Big Sam and Football’s Big Problem

sam-allardyce-england

Sam Allardyce left his England post after just one game in charge

This week, Sam Allardyce confirmed himself as the embodiment of everything that is wrong with modern English football. The Daily Telegraph’s fantastic sting operation revealed “Big Sam” to be greedy, egotistical, naïve, and a million miles from the reality of everyday life in this, or in fact any other country.

 

When Allardyce took up his position at the head of the English game 68 days ago, he did so saying that the role was his dream job, and that leading the national side out at Wembley Stadium was something that he’d dreamt of for many years. Fast forward to the sting, which took place before he’d even managed his first game in charge of England, and Allardyce was slating the national stadium, openly questioning his players bottle to a stranger whom he’d never met, and informing the same stranger that you can easily bypass the Football Association’s rules on third party ownership. The Football Association, you may have noticed, who were Allardyce’s employers at the time.

 

All of this makes you wonder – was managing England really Allardyce’s career long ambition? Or was it the accompanying status that Big Sam was so in love with? After all, it took him less than a month to use his newfound status to try and secure a £400,000 fee for “keynote” speaking in the Far East. Why bother earning your £3 million per year salary scouting England players when, after all, you can go behind your employers back and make a quick buck on the other side of the planet?

 

However, Allardyce is not alone in the footballing world as being money hungry and so far up his own backside to quite realise that he was committing professional suicide when he referred to his predecessor Roy Hodgson as “Woy”, all while consuming what appeared to be a pint (a pint!!!) of wine. Just to watch a game on television you have to fork over an excessive monthly sum to either BT or Sky, with terrestrial channels such as ITV and the BBC relegated to highlights packages and international competition. Attending games in person is even more costly to the average Joe – West Ham charged £25 for some seats to their third round EFL Cup tie against League Two side Accrington Stanley, a princely sum when you consider they were charging a solitary pound for a fourth round Worthington Cup tie against Nottingham Forest as far back as the year 2000. Replica shirts? They’ll set you back £50, and they change every season. None of this matters to the people who run Premier League clubs, however, not now the game has spread across the globe and pre-season tours to Australia, the United States and Asia are now as lucrative as season ticket sales from loyal fans who live locally.

 

Again, none of this is Allardyce’s fault. But unfortunately for the Dudley-born former Bolton and West Ham boss, this whole sorry, money grabbing episode as seen Big Sam become the poster boy for greed within football, and the sport’s complete disdain for rules, regulations and anything else that threatens to connect it to the real world.

 

For anyone who feels even a smidge of sympathy towards Big Sam – just remember the next time you fork out a month’s salary for your team’s season ticket that Allardyce wasn’t content with the £3 million he was earning per annum. He was willing to jeopardise his “dream job” for a quick payday before he’d even set foot in the technical area at Wembley. He even said that his departure from the England job was a “victory for entrapment”. No, Sam. It was a victory for the people in football who maintain a shred of dignity and decency. Not that there are many left.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Bruce, Big Sam and England’s Big Mistake

Sam-Allardyce-Steve-Bruce

Sam Allardyce reacts to the West Ham crowd after they booed the team off following an unconvincing 2-1 win over Hull in 2014.

 

Ever since Roy Hodgson stepped down as manager of the England men’s football team following a disastrous campaign at Euro 2016, speculation has been rife as to who will fill his shoes and attempt to lead the country into the next World Cup in Russia two years from now.

Originally, international names including Arsene Wenger and Jurgen Klinsmann appeared to be in the frame as the Football Association looked to move on from a three-tournament barren spell under the home-grown Hodgson, who was ultimately exposed as quite simply not being up to the job. However, as the search has progressed it appears that the FA have narrowed their choice to Hull boss Steve Bruce and Sam Allardyce, who saved Sunderland from relegation during the 2015/16 season.

While both Allardyce and Bruce have had solid careers in management and rank first and third in Premier League games managed by an Englishman, neither has won a major trophy during their lengthy careers on the touchline and inspire little in the way of optimism for long suffering England fans.

Unlike the national cricket and rugby teams, who immediately targeted the most qualified candidates for the top job regardless of nationality, the FA appear to have made the fatal mistake of prioritising nationality over suitability for the most important position in English football. Is Steve Bruce the most qualified manager England could tempt to file the vacant manager’s role? Is Sam Allardyce? The answer to both is, of course, no, and represents a terrible, if not surprising repeat of the events that saw coaches including Hodgson, Graham Taylor and Kevin Keegan ascend to the role of England manager.

Bruce spent last season managing in the Championship with Hull after he oversaw their relegation from the Premier League two years ago, and while he took them straight back up (via the play-off lottery) he did so with a huge budget and a squad packed full of Premier League pedigree. Bruce’s other roles in England include stints managing Sunderland, Wigan and Birmingham, and while he’s overseen a number of mid-table finishes he has never been able to challenge the top six teams in the table or win a domestic cup.

Allardyce, on the other hand, did manage to lead Bolton to a fifth place finish over a decade ago, however like Bruce he has never won a major trophy in England and his limited style of play has seen him sacked from no fewer than five teams during his lengthy managerial career (four if you believe his departure from West Ham was mutual). While Hodgson at least had experience of managing a top club Allardyce has never been afforded that opportunity, and it is worrying to think that if he wasn’t good enough to pip Steve McClaren to the role in 2006, then why is he better qualified now?

Of the more suitable (but, gasp, not English) candidates, Arsene Wenger fronts the list and although he wouldn’t be available for a year his CV makes Bruce and Allardyce look more qualified to run a Sunday league side than a team packed full of the best players the country has to offer. Wenger knows the English game as well as either having managed in these shores for 20 years, and a number of the current England squad perform under his watchful eye at Arsenal. Jurgen Klinsmann is another name who has been mentioned following his eye-catching performance with Germany at the 2006 World Cup, when he led an unfancied set of players to the last four, before he repeated the feat with the USA in last month’s Copa America.

Other contenders include Guus Hiddink, who has experience managing a number of countries and knows the Premier League and its players well from his two spells with Chelsea, while Louis Van Gaal led Holland to the last four of the 2014 World Cup before his two-year stint with Manchester United, where he won one more trophy than Bruce and Allardyce have managed during their managerial careers.

Unfortunately, none of those names mentioned are English, which appears to have ruled them out of the running in spite of the success enjoyed by Eddie Jones and Trevor Bayliss with the England rugby and cricket teams, respectively, over the past twelve months. Jones followed a Grand Slam winning Six Nations campaign by leading England to their first ever series victory in Austalia, while Bayliss helped England regain the Ashes from his native Australia before taking the team to within two balls of the T20 World Cup this Spring. Does this mean Bruce or Allardyce are certain to fail? No. But it’s a stunning step down the same blind alley that the FA have been frequenting for far too long, and represents another missed opportunity to recruit from a vast number of highlight qualified, and highly interested, coaches from across the globe.

Should He Stay or Should He Go: West Ham and Sam Allardyce’s Inconvinient Marriage

Sam Allardyce joined West Ham in 2011

Sam Allardyce joined West Ham in 2011

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.

PR Season in Full Swing

Ashley Young opened the scoring for Manchester United in front of 109,000 fans in Michigan

Ashley Young opened the scoring for Manchester United in front of 109,000 fans in Michigan

After a short post-World Cup break, football teams across Europe are well into their pre-season preparations for the upcoming campaign. But just how much do those teams tailor their preparations to the needs of their players and staff, as opposed to replenishing their not so empty coffers?

Just this weekend Arsenal are participating in their own annual event, the Emirates Cup, while Manchester United, Liverpool and Manchester City have been competing in the United States against other European giants including Roma, Real Madrid and Inter Milan. West Ham and Newcastle have both been halfway across the world to sample a taste of Kiwi football in New Zealand, with the both teams deciding that the 46-hour round trip wasn’t quite enough traveling for one summer as they’ve since been to Germany for yet more friendlies.

It’s a far cry from years gone by when teams would play a selection of local sides from lower divisions in an effort to ramp up the intensity levels before the season started, without having to compromise familiar home comforts. For example Arsenal used to play an annual fixture against their north London neighbours Barnet, a game which the Gunners didn’t schedule this summer. So are these pre-season tournaments in far flung parts of the world better preparation for the upcoming Premier League season then the previous tried and tested method? Or is it simply a ploy to sell more shirts abroad and secure mega money kit deals in a bid to earn a few extra million?

Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in between. There are positives about going abroad to play in pre-season tournaments against illustrious competition: the standard is higher, which should better prepare players for the season ahead, and playing in warm climates such as the USA is a great way to get players into shape ahead of the looming 38-game slog. Of course, the financial benefits aren’t too shabby, either.

Yet there are clear negatives. Travel, particularly when going to the Far East and Australasia, is a real issue. Players need time to recover after games and sitting on a plane for 12-hours at a time (even if it is in first class) is far from ideal. Additionally the surfaces that these teams are forced to play on in some of these countries are terrible, which can lead to both impact injuries and muscular strains. For instance, the pitch used by Manchester United and Real Madrid on Saturday in Michigan is designed for American Football use, with the grass tending to be thicker and also more prone to ‘cutting up’ during the course of a football match.

Will these pre-season preparations have a noticeable impact on the form of the affected teams once the Premier League season begins in two weeks time? Only time will tell. But with the bottom line more important than ever in football it should come as no surprise that clubs are branching out further every year in an effort to market their brand. And with 109,000 fans crammed into the ‘Big House’ in Michigan last night, who can honestly blame them? The English national team may still be a laughing stock, but make no mistake – the Premier League is as popular and powerful as ever.

Winter Break? Wenger, Mourinho and Rio Can’t All be Wrong

Would Steven Gerrard have made his mistake against Uruguay if he'd had a winter break?

Would Steven Gerrard still have made his mistake against Uruguay if he’d had a winter break?

I used to be resolutely against a winter break in English football. I used to think that the Premier League fixtures over the Christmas period were an indispensable part of this country’s football fabric, and I used to think that the benefits of such a break would be minimal.

Then I read Rio Ferdinand’s lengthy article on the subject in his World Cup preview for the Daily Mail. Ferdinand stated that England’s players enter major tournaments at a disadvantage to the other top European nations because they aren’t allowed the time off that their Spanish and German counterparts are during the winter months, despite Premier League matches taking place at a breakneck pace unmatched across world football. When a clearly jaded Steven Gerrard made two uncharacteristic mistakes against Uruguay that led to a defeat terminal to England’s World Cup hopes I finally saw the light – if the England national team is to succeed they must follow the lead of the other top European nations and embrace the polarizing winter break.

English based foreign managers Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger have championed the idea of a winter break for years now, with their cries largely falling upon deaf ears. They’ve cited the pace of the Premier League and the lack of time for rest as a key reason why many players tire towards the end of the season, as well as explaining the amount of injuries sustained by players as the summer approaches. A three to four week rest period in either December or January would undoubtedly be viewed favourably by Premier League managers sick and tired of seeing their premier talent struck down by fatigue or worse as the season enters its business end, and unquestionably lead to a fresher squad of England players being available for selection come the start of major tournaments every two years.

Does a winter break have its drawbacks? Yes and no. Premier League football would be missed by supporters of top flight clubs during such a period. However with the Championship, Leagues One and Two plus non-league football all well supported in this country there would still be plenty of football to watch and those lower league teams would stand to benefit from increased attendances and television audiences while the Premier League is on its break. You might also ask where the fixtures from such a break would be reintroduced into the Premier League calendar. It’s a valid concern, but one that could be easily navigated. The season could begin a week earlier, for starters. A Saturday and midweek slate of games would fill two of the three weeks worth of fixtures lost to a winter break; the remaining set of games could be slotted into the schedule at any reasonable point throughout the year. To make things even more convenient F.A Cup replays could be done away with and League Cup Semi-Finals could revert from a two-legged format to a one off tie.  In short, allowances could be made to ensure a winter break fits into the schedule – allowances that are far from radical.

Many people will say we don’t need a winter break, that the problems within English football are far greater than three weeks off in the middle of January. But those people would be ignoring the fact that international football is about pivotal moments and small margins. If it made even a one percent difference to England’s chances in future tournaments it would be a change worth making. A common misconception is that England simply don’t have the talented players other nations do. Costa Rica have just advanced to the quarter-finals of the World Cup in Brazil. Bryan Ruiz, their best player, was farmed out on loan by Fulham in January because he couldn’t get in their starting eleven. Fulham were relegated, in case you’d forgotten. Algeria have advanced further than England this summer in Brazil. As have Nigeria. Do either of those teams possess half the talent as a side containing Wayne Rooney, Daniel Sturridge and Steven Gerrard? England failed to win a game this summer because they made crucial mistakes at inopportune moments, not because they lack ability. How many times have you seen Rooney miss a header from a yard out for Manchester United? How many times has Steven Gerrard completely misjudged a header for Liverpool, playing in an opposing striker? These are out of character mistakes from great players, great players who are running on fumes after the demands of yet another intense Premier League season. Give them the rest they deserve, and the rest other European players get, and those kind of mental and physical lapses could become a thing of the past. A winter break would mean only one thing for English football – progress.