Thursday, 1 August 2013

Lancashire’s Loss, London’s Gain

"One thing about London is that when you step out into the night, it swallows you..."
It is now well over two and a half years since Sam Allardyce’s chicken-brained sacking by Blackburn. "I didn’t know it was quite that long," Sam smiles, raising an ironic glass. "To Venky’s!" He’s laughing now — and so are West Ham. Lancashire’s loss, London’s gain. Afterall, asked Charlotte Bronte, who but a coward would pass his whole life in hamlets; and for ever abandon his faculties to the eating rust of obscurity? Not Big Sam, who has resurrected his club while enjoying a rebirth as Metropolitan Man. Now happily settled in Canary Wharf and looking forward to building on two successful seasons in the Hammers hot seat, the manager is relishing what promises to be an exciting and challenging 2013/14 campaign; his tenth as a Barclays Premier League boss following spells with Bolton Wanderers, Newcastle United and Rovers prior to joining the Hammers in July 2011. "It has been a really good couple of years for me, not just from a football point of view, but from the fact that we're enjoying our time living in Canary Wharf," Allardyce told the official club site today. "The big city has been great to explore and it takes the pressure off when you want to get out and get away from it all, you've got plenty to do and plenty to see."

The decision to move had to be right for Lynn, his wife, whose mother — after living with the Allardyces for 30 years — died just before the West Ham job came up. Happily the switch felt right, personally and professionally, from the start. Sam and Lynn love West End shows and East End life. Near the gastropub where Allardyce frequently holds court over lunch is their 40th-floor apartment, with amazing views. The perfect vantage point to watch those marbled clouds go scudding by in the many-steepled London sky. "The windows are ceiling to floor," he says, "and now when we go back to the house in Bolton, we have to put on all the lights. ‘Dingy, innit?’ we say." In a recent typically meandering lunch-fuelled interview with Jonathan Northcroft, Sam digresses on the benefits of natural light (he had a Bolton dressing room built with roof and pitched windows). He discusses algorithms in player-analysis software, the science behind improving athletes’ sleep. "All that stuff British Cycling gets praised for — microscopic detail, marginal gains — Sam was doing it 10 years ago," a former assistant told Northcroft. Allardyce has been an innovator (he was the first coach to use 4-2-3-1 in the Premier League). And he’s been a success — improving the league position of every club managed, even his supposed failure, Newcastle.

Yet critics don’t want to hear that and they don’t want to hear Allardyce, as can be his wont, expressing confidence in his abilities. "If Mourinho says it, you all speak about it in the highest esteem. It’s him talking about himself again and isn’t he good? But if a Midlander talks about it, with his Midlands accent that he’s nearly lost, he gets berated," muses Allardyce. He still harbours dreams of England, "though you can see Roy’s going to be there quite a while. But the desire to win, the desire to do as well as I possibly can in my career, is never relinquished." The Big Sam dichotomy — the man who thinks outside the box yet has the old values of English management running through his core — is something not everyone gets. But West Ham, promoted and made a competitive Premier League unit within 18 months of his arrival, feel the benefits. "Obviously with the football side going well as well, it has been a really good two years," he says with uncharacteristic understatement. "And hopefully it will be more successful, building up to getting in that new Olympic Stadium. I think the fans will all be itching to get the season started again. When they see everybody coming back for pre-season, everyone starts looking forward to the start of the season. With great expectation, every club will be expected do better than they did last season."

While the pressure-filled Barclays Premier League is still a fortnight away, Big Sam has been working tirelessly with the Board and his recruitment staff all summer, identifying and attempting to sign transfer targets. Four new players have already joined - Andy Carroll, Razvan Rat, Adrian and Danny Whitehead - while the Club have made no secret of their desire to bring in one more forward. Only today a signing the club were increasingly confident they had landed slipped agonizingly through the net. Yet, notes Northcroft, if there’s one area where Allardyce’s blend of originality and commonsense come together, it’s recruitment. Like Harry Redknapp, he’s a great assembler of squads. He keeps the right players (Mark Noble, Winston Reid); buys "pros" in key areas (Kevin Nolan, James Collins, Matt Jarvis); spots potential (Mohamed Diame, Mobido Maiga); and finds value in players others don’t even consider. Ricardo Vaz Te cost £500,000 from Barnsley and scored the £50m playoff final goal that returned West Ham to the Premier League. Joey O’Brien hadn’t played for Bolton in almost three years when he was released and then snapped up by Sam.

Moneyball? He knew all about that in 2001 when Mike Forde, his former performance director, went to America to investigate Billy Beane. "We started doing it: physical, psychological, technical and tactical; boxes players had to tick," explains Allardyce. "You work with what I call the ghosts of football, the scouts and analysts nobody sees. I don’t want to know what a player can’t do. What can he do? I’ll find other players for the other stuff. The biggest problem any manager has is recruitment. Half the time in this job you’re fighting to make sure you don’t sign the wrong players. Because everybody’s giving you players, all the time, every day of the week, in this ferocious transfer world."

It was, he states, a transfer that made him realise he’d made a good decision to work for David Sullivan and David Gold at Upton Park. "Steve [Bruce] is my best mate and he said, ‘You’ll have no problems’. They’re West Ham fans who want the same as me — to do well," says Allardyce. "The first thing was to bring a winning culture back to the club. Nolan was the central plank. We talked about Kevin and two days later it was done. Kev’s walking through the door and I’m like that [jaw hitting the floor]. Generally where I’ve been it’s been weeks and months [to complete signings], people putting up obstacles. Some clubs have transfer committees! With them [Sullivan and Gold] it was bosh, get in, deal done."

He needed his owners’ help in the previous transfer window when injuries had robbed Allardyce of seven leading players including Andy Carroll, out until the February and Diame who would return quicker than expected. Then, as now, Allardyce was looking "at players in Europe coming towards the end of their contracts and at loans" and to keep his midfield dynamo. "He won’t go anywhere. He likes it here," Allardyce says of Diame. "[His improvement] is down to the challenge he’s taken on. The size of a club demands a certain size of performance and we’re a sell-out club, with 35,000 people, great tradition. He’s responded. We changed his role [to attacking midfielder]. The ability he has to break through the opposition’s midfield is rare. Other players have to pass their way through. He has similar capabilities to Yaya Toure though, unbelievably, Manchester City don’t seem to be using those capabilities at the moment. That’s why West Ham fans love him — those long, penetrating, weavey runs. He gets into the positions so often that if we can work on the finishing and final pass we could be talking about a really top player."

That said, the manager is delighted that he has not had to overhaul his squad to the same extent that he did in the summers of 2011 and 2012. "It has been one of the quietest pre-seasons I've had for about eight years I'm glad to say," smiles Allardyce. "We have done some good business, obviously the Andy deal was the first one. We've got a new goalkeeper, Adrian, from Real Betis, who seems to be settling in very well. We've got Razvan Rat from a defensive point of view, so we're probably looking at securing one more player within the budget we've got available this summer. And hopefully that will make us a little bit better than last year. From our point of view, we have to look at everybody else's spending throughout the summer up until the deadline. Then we'll have a better idea of if the Premier League is going to be any stronger from last season and that's the challenge you have to face up to."

It is important, thinks Sam, that his squad make the same strong start that stood them so well last term. With home games against Cardiff and Stoke City and away matches at Newcastle United, Southampton and Hull City to begin, the manager believes the Hammers can put points on the board again in August and September. The caveat, he acknowledges, is an improvement on an away record that saw them win just three times in 19 games on the road last term. "Yes, they are [winnable games]. Our home form was the key to our success and our away form, in the end, wasn't very good, considering that when we got promoted the year before our away form was better than our home form. So it was quite strange from that point of view. The fixtures have been reasonably kind but there are no easy games in the Premier League as everybody knows. A good start for us like last season, we got 14 points out of the first eight games, is something that we need to target yet again if we want to be as good as we were last year. With that group of fixtures, not that I'm saying that they're easy, but if you started off with Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool or Manchester City in the first eight, that would be difficult. But we haven't got that to begin with and we need that strong start yet again."

And West Ham’s potential? "I’d like to win a cup," admits Allardyce. "I’ve been in two semis and the Carling Cup final. That, for this club, is the target: sustain itself in the Premier League and, as the squad grows, start thinking about [winning cups]." A bigger prize lies beyond. Allardyce and his players have seen drawings of the football arena with retractable seats for 54,000-60,000 fans that West Ham intend at the Olympic stadium. "Awesome," Allardyce says. "We cannot let it become a white elephant. And the only way to fill it is by being an established Premier League football club by the time we get there. It would give the chance to create a new history for West Ham United, to be mega in Europe. It would demand more from the manager and players and that’s what the club has to build towards now. I’d love to be there but that’s a long time in the future, isn’t it?"

Which brings us back to that baffling Blackburn exit that has taught Allardyce not to look too far ahead. His contract with West Ham was due to expire this summer and it is true that renewal was wholly dependent on the club's survival. "It was all about being safe," he says. "But me and the Davids had always been talking about next season, as well as the transfer window; sort of talking as if the contract’s wasn't up. Ten years ago I’d have been panicking, now I don’t. I knew we needed to be safe or virtually safe ... and at that stage we would get down to negotiation." Allardyce natters about "unbelievable" experiences, as a young Bolton centre-half, of playing in a Fulham side featuring Bobby Moore. He might never be "West Ham enough" for ultra-diehards but his mix of the down-to-earth and aspirational chimes with the club.

"West Ham is like Newcastle," he feels. "The fans always turn out. They might not always be patient but they’ll always be there. And contrary to what people have said to me about 'the West Ham way', they want to win. They want passionate, committed players who give their best. They want entertaining football but most of all they want to win and at the end of the day you can’t hide behind a certain way of playing [to justify] failure." If Paris is a woman then London is an independent man puffing his pipe in a pub, noted Kerouac's Lonesome Traveler. With that Metropolitan Man sips his wine of choice (Saint Emilion: involved in a wine business run by Ryan Nelsen, Sam knows his stuff) and tucks into his food. It’s gourmet, observes Northcroft, but still pie and mash.


Anonymous said...

Another great piece Sir but why doesn't your blog show up on News Now any more?

Linus said...

Brilliant read yet again. If there's a Hammers fan out there who still doubts that Allardyce is the right man for us then I feel genuinely sorry for them.

Emlyn said...

it'll be interesting as time goes by. Will we be dangerous away from home? Will we start to see younger players? Can Allardyce find another captain?


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