at the likes of Swansea City and Wigan Athletic in the Premier League.

When the accusation that Allardyce's teams play unattractive, long-ball football was once again thrown at the new West Ham manager he reacted angrily. "That has been a long, boring tag that has been with me for many years," he said. "It's always going to crop up, unfortunately, but if people cast their minds back to my teams it is a nonsense." The problem for Allardyce is that – Newcastle United aside – he has managed teams that command about 30 seconds on Match of the Day and precious little coverage in the newspapers. Thus the perception of Allardyce as an unreconstructed manager has been allowed to grow – some of it based on no more evidence than his former attachment to an old-school moustache and an accent that is a mix of his native Black Country and Lancashire, where he has spent much of his career.

In reality he is different, a modern and progressive thinker, reveals Wilson. As a youth team manager at Preston North End, he would keep assiduous notes on the progress of all his players in training and in matches. At the time it was regarded as eccentric. When Jose Mourinho does it he is regarded as a genius. That is not to say that the direct football criticism has not been justified at times, perhaps most in relation to his time at Newcastle. But they were so successful after sacking Allardyce that they were relegated to the Championship the next season.

Newcastle aside, Allardyce has worked wonders with what he has been given. In his defence yesterday he listed great players whose careers he extended at Bolton, including the 1998 World Cup-winner Youri Djorkaeff, Jay-Jay Okocha and Fernando Hierro. But there are others who owe Allardyce just as much. In 1998, he also took a chance on a young Eidur Gudjohnsen, who had just come back from a potentially career-ending injury at PSV Eindhoven. Gudjohnsen went on to win two Premier League titles with Chelsea and a Champions League with Barcelona. Kevin Davies, languishing in Southampton's reserves when Allardyce brought him to Bolton, has since reinvented himself and won an England cap.

At Bolton, Allardyce finished eighth, sixth and eighth in his last three full seasons. At Notts County he was promoted from what is now League Two in 1998 with a record for that division of 99 points and 82 goals. As manager at Limerick in the early 1990s he would collect money for the team in the town's pubs accompanied by the local priest. They still won promotion. No one would claim he is perfect, admits Wilson. His part in Sir Alex Ferguson's attempt to bury Rafael Benitez in 2009, over an innocuous gesture by the then Liverpool manager during a game against Blackburn, was not edifying. Allardyce was the first to seize on the "phase of play" change to the offside rule that caused blind panic in defences from set-pieces Рalthough you sense a more in-vogue manager would have got away with that. Like all managers he fights his corner, and for Allardyce in recent years that has meant fighting the perception his teams can play only one way. His record speaks for itself. And, no, Ars̬ne Wenger does not like Allardyce very much and the feeling seems to be mutual.

It speaks, if anything, of the man's presence. Poor old Avram patrolled the technical area with all the menace of a benign great uncle left dozing in an armchair on Christmas Day afternoon, observed Stammers. Allardyce will strike a more imposing figure. The former centre-back who played in an era when elbows were as sharp as razor blades and it was acceptable to put strikers among the fans with the occasional challenge, Allardyce does not look like an individual who will tolerate any lack of effort or commitment. His presence has a "Don't even think about it" aura.

There is also a suspicion that he will want to to tone down the media contributions of Gold, Sullivan and Karren Brady. Throughout last season, the press-conference-waiting-to-happen syndrome at times served only to undermine Grant - not a difficult task, admittedly, but it gave a public perception that all was not well. Allardyce will not tolerate that, states Stammers, so expect fewer sightings of Gold's gold Rolls-Royce at the training ground, and the planet will be that much greener for the less frequent use of his helicopter down at Chadwell Heath.

At times, as the season deteriorated alarmingly, it took on the appearance of the last chopper to leave the American Embassy in Saigon - people on the ground looking up enviously as it took off, desperately wanting to be on board and out of East London. West Ham desperately need to bounce straight back into the Premier League. They cannot afford to be in the Championship for two seasons. Allardyce might just be the man to achieve that instant return, thinks Stammers. Even after the inevitable fire-sale of players that's coming, there is enough talent already with first-team experience and plenty of hopefuls emerging from the famed West Ham Academy of Tony Carr to ensure promotion. Just as long as Allardyce is at the forefront and the owners stay out of the limelight, West Ham fans might just get their club back. What's more, the bubbles they will be blowing will not be ones merely filled with hot air.

Speaking of which, Harry Redknapp moans he is fed up hearing about this Academy 'cobblers'. "The reputation that West Ham have that they will only accept stylish footballers, neat passing and pretty patterns goes back to the days of Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters," he chided. "But let's be honest, West Ham haven't had that calibre of player for years. They are put on some sort of pedestal. And while I admire the principles and the philosophy, in practice it hasn't exactly worked out. If it had they wouldn't have gone down."

Redknapp insists the club 'got lucky' with the group of five or six players- Rio Ferdinand, Joe Cole, Frank Lampard, Michael Carrick and Jermain Defoe- who emerged when he was manager. They all went on to play for England, he notes, but that was the first bunch in about 12 years. Before that it was Paul Ince and Tony Cottee. "They were 30 when Rio and the others emerged into the team," he said. "So let's be honest about it when we discuss the 'academy' of Upton Park. If you have the quality of players to play like Barcelona then by all means go for it. I love watching football like that just like everyone else. But if West Ham want to recreate this academy then they're going to have to go out and buy Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi."

Sam Allardyce is the perfect choice for the job, thinks Redknapp, because he will get the players that stay at Upton Park fit, organised and determined to win - something that's been lacking for a year or two. He stated: "He's also a clever man. He pioneered the use of hi-tech methods to measure performance, strength and fitness to get the best out of his players. Technology doesn't make players better - just like eating pasta doesn't make a player pass the ball any better. But tools like this can get the very best out of what you have at your disposal and that is Sam's strength. He will be able to play whatever type of football the particular match and opposition demands."

Allardyce has got this reputation as a sort of 'hardnut northerner' but he is extremely intelligent, insists the Spurs boss. "If Sam thinks he can shape a team which can pass the other team off the park he'll do it. If not he'll do what he has to to win the match. The purists might not like the idea but he has got the perfect credentials to get West Ham out of the Championship. Do you really think people at all levels of involvement at the club will put up with nice, losing football any more? How many times will the chairmen over there say 'oh, we lost 4-0 but didn't we pass it nicely'. No chance."

Yet his appointment comes with a warning. "Sam's his own man," cautions Redknapp. "He won't stand any interference in his job. He's not going to let his team pass it about nicely across the middle of the pitch then watch the other teams kick the ball into the West Ham goal. Too many people have too much of a say at that place and it will stop now Sam's in there. He's not the type to go along with that for six months then get the sack. No way. He is a strong character and that's what the club needs and it's what the team needs to build a team capable of getting them back into the Premier League."

Redknapp honestly admires the sentiments at West Ham, but that's all it's been for a long time now even though the fans do believe in playing football the correct way. "When we had the likes of Cole and Ferdinand it was a huge stroke of luck that they came our way," he admits. "Frank Lampard came because his dad was West Ham through and through, Rio Ferdinand was a late starter in football at 14 and came to our knowledge through a schoolteacher over in South London. We nicked Jermain Defoe from Charlton through one of our coaches and Joe had been with us for a while but was wanted by every top club in the land. He was happy at West Ham and the club was lucky to have him. After they left we had a bit of fun with Paolo Di Canio but it's hardly been a production line of silky-footed footballers has it?"

Times are changing at West Ham but Redknapp insists there's not going to be some massive change of direction from playing like Brazil to booting it up in the air. "I bet there aren't many West Ham fans who enjoyed many matches last season," he notes. "I bet they'll be a lot happier once their favourite team becomes a lot harder to beat. I firmly believe now that Sam Allardyce is in charge West Ham will be promoted next season back to the Premier League. Which is why West Ham fans should forget the long-ball stereotype and welcome Super Sam the saviour, insists Martin Lipton in the Mirror. While you can understand why some Hammers fans are concerned at the appointment, he states, that is only because they don't really know Allardyce.

It is far too easy to characterise him as a long-ball merchant, a believer in direct football rather than the passing game beloved of Boleyn Ground regulars. Except that West Ham haven't really played that sort of football for a long time. And Allardyce has never been that sort of manager. Yes, his Bolton team were physical. But who wouldn't be if they had Kevin Davies at the head of affairs? Don't you think that if West Ham had deployed Davies, rather than Carlton Cole, as centre-forward they might still be in the Premier League rather than starting next season in the Championship? asks Lipton.

And do you really believe Blackburn would have needed to secure their safety on the very last day of the season had Allardyce not been sacked by the chicken farmers mid-way through the campaign? The truth about Allardyce is very different from the easy caricature. There is nobody, not even Arsene Wenger, who more readily adopted scientific analysis, a futuristic approach, an openness to new thinking. In fact, snarks the Guardian's Fiver, if his past form is anything to go by, 'Big Sam' is likely to build a substantial back-room team at the club, so it'll be interesting to hear how his new employers, the rhythm magnates Gollivan react when they discover there's a 100-strong army of nutritionists, press-up specialists, Bluetooth headset technicians and blokes who peer into laptops on their payroll.

It is no surprise, then, that Allardyce has the hump when he is accused of being a neanderthal. "I know there will be West Ham fans asking whether I'm going to abandon the style of play that's been the club's heritage over the years," said Big Sam, possibly alluding to the Hammers' proud tradition of lumping the ball long to Carlton Cole, then watching him shoot feebly and straight at the opposition goalkeeper. "All I'll say is it will be a tale of home and away," he added, conjuring up images of half-time talks featuring guest speaker Alf Stewart telling Jack Collison he's a flamin' galah.

Maybe it comes down to no more than image, opines Lipton. Allardyce channelled that raw-boned centre-half as a player to build uncompromising physical strength into his teams. But it was no surprise that Newcastle were relegated in the season they sacked Allardyce because the Toon Army were baying for a different type of football, looking for a Messiah. Instead, as Allardyce left the scene, those fans were left with a mess and the drop. He has been bruised by recent events, no question. His dream of becoming England manager does seem dead and buried - although things can always change in football (except, of course, at FIFA).

But given that a large number of West Ham fans - and not just of the Alf Garnett vintage - still happily tell you that West Ham won the World Cup in 1966, he has maybe got the nearest equivalent to the Wembley brief. Not that Gold, Sullivan and Brady are typical blazers and the biggest interest from outside will be in how Allardyce deals with his newest paymasters. He will not accept any interference, which means the board may need to realise it is better to stay silent and be thought idiots than continually speak and remove all remaining doubt.

Allardyce, sensibly, showed an awareness of the concerns of the supporters in his first words after the announcement of his arrival. "I wouldn't have taken this job if I didn't think we could bounce straight back into the Premier League," he said. "More than that, I wouldn't have contemplated the job if I didn't think there was the opportunity to build something substantial at West Ham. I know there will be West Ham fans asking whether I'm going to abandon the style of play that's been the club's heritage over the years. All I'll say is it will be a tale of home and away. At Upton Park we'll try to play the kind of game the fans want."

The right things to say and while they may not ease the doubters, the proof of the pudding can only be in the eating, starting in August. That will not be easy. Financial realities mean the squad is likely to be radically changed, many of the better players leaving, putting the onus on Allardyce to buy well and coach even better. But that is what he is good at. Ask Bolton fans, if nobody else.

And before the West Ham supporters, back in mythologising mode, start saying they are a far, far bigger, better club than Bolton, look at the records, says Lipton. Bolton have won the FA Cup four times, including the famous White Horse final of 1923 against... West Ham. The Hammers have just three major trophies to their name. So much for history. It is about the future now. Under Allardyce, West Ham's just got a whole lot brighter. As long as he is allowed to do the job on his terms.

Whatever your thoughts on Allardyce, what is true is that West Ham United and what they stand for has changed, argues Leo Spall. Writing in the Mail, he states: "Karren Brady preached recently about respecting West Ham’s spirit and getting back to the club's traditional way of doing things. Then the vice-chairman and her bosses, Gold and Sullivan, made Sam Allardyce the new manager. Words and deeds at Upton Park seldom tally these days. The club are run by people who came in vowing to continue their 'proud' record of standing by their managers, before sacking two in 16 months. So when the man the fans are already calling ‘Fat Sam’ promises to play a passing game at home and adopt a 'hard-to-beat' approach away, no-one should bet their house on easily being able to identify the difference."

Yet it would be wrong to suggest that the arrival of a manager with a long-ball reputation has smashed the name of a club built on attractive football. West Ham and what they stand may have changed, but it has not just happened insists Spall. The arrival of Icelandic owners in 2006 ended the club’s association of more than a century with the Cearns family and showered the East End with big money dreams. What had been a reasonably consistent club, up and down without great extremes, quiet owners and a reputation for bringing through talent and playing a passing game, came under foreign ownership and the spell of promises of and joining the Champions League elite. Like so many before them, those lofty ambitions were ill-thought through and ended in financial disaster.

Enter the Davids, Gold and Sullivan - and another step change. Eggert Magnusson, the former chairman, was no shrinking violet, but the self-proclaimed saviours really like to be seen, heard, and parade their wealth, he states. Exactly what they stand for is not yet clear but the West Ham way has changed and a new trademark will eventually be established. The club are on the verge of leaving the Boleyn Ground, their home since 1904, their famous academy has not produced a player who has made it to the very top since the era of Joe Cole and Michael Carrick and the owners are very loud. Clearly, not all the change is for the better, but that does not mean it was perfect before and the fans seem to accept that.

The messages on fans’ forums, like the opinions of football writers, are split over the arrival of Allardyce. Some have been persuaded by the arrival of a big name, others are ready for anything after the limp, disorganised and passion-less approach of Avram Grant. Promotion back to the Premier League is something they believe Allardyce can deliver and at least he is strong enough to stand up to the two Davids. He has got to be better than mooted alternatives such as David Jones (sacked by Cardiff for failing to take them up again) and Neil Warnock (unpopular after the Carlos Tevez saga) too. But if anyone thinks he is a stop-gap boss to get West Ham promoted before handing back to a pass-master, they can forget it. If Allardyce is successful he could be at Upton Park for some time. The owners will set the tone off the pitch, but he could play a big part in shaping a new West Ham on it.


JJ said...

There seems to be a discord between the opinion of Allardyce as held by those in and of the game, and the opinion of those who comment from the periphery. I'll take Redknapp's view ahead of a journalist every time.

Anonymous said...

Someone better get round Frankie's house quick as he is clearly on the sauce again!


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