The Boleyn Ground. 20th September, 2014
Big Sam Allardici does it again! He didn’t just defeat the brash young upstart Brendan Rodgers (41), he completely out-tacticked him! Just like Andre Villas-Boas before him, Rodgers was added to the list of technocratic, “laptop managers” vanquished by Big Sam. Classic Allardyce!
However, while Allardyce might be held up for ridicule by many for his perceived delusions of grandeur, there is something of the misunderstood artist about him. Inasmuch as we consider the manager to be the absolute author of his team’s footballing identity, it’s hard not to feel as if Big Sam has been dealt something of a raw deal in the authorial identity that has been constructed for him (insofar as one can have sympathy for a man who [allegedly] earns €3.6m per year). Not only has he consistently kept unfashionable and mid-ranking clubs in the Premier League but he has given central roles to a host of fancy dans and mavericks that other clubs couldn’t or wouldn’t play. For every Kevin Davies there’s a Jay-Jay Okocha. For every Kevin Nolan a Hidetoshi Nakata. You say Stig Tofting, I say Youri Djorkaeff. El Hadji Diouf? Try Eidur Gudjohnsen. Do you know what I am saying?
And this isn’t the Tony Pulis approach of buying expensive “flair” players and then consigning them to the bench for no conceivable reason other than, perhaps, that simply accumulating skilful players might rehabilitate the manager’s unflattering reputation. No, Allardyce used his guys. In the early to middle part of the previous decade, when the no. 10 position was considered an anachronism, something to be consigned to an earlier, more romantic era, who was the one guy flying the flag for dreamers everywhere? That’s right, Big Sam Allardici! While Ferguson was floundering around trying to work out what the hell he was meant to do with Veron and Houllier was embarking on the bizarre experiment of selecting Emile Heskey ahead of Jari Litmanen on a consistent basis, Allardyce had the fat little genius Okocha at the front and centre of his Bolton side.
Why then, is he seen as such a tactless oaf? I actually recall seeing a feature about him on Football Focus during Bolton’s first season in the Premier League in which he was presented as being at the cutting edge of modern management. While the feature itself was complete bollocks and seemed to hinge on him signing a player on the internet and owning a mobile phone it is interesting that within a couple of years his reputation had regressed from a tech savvy cosmopolitan to that of the old-school, “Mike Bassett” style of English manager.
Football management is a curious phenomenon in that managers’ reputations are often tied to a strange, intangible set of aesthetics. For example, a manager like Roberto Martinez, who is seen as a sophisticated, innovative manager with a reputation for playing “the right way”, can make a name for himself as a hot “young” managerial talent, despite the fact that his last job ended in the failure of relegation. Yet Allardyce, who has never suffered the ignominy of relegation, is considered a bad fit for West Ham because he doesn’t play the West Ham way. Whatever that means. I just don’t get it. I’m 30 and when I think of West Ham I see Scott Minto, Paul Kitson and Julian Dicks. It’s hardly the beautiful game.
Yet Allardyce’s status can, without question, at least partially be attributed to his perceived style of football, which is considered by many to be ugly and unsophisticated, based around long balls and physicality at the expense of short passing and skill. But what is attractive football? Are not Borussia Dortmund and Olympique Marseille considered to be two of the most enjoyable teams in Europe to watch at the moment? Yet, for both sides, their main attributes, and what makes them so exhilarating to watch, is their obvious physical preparation and their direct, attacking approach. And, on a personal level, my favourite goals at the last two international tournaments were Suarez’s second against England at the last World Cup, where he latched onto a long ball and walloped it into the goal, and big Andy Carroll’s goal against Sweden at Euro 2012 where he headed in a long ball from Stephen Gerrard. Admittedly, there was something ironic about the pleasure I derived from the latter, the most English of goals from the most English of strikers. But in both instances there was still a visceral thrill to be derived from the powerful, direct play of Suarez and Carroll. Yet these are the qualities for which Allardyce is so frequently derided.
But surely it can’t just be the style of play. Other defensive Premier League managers like Mourinho, or even Paul Lambert, aren’t considered to be unfashionable in the way that Big Sam is. There is a very good article by Peter Wollen on the director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) in which he attempts to rehabilitate his directorial identity and makes the case that Curtiz was never considered to be an auteur in the same way that contemporaries like Hawks or Huston were, largely because of his association with the low-prestige genre of the swashbuckler. Essentially, Wollen argues, this relationship between director and genre diluted his artistic credibility. And there are surely multiple external factors that affect a manager’s authorial image.
For Allardyce, replace the low-prestige genre with the humdrum, unfashionable northern club (Bolton Wanderers). Is Allardyce, with his midlands accent and his non-ironic moustache (now sadly gone), by association considered to be a small time manager, not urbane enough for the big time? Paul Lambert, on the other hand, will forever be associated with the glamour of Borussia Dortmund, despite only spending a single season there. An incredibly successful one it must be said.
And then, one might ask, what does the manager actually do? If they are not going to be judged exclusively on results (if at all in the case of Martinez) then how do people develop these perceptions of them? Is it really based on style of play? Ignoring the aforementioned subjectivity of what constitutes an appealing style of play, the reliability of this method of forming judgements is, at best, questionable. For example, how often do most people watch West Ham, or any other team for that matter? As an Aston Villa supporter I probably watch West Ham twice a season, when they play Villa, and then possibly a couple of other times. So, at the absolute most, four times a season. And then, how do we assess what the manager actually does or how successful he is? One can probably, on so few viewings, pass judgement on a player and gauge what they can or can’t do as there is hard, physical evidence that we can use. This isn’t necessarily the case for managers.
So often our image of these managers is refracted through the subjective viewpoints of football journalists who probably aren’t watching West Ham all that much more frequently then we are. On TheGame podcast last week, one of the contributors openly stated that Paul Lambert’s reputation as a tactician would be enhanced were he to indulge the press with more interesting soundbites. Which, I suppose, is logical if a little depressing. Then one has the unsubstantiated rumour (eg. Brian Kidd is the real brains behind Man Utd.) that might play into the image we construct for the manager. And then there are various other associations we might make. In the case of Allardyce, he is seen to be part of Alex Ferguson’s gang of minions, along with people like Tony Pulis, Steve Bruce and Alan Curbishly, which is a cabal that just screams mediocrity.
Anyway, West Ham won 3-1 and Stewart Downing, in my view one of the most underrated English players of recent times, was excellent.