“I think Leicester are unique in the fact that they don’t have to be pretty. They don’t have to play a certain way. The way that they’re playing is so good, their fans love it. Whereas fans at some bigger clubs might moan about it and complain about them playing ‘not the right type of football’.”
These stupid words were said by bovine impressionist Sam Allardyce after his seedless Sunderland side were beaten by the Foxes on Sunday.
As ever with Allardyce it’s nonsense, but nonsense with an agenda. I doubt any fans of any other clubs would moan about their side playing like Leicester City, what with them being top of the bloody league. In my experience, fans, rather notoriously, love being top of the league by seven points.
As ever with the jowly old ox, he’s trying, in what he thinks is a clever way, to tell us something about himself and by extension about us too.
Allardyce loves to imply that someone other than himself is to blame for whatever crime against football he’s currently committing. So after being beaten, he’s saying rubbish like this in order to almost suggest his side could play like Leicester, but that fans would criticise him for playing that way. His paranoia is seemingly always there, always bubbling away, feeling persecuted and under attack, feeling under-appreciated and deprived of what’s rightfully his. This despite the fact that the media as a whole completely white-wash everything he does. To listen to Soccer Saturday each week, you’d think Allardyce was a huge success, even though Sunderland have been elevated by just one place since he arrived.
Painting this as anything other than a poor performance should be impossible. Whatever qualities Allardyce has as a manager, and he must have some, the best you could say this season is that he’s not made Sunderland any worse. This fact is consistently painted as a huge achievement. Well, it’s not. Why is there not at least one pundit or commentator saying this? I may have missed an extended excoriation of Allardyce somewhere, but more usually, there is a party line to be toed about him which is ‘he’ll keep you up’ and if he doesn’t, then the players have let him down. He is forever absolved of criticism, forever innocent of the crime of being mediocre.
Listening to how great Allardyce’s acolytes seem to think he is, you could be forgiven for thinking he had a bulging trophy cabinet. However, he has won just two trophies. The League of Ireland First Division with Limerick and the third division title with Notts County, 18 years ago. After that, nothing. Even his two promotions from the Championship were achieved through the play-offs and not automatically.
If you raised this paucity of achievement on Soccer Saturday, they’d tell you that his inability to win anything is because he’s not given time or money. They will tell you how modern his methods are and point to some vibrating plate upon which, at least in spirit, Kevin Nolan is forever having every molecule in his body vibrated.
But of course, in the 18 years since that third division win Nott County, many sides have won trophies without being big spenders. And anyway, Allardyce is given funds at clubs, he just can’t use them well enough to make an excellent side. If he’d taken over Leicester City, would they be top by seven points? Of course not. It’s nine years since he left Bolton and his win ratio at Newcastle, Blackburn and West Ham is in the mid 30s. Across his whole career it’s just under 39%; at Sunderland it is a miserable 24%. This all too well illustrates the limitations of his talent. His methods may or may not be modern, but one thing is self-evident, they’re not producing good results or good football.
Which brings us neatly and embarrassingly from the Allardyce fan club to West Ham United. Not a weekend goes by without someone saying these words “be careful for what you wish for”. Paul Merson was doing it this weekend in relation to Tony Pulis perhaps not getting a new contract at West Brom. Of course. God forbid anyone might ever question an English manager’s ability to entertain and make paying money to watch football anything other than the sporting equivalent of hitting yourself in the face with a brick.
West Ham fans were finger-wagged by the likes of Merson for wanting to see some better football. Under Slaven Bilic, West Ham United are transformed and are a joy to watch. Tactically flexible and full of adventure and flair, they can play it direct for flying mallet, Andy Carroll, or they can weave some magic through Dimitri Payet. Releasing them from the burden of Allardyce’s management has made them into top-four challengers. Why couldn’t Allardyce achieve that? There’s one answer. He’s not good enough. He is conservative and he’s negative and he scouts poorly.
There’s only so long his unofficial PR people can keep denying this by saying he once signed some flair players for Bolton 10 years ago. The fact those players stand out is precisely because he almost never does. And you can be sure that as soon as his fan boys have told you he once signed someone who was good, they’ll tell you that the common assumption that he plays long ball football is totally wrong. It’s an accusation that infuriates the man himself. And this is behind his comments about Leicester.
They play long balls.
They beat Sunderland by playing long balls.
The long balls that Allardyce has been dogged by.
He must have been sickened by that. There’s one difference though, Leicester do it with speed, skill and rapier-like accuracy. They don’t boot it long for Kev Davies to try and score one with his massive bum.
Of course, the reason fans tire of him isn’t because of his sides playing long ball football and never has been; that was always a straw man argument created by Allardyce himself to express his paranoia at his own failure. No, they get sick of him because he plays boring football. Newcastle United fans to this day are rightly unashamed that they got him out of the club for the crime of being boring. Naturally, Merson et al will sit upright, stare wildly and default to saying ‘be careful what you wish for…’ but that still makes no difference to Geordies and nor should it. No-one wishes to witness poor, boring football.
Leicester are brilliant and thrilling. No-one has ever said that about an Allardyce side because he can’t play brilliant, thrilling football. If he could, there would be some substantial evidence of it in his career.
Allardyce loves to pretend that whatever currently fashionable way of playing is definitely something he could do if only given the resources and belief. No-one outside of the toadying cabal of ex-player pundits thinks this is true, but in the dissection of this weekend’s football in the media, will you see anyone say that? Almost certainly, no. Sunderland are still in the relegation places because Allardyce isn’t good enough to make them any better. If they do stay up, it won’t be a brilliant achievement, at all. It will be just one more illustration of how mediocre he is. Is that really something Sunderland should wish for?