When West Ham appointed former Bolton, Newcastle and Blackburn boss Sam Allardyce as their new manager in the summer of 2011, both parties were at their lowest ebb. The Hammers had been relegated from the Premier League the previous season, having finished bottom of the table under the less than stellar stewardship of Avram Grant (who was promptly dismissed by the club’s co-owners, David Gold and David Sullivan), while Allardyce had been removed from his last job as Blackburn by the club’s less than impressed Indian owners, the Venky’s.
At the time West Ham needed a manager with a proven track record to guide them back to the top flight, with the East London side’s impending move to the Olympic Stadium just around the corner in 2016. Allardyce, who had narrowly missed out on the England job in 2006, fit the bill perfectly with his results-driven style and impressive record of having never been relegated from the Premier League as a manager. He also needed a route back into football; following his time in charge of Bolton (where he achieved both promotion from the Championship and a top-five finish in the Premier League) he had underwhelmed in his roles at both Newcastle and Blackburn. Where he had chosen to walk away from his position at Bolton, he had been unceremoniously dumped in his two most recent managerial stints.
On the face of it, the marriage was a match made in heaven. However over the past four years it is safe to say that ‘Big Sam’ has never been fully accepted by the West Ham faithful, and with his second two-year pact with the club due to end in the summer it looks increasingly doubtful that the Dudley-born boss will be awarded a third contract by Messrs Sullivan and Gold. All of this begs the question – where did it all go wrong?
Originally, West Ham supporters had reservations about Allardyce’s reputation as a long ball merchant. The club had traditionally attempted to play football at all times, moving the ball on the floor and striving to entertain the fans with an exciting brand of play. While this approach didn’t always pay off in terms of results, it became known as the ‘West Ham way’, and came to be defined by icons of the English game including Geoff Hurst, Trevor Brooking and most of all Bobby Moore. Has Allardyce abandoned these principals during his four years at Upton Park? Yes and no. At times, the Hammers have taken the attack to the opposition and played highly entertaining football, including during notable home wins against Chelsea (3-1 in 2012), Brighton (6-0 the same year) and a pair of 2-2 draws against Manchester United in the 2012/13 campaign. On the other side of the ledger, Allardyce saw his side booed off after a dire 2-1 victory over Hull City in 2014 was decided by an unfortunate Hull own goal, and his decision to play no recognised striker for much of the 2013/14 season produced poor results and even poorer football. That campaign also produced a pair of humiliating cup exits; Nottingham Forest triumphed 5-0 over a second string side in the third round of the F.A Cup, while just a few days earlier Manchester City tore West Ham apart to the tune of a 9-0 aggregate score line in the League Cup Semi-Final.
Another point of frustration many West Ham fans have with Allardyce is his refusal to blood youngsters from the famed ‘Academy of Football’ into the first team. Just this past weekend Allardyce handed 18-year old centre back Reece Burke a first team debut – Burke responded with an accomplished performance as part of a clean sheet effort by the back four – but instances like this have been few and far between. Promising young striker Robert Hall was flogged to Bolton a year ago despite an impressive goal scoring record in the youth and reserve teams, while young midfielder Diego Poyet has been constantly overlooked this season in favour of an ageing an ineffective Kevin Nolan. There are in fact many occasions when Allardyce has plumped for a known mediocrity over an unproven youngster; in the 2012/13 season he signed Emmanuel Pogatetz on loan to fill in at centre back (which he did, terribly) for two months, as opposed to risking a product from the youth team. The same scenario unfolded again a year later, when Roger Johnson was obtained from Wolves despite being unable to crack the League One side’s starting eleven.
While the previous two complaints will have negatively affected Allardyce’s standing with supporters, the final nail in his claret and blue tinted coffin could well have been hammered in by the dual owners following a pair of disastrous big money acquisitions. Andy Carroll joined from Liverpool on a permanent basis on a rumoured £100,000 a week for a fee of £18 million in 2013 – all of this despite missing the majority of the previous season through injury, when he was on loan at the Boleyn Ground. Carroll has continued to be plagued by injuries in the past two seasons, and his injury (and a lack of depth in his position) nearly saw the club relegated again in the 2013/14 season. Meanwhile, the man who Allardyce had the option to sign in place of Carroll, Wilfried Bony, scored enough goals to keep Swansea City in the top flight before he secured a £30 million move to league champions Manchester City. Allardyce’s second high priced flop was World Cup wonder Enner Valencia, who signed for the princely sum of £15 million following a three goal showing in Brazil. Valencia has struggled all season, scoring just one goal at home, and looks lightweight and ill-suited to the physical style of the English game. With the much touted move to the Olympic Stadium on the horizon, the West Ham owners will surely be asking themselves if they can afford any more multi-million pound busts in the transfer market.
It’s been well documented that Allardyce and the West Ham supporters have never seen eye to eye. The board, however, have steadfastly backed him during h
is reign and have cited the fact that he has done everything asked of him while he’s been in charge. And they are right. He was asked to get the club promoted, which he did, and he was then instructed to keep them in the Premier League, which he has. Unfortunately, following a bright start to the current campaign Allardyce has failed to negotiate the next task, which is to establish the club as a presence in the top half of the table. Fourth place at Christmas has become 11th place at the end of April, and with just two wins in that period Allardyce may well have dug his own grave.
Sam Allardyce and West Ham never were a match made in heaven; they were a marriage of convenience, a couple who were ill suited but crossed paths at their darkest moments. They’ve stayed together this long out of necessity, and because better opportunities have been scarce. Yet with the Olympic Stadium forcing the club’s hand, Allardyce’s West Ham career looks all but certain to have reached a rather messy conclusion. Is the grass always greener on the other side? That’s something that West Ham look hell bent on finding out.