West Ham: Is Big Sam's 'Style' Olympian Enough?

West Ham might claim that they're not dependent on Premier League football to make the Olympic Stadium work, but it would certainly help. Is Allardyce the man to take them there?

Last Updated: 13/08/12 at 14:04 Post Comment

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Last season:
Championship
Third - play-off winners; FA Cup Third round; Carling Cup First round.
Manager Sam Allardyce (since June 2011) Odds on being first out of his job 7-1 favourite.
Transfers in Jussi Jaaskelainen (Bolton), George McCartney (Sunderland), Mohamed Diame (Wigan), James Collins (Aston Villa), Modibo Maiga (Sochaux), Alou Diarra (Marseilles).
Transfers out Rob Green (QPR), Ravel Morrison (Birmingham, loan), Frank Nouble (Wolves), Abdoulaye Faye (Hull).

Not since 1966 can an English domestic football season have kicked off with the country on such a sporting high, only this time it covers the whole UK. One couId easily imagine that Britain is enjoying a golden sporting age. What a blessing, then, that Sam Allardyce is back in the Premier League to embody the contrary view.

Given the former Bolton manager's decidedly un-Corinthian approach to his vocation, it may seem paradoxical that West Ham, with their pursuit of tenancy of the Olympic Stadium, are the club most tied up with the legacy of the Games. On the other hand, for cynics or purists sceptical of what the Olympics has become, the coincidence may seem entirely fitting.

The future of the stadium's future is supposed to be finalised in October, though we have heard such deadlines before. West Ham claim that their business plans for the venue would not require their presence in the top flight but there is no doubt that budgeting will be substantially easier if they remain in the Premier League, especially in light of the 2013-14 TV deal, which promises roughly as much to relegated sides as the champions receive at present.

So, not much pressure on Sam, then, who will also do his best to ignore his status as the manager most likely to be first out of his job. West Ham kick off against Aston Villa, whose supporters spent last season in barely disguised rebellion against Alex McLeish; the anti-Sam sentiments ran not quite so deep but still burst forth regularly, especially when there were shortfalls in results as well as style, and home form was a particular problem. Poor results deriving from a perceived lack of ambition in front of your own supporters leave more people publicly dissatisfied and are more embarrassing for directors than struggles on the road.

Had draws against Bristol City (20th), Doncaster (24th) and Crystal Palace (17th) at Upton Park brought nine points instead of three, then all else being equal that would have meant first place. Bouncing back through automatic promotion, not the torture of the play-offs, was the aim, and no one was happy until Blackpool were beaten, even if a total of 86 points was more than any third-placed team had achieved in a decade and on occasion enough to win the division.

It is not only Allardyce's tactics that some regard as toxic, of course. The owners' business background wins no more fans in east London than it did in the West Midlands.

Sullivan and Gold have funded some squad expansion. Jussi Jaaskelainen was one of the reasons Bolton stayed in the top flight for so long but the diminution in his powers surely contributed to relegation, yet he may succeed the departed Rob Green in goal after being reunited with Allardyce. At the other end, Ricardo Vaz Te and Carlton Cole are joined by Modibo Maiga but the retained pair have not been prolific top-flight strikers and the new man, a £4.7m signing from Sochaux, is unproven in England and eligible for Mali's prospective Africa Cup of Nations campaign.

West Ham have been linked with bigger names, but some of those targets have looked unrealistic - would Andy Carroll really head for the East End? Though probably London's third biggest in terms of local support, the Hammers lack glamour. A club established in the top flight and at the Olympic Stadium would be a much bigger draw, the problem is going to be getting there.

Allardyce's pragmatic approach wins few marks for artistic merit but his teams have shown strong survival instincts. The three teams promoted in 2011 - Norwich, Swansea and QPR - all stayed up, which a) offers confidence-boosting evidence it can be done, and b) provides three obvious relegation candidates. The first two have lost coveted managers and, though Rangers have splashed out since, they stayed up only on the last day.

Nor, really, should West Ham under Avram Grant have found a way to go down in 2011. This was not the first time West Ham have pulled off such a feat or at least struggled to their considerable cost. The stakes are higher now and the board may well feel that standing by Grant for too long was a severe mistake in the relegation season and draw conclusions about how they should act in a similar position. Allardyce's team were not completely one-dimensional but could revert to the stereotype should things go wrong in the top flight. These are owners with ambitions to fill seats at a far larger arena than the Boleyn Ground.

The opening weeks offer Allardyce a soft enough start, with games against Swansea, Fulham, Norwich and Sunderland following the visit of Villa. Stumble then and the run from the start of November to the second weekend of December, featuring Manchester City, Newcastle, Tottenham, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool could lead to unbearable pressure from the stands and the board.

Philip Cornwall

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