Sunday, 31 July 2011

Dreams Into Reality

Big Sam strolled to the dug-out for West Ham's pre-season friendly at Dagenham & Redbridge last week like Dean Martin walking on to a stage in Las Vegas – only with a better suit. He acknowledged the cheers with a breezy wave, joked with his coaching staff and was happy to pose for pictures with supporters and sign autographs after a 1-0 win. But David Sullivan and David Gold, the owners, did not hire Sam Allardyce to beat League Two clubs, writes Nick Szczepanik in today's Independent. Taking West Ham back to the Premier League at the first attempt is his task, and once the Championship campaign starts, the relaxed figure of a summer evening has to deliver the intensity that was missing last season as West Ham sleepwalked to relegation under Avram Grant.

Allardyce accepts the challenge, and there is no hedging of bets with talk of stabilisation and regrouping, which is just as well. He knows that the size of his new club – not to mention the new manager – means that expectations are inevitable. "No one else can put any more expectations and pressure on than me," he said. "Because I haven't come down here to spend a long time down in the Championship. I've come to win the club promotion and get myself where I've been for the last 10 years, and that's managing in the top league in the world."

It may come as no surprise to some that the man charged with restoring West Ham United to the Premier League expects to return as a champion. Allardyce has always defied the critics and will attempt to do so again as he sets about transforming the club's fortunes, writes the Telegraph's Alex Shaw. He insists it is guile allied to graft that has brought him success in the past and in his blueprint for his side’s return to the top flight, Allardyce wants to set the record straight. He wants to remind those who have mocked his lofty dreams there’s nothing wrong with being sure of your strengths.

To those who continue to cast aspersions over Allardyce’s style of play, he asks them to view the bigger picture in his bid to manage where he believes he should. But most of all, you get the impression the one-time England candidate feels he has something to prove to himself. With that he bows his head, closes his eyes and rubs his forehead for a good 10 seconds. The memory alone is headache-inducing. "I was a raging bull, an angry man, worrying, demanding," he says, as he reflects on his evolution as a football manager. Arsène Wenger or Rafael Benítez might like to add to the description, ponders Guardian's David Hytner, but Allardyce is not talking about the halcyon days at Bolton Wanderers, when he would routinely upset the establishment, rather his formative years at Limerick, Blackpool and Notts County. "My style now compared to back then, it was just a part of the process," he says. "I don't think you can do it any other way, because you are too inexperienced to do it any other way. But if you don't learn from your experiences, then you don't last in this game."

Allardyce has lasted. He once said that he would like to see through his 10-year contract at Bolton and retire at 56. "By the time that birthday comes along, I would think I would be looking at other things in my life." Allardyce will turn 57 in October. At the start of last month, he signed a two-year deal at the Boleyn. He is now consumed and driven by the challenge in front of him – to restore the club's morale, which was battered during their relegation from the Premier League, and to lift them to an immediate return. It will not be easy, and not only because this season's Championship contains plenty of intriguing contenders. West Ham have parted company with 12 senior players from last season's squad and the number could yet swell. Scott Parker is keen to remain in the Premier League and will be sold if his valuation is met. "Scott's position is delicate," Allardyce says, "because if someone hits the numbers that we would value him at and it's the Premier League, where he wants to be, he will be gone."

Allardyce has named Kevin Nolan, the £4m signing from Newcastle United, as club captain, rather than Parker, although it ought to be noted that Parker was not the captain last season. Matthew Upson, who was released on the expiry of his contract, had the armband. "The misconception that Scott was captain was born out of the rousing half-time speech that he gave at West Brom [in February]," Allardyce says of the midfielder's address that inspired the team from 3-0 down to 3-3. "I'd like to hear the transcript of that. I might use it myself. It would be wrong of me to plan [with Parker]. Kevin is here because he thinks his future lies here and he wants to get us back in the Premier League. Like me, he doesn't want to drop out of the Premier League for more than one season."

To that end, Nolan insists there will be no hiding place for West Ham this season and the minimum requirement is an immediate return to the Premier League. Speaking in the Mirror just seven days before the ­Hammers begin their Championship ­campaign against perennial play-off sufferers Cardiff at Upton Park, he said: "We have to come out all guns blazing. We have to hit the ground running, there is no hiding place for us. The stakes are high and there is immense pressure on us. But the time for feeling sorry for yourselves following relegation from the Premier League has long since passed. The least we should expect is promotion. Anything else will merely be an unmitigated disaster for this club. This club doesn’t ­belong in the Championship and we have to make damn sure we don’t stay here either."

Nolan experienced the trauma of relegation with Newcastle two ­seasons ago and he is the first to admit the Championship is not an easy league to escape. "There are striking ­similarities between West Ham and Newcastle," he states. "The pressure and expectations are exactly the same. When Newcastle went down some people expected us to ­struggle but we re-grouped and had a right go. We knew we had to either get out of the Championship straight away or face being stuck there for years to come. It was a make-or-break situation for us in much the same way it is for West Ham. You don’t have a divine right to win promotion no matter how big the club are. You have to earn the right. No-one is going to do you any favours. Everyone will want to beat us. This will be their biggest game of the campaign. Opposing teams will come to Upton Park looking for a major scalp. You’re a team to be shot at but if we apply ourselves on the pitch and get the supporters right behind us I see no reason why we shouldn’t be celebrating come April/May."

Nolan admits he was pleasantly surprised when he turned up at West Ham, and insists the players have been first class and are ­determined to put things right. "You expect to come into a ­dressing room that is on the floor and in complete disarray," he ­explained. "There are normally three or four bad eggs, a few egos and players desperate to quit. I can honestly say I saw none of that. There is a refreshing unity about this squad and single-minded ­determination to put things right."

Some people are still surprised that Nolan was prepared to trade top-flight football with Newcastle for the ­Championship. He claims it was a no-brainer explaining: "Naturally the opportunity to work with Sam Allardyce again helped, but the club made such an enormous effort to get me that I felt I would have let them down if I said no. It’s nice to be ­wanted, that’s for sure. And after everything that happened at Newcastle it was important for me to hear that. More importantly when I met David Sullivan he did such a great job selling the club it didn’t take long to make up my mind. To fair he could have sold me some unwanted double glazing windows. He was that good. I won’t lie though, he wouldn’t let me leave the room until I agreed to sign after they had their bid ­accepted for me. It was refreshing to listen to David Sullivan. His enthusiasm, ambition and plans for the club were very ­impressive. He’s a supporter first and foremost and like the co-owner David Gold I don’t think anyone was ­hurting more than them when the club went down."

The signing of his former Bolton regulars Nolan and Matthew Taylor have signalled the manager's intent. There is also the free transfers Joey O'Brien, also from Bolton, and Abdoulaye Faye from Stoke City. Further signings are afoot, with the priorities being a left-back and a striker. The England internationals Robert Green and Carlton Cole appear more likely to stay than go. "You're happy that that type of talent is moving a step down to try to get itself back up," said Allardyce. "Kevin and Matt have the same ambition as me: to spend as little time as possible in the Championship. But we're not taking it for granted that we're going to get promoted. There's a lot of really experienced managers in this division who are wanting to do the same as me, and young up-and-coming guys who want to make their names. And a lot of money spent."

Allardyce admits he and his new recruits have hung themselves "out to dry" by pledging to seek an instant return. He also accepts that the need to gain promotion is intensified by the club's financial position. West Ham carry debts of £80m and Sullivan, the co-owner, has said that life in the Championship will "blow a £40m hole" in the business plan. Then there is the move to the Olympic Stadium in 2014 and the imperative to take Premier League football with them.

"We're reducing our costs and overheads where a lot are adding on to what they had last year, so it will be a tougher division," says Allardyce. "It's going to be damned hard work over a marathon season of 46 games. We have to perform at a consistent level and make sure we're always in a winning frame of mind." That, he admits, required altering the prevailing mood. "The club was in despair really. Relegation leaves a club traumatised, from the owners to the fans, the players to the tea lady. And you've got to get them over the trauma and back to positive thinking. You win a game of football as much with your mind as with your ability."

Allardyce radiates optimism. "We want to go up automatically," he says. "And if we don't quite achieve that goal, then we are going to be left in the play-offs, at the very least, unless I become the worst manager ever overnight and the players become the worst there has ever been." His style these days is characterised by such thick-skinned self-belief and searing ambition. Where once he would lie awake at night "frightened by what the fans or the papers or the owners would say", he now feels able to blot out the background noise, which is perhaps just as well at a noisy club like West Ham. "I used to be a terrible, terrible worrier, a pessimist," he says. "It's probably because I was a defender. One mistake and the manager will shout at you. I couldn't remember playing well. I could only remember mistakes. I used to worry like mad. But as I got older and established myself, that diminished and as a manager, it's the same."

Insecurity has given way to conviction. Spectacularly so. Despite his sackings at Newcastle and, more recently, Blackburn Rovers when, in both cases, the ownership changed and his face no longer fitted, he can be fiercely proud of his cv. With man-management his greatest strength he maintains that he could win trophies at the very biggest clubs, such as Real Madrid and Internazionale, if he was given the opportunity. "I've said a lot of things over the years that people laugh at and I find them very insulting for making a joke about it or laughing at how I could be a manager of any club, anywhere and deal with it. I still feel like I can walk into any club, anywhere, any time and deliver. It's a bit like a CEO, isn't it? You can take up a position in any industry and if you're a good CEO, you can make that company profitable. You put me in a football environment anywhere in the world and I can deliver the module. I can modify the module for the particular culture and the way of playing."

It remains easy to touch a nerve with Allardyce. Just tell him his teams have been long-ball bully boys or that he jars with the "West Ham way". "People had to make an excuse, at the time, for little old Bolton beating Chelsea, Arsenal and Man United," he says. "Little old Bolton used to beat Rafa Benítez [and Liverpool] every time he came to the Reebok Stadium. And they couldn't cope with it." Allardyce's West Ham will look to entertain but, above all, to win. He made the point that Manchester United and Chelsea were not only the best creative teams but the most destructive ones, too. "There is an adaptability," he says. "They never play the same way. Arsenal probably do and that's probably why they've won nothing for six years."

So while many still see Allardyce as a slave to Prozone statistics, long balls and blood and thunder, he sees it differently, calling on his adventures in Europe managing Bolton and the flair of World Cup winner Youri Djorkaeff, along with Champions League conquerors Ivan Campo and Fernando Hierro as a case for the defence. Allardyce reiterates graft as well as guile is necessary if West Ham want to return to the top flight and, remembering his time as a Bolton player under Ian Greaves, he reflects on two failed promotion attempts before abandoning brains for brawn and earning promotion back to Division One in 1978. "We were known as one of the teams for the purists," Allardyce explains. "Then, with about seven games to go, Ian told us to forget about the football that we had tried for two years. He told us to get the ball in the channels and squeeze it up there. It’s a lesson you have to learn. Great teams always know how to play any way."

Allardyce has won plenty of games with his own sharp mind – his instant exploitation of the new offside rules bordered on genius, and his application of sports science at Bolton was well ahead of its time – but he is still perceived as a typical northern former muck 'n' nettles centre-half. Many of the perceptions are wrong – he is not a northerner, for example, having been born and brought up in the West Midlands – and the one that rankles most is his reputation as a long-ball coach, at odds with the West Ham way. "It bores me to tears, to be honest. It will be answered by our performances this year," he said.

The harshest judges will be West Ham's supporters, but though Allardyce admits it will be a while before he feels like a Londoner again – he played for Millwall for two seasons in the early 1980s – he appreciates the club's traditions, hopes to promote young players from their vaunted academy, and relishes the responsibility of entertaining a demanding fanbase. "They're like Newcastle fans. They live and breathe the club and work hard for the money to come and watch them, so we have got to reward them for turning up in their thousands, as they have done for many, many years. Even though, realistically, over the last few years it has been a bit of a yo-yo time for them. It's the Championship now and for me it's a big change from the past 10 years of success."

That analysis of his decade in the Premier League defies, rather than ignores, the fact that he was sacked at his previous two clubs, and West Ham will surely settle for a repeat of his effect on his previous clubs. "Everywhere I've been there has been progression, even Newcastle," he said. "Even though we were six months into a complete overhaul of the club, we were 11th when I left and they'd finished 14th the year before. At Blackburn we completely turned that around, and everyone knows what we did at Bolton because we were top eight, top six and looking like a Champions' League-threatening side. West Ham is a different type of challenge, trying to win promotion and experience the joy of that."

The country's elite will have to wait. Allardyce must first ensure that the step down a division serves as a springboard. But he has it mapped out and the goal is to challenge for European places and cup finals. "How far can we go? That depends on how much the owners want to back the dream to turn it into reality," he says. "That's what I've done and that's what I do. I turn dreams into reality." And what about London and his new surroundings? "I would like to take in the sights and have a look around Big Ben,” he adds. "I haven’t seen Buckingham Palace yet and I’d like to do that - on an open top bus as long as the weather is nice." If Sam Allardyce has his way, he’ll be sitting on that bus parading the Championship trophy come May.


Larry said...

Another well put together piece. Thanks. The more I read about Allardyce the more impressed I become. It might just be the pre-season form but I haven't been as confident in the management of this club since Harry was here.

Jimbob said...

I do cringe when he lurches into the wanky blue-sky thinking business talk but on the whole I agree Larry. Big Sam does inspire confidence as does Nolan to be fair. We seem to have in place strong leadership on and off the pitch and that bodes well for season ahead.

Maxwell said...

Another fantastic read Trilby. Did you know the Guardian are asking for nominations for the best football league blogs to use on their site? Given the fact it took me about two years to find this blog you'll probably never get around to actively pushing yourself forward but you've already got a couple of mentions.

Follow the link and get some nominations in because your hard work deserves the recognition.

Anonymous said...

The pressure to succeed must be intolerable for Allardyce but he seems to be thriving. I still have grave doubts about the style of football we will end up playing- particularly if things start to go against us- but you can't fail to be impressed by the man himself.

Emlyn said...

getting fed up with the plaudits. Its getting boring. Takes so much time off he could write a book.

Oh how we hated the thought of "northern Sam". now, where's that striker

Anonymous said...

exellent well written post. I live in wales now but will not be rooting for Cardiff next weekend. COYI !!!!!!!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

in relation to the last link where anonymous states he has grave doubts about the style of football we will play,in relation to what the rubbish we have been watching over the last 25yrs,please your making fans of other clubs laugh at us with talk about our so called play,appointing allardyce is the first good thing our owners have done and easily he will become our best manager since lyall

Lipton said...

Emlyn- it's the honeymoon that every manager receives. Until Allardyce does something to the contrary, he deserves our unfailing support. Besides, positivity is infectious and will help see us through whatever bumpy times are ahead.

Emlyn said...

lipton, my mistake, i was about trilby taking taking so much time of

Ian Ayris said...

Another brilliantly written article. I agree, Nolan comes across as very impressive. As does Allardyce, in moments. But anyone, in any walk of life, be it postman, milkman, or football manager, that states that what they do is 'turn dreams into reality' straight away sends the wanker sirens blaring inside my head. Lets hope his tongue was firmly in his cheek at the time. If not . . .


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