Welcome back, Big Sam: a psychotherapist’s dream and Proper Football Man’s fantasy

John Nicholson
Sam Allardyce on numerous phones

Sam Allardyce is a creature of contradictions, painted as northern despite coming from the Midlands and so eager to self-aggrandise he makes it more difficult to appreciate him.


Who’s this then?
Samuel Allardyce is the 68-year-old, 6ft 3ins manager of Leeds United, at least for the next four games. Often portrayed as northern by the geographically illiterate, he is obviously from Dudley, which is nowhere near the north.

This is his 13th club managerial job. He managed England for one game before THAT incident meant he resigned/was sacked.

He had a 20-year career as a brutal and uncompromisingly moustachioed defender, in an era when you were rarely allowed to be anything less than brutal, uncompromising and moustachioed as a defender, turning out for 11 different clubs, making 578 appearances and scoring 42 times. Only four of his 20 seasons were spent in the top flight.

His first coaching job was as player-manager of Limerick in the League of Ireland First Division. He won the league with them and moved on to Preston as a caretaker, then came two years at Blackpool between 1994 and 96. Next were two and a half years at Notts County, during which he picked up his second and to date last managerial trophy, winning the Third Division which was, stupidly, actually the fourth tier. He was seen at the time as an up-and-coming young manager and as such was poached by Bolton in October 1999 when they were in the second tier, eventually going up via the play-offs in 2001.

Now in the big league he set about making Bolton play the sort of long ball, aggressive football he played as a defender, but with a bit of imported flair. In the first two Premier League seasons they finished 16th and 13th. There followed the four seasons that have come to define him when the club finished eighth, sixth, eighth and sixth and made the last 32 and last 16 in the UEFA Cup.

In 2004 they reached the League Cup final only to be handed their arse by Middlesbrough. This was all a remarkable achievement for a club of Bolton’s size and he’s understandably traded off this period ever since. Who wouldn’t have?

Portrait of an iconic team: Bolton Wanderers 2003-07

Then it all got a bit smelly. There were periods when he was the boss of Newcastle United, Blackburn, West Ham and Sunderland with win ratios of 33%, 35%, 37% and 29%. Fans of at least two of those four clubs absolutely hated the football he got their teams playing, so much that they actively campaigned to get him sacked and really disliked him quite vociferously.

Then came the England job, achieved off the back of a very friendly press, but which cooler heads warned would end badly and likely in the manner that it did end when he was sucked into a predictable sting, looking like a bloated Tory MP on the make.

His reputation now in possession of substantial skid marks, he was brought in as a firefighter at Crystal Palace, Everton and West Brom, the third of whom he finally got relegated after six months in charge and a win ratio of just 15%. And now Leeds have asked him to boss them for four games. If they stay up Sam will take all the credit; if they go down he will not accept any of the blame.


Why the love and hate?
So what’s so good about Big Sam? There is no skirting around this – he is a very divisive figure. His fans say his reputation as a long-ball merchant has no grounding in fact. They say he’s massively into sports science and is a good man manager. Paul Robinson said he was the best man manager he’d played for. And Big Sam is a big fan of himself, recently saying he’s as good as the best managers working today, which to the outsider does seem massively self-regarding and not in touch with reality. Imagine taking a job and the first thing you do is start saying how great you are. He’s a psychotherapist’s dream. But I suppose if he doesn’t say it, no-one else will, no-one who isn’t a pal of his anyway.

All the same, people who have worked with him on the radio attest to his good humour and even self-deprecation, as hard as that may be for some to believe of a man who described Nigel Farage as “a forthright, forward-speaking, intelligent man”. Imagine thinking that. Imagine saying it on national television.

The fact is, he did a very good job at Bolton for at least four seasons. And I really enjoyed their long-ball football because I like long-ball football. But to pretend it was not long-ball football and instead some sort of sophisticated art-form instead because you signed Jay Jay Okocha is total nonsense. This was a game that revolved around Kevin Davies’ substantial concrete buttocks which were deployed as a tactical nuclear weapon. And it was fun to see his teams bully Arsenal. But again, it absolutely was aggressive, physical and direct football and this constant attempt to recast it as something else is completely disingenuous. He’d be better off glorying in its true nature than pretending he’s the reincarnation of Rinus Michels and Bolton were playing Total Football. There’s nothing wrong with getting it long quickly, nor getting it wide and crossing it into the box for the big buttocked bugger to nod it in. Football doesn’t have to be a hybrid of ballet and mathematics. Embrace it.

Similarly those claiming he is a sports science-based progressive have largely failed to provide substantial evidence of this over and above that which is typical for any manager. It seems based around the idea that he was an early adopter of ProZone and used to put Kev Nolan on a vibrating plate. It has to be said, some of the press people pushing this idea are the same ones who said David Moyes had a ‘high tech bunker’ at Old Trafford, inside of which was actually just an office containing a white board and laptop.

He is what used to be called ‘a man’s man’ until being a man’s man became a bit of a red flag for toxic masculinity. Of course, this is also why some people love him. As they see it, he’s a Proper Football Man who knows ‘who to give a cuddle and who to give a kick up the backside’, as the cliche still has it. And that is equally why he provokes hostility. Stories of pre-season fried egg-eating contests at Preston and other classic PFM behaviour also divide opinion.

The Alpha Male, perhaps especially in football, is probably a declining force, but you still see them, like when Sean Dyche was joshing with John Terry before the Everton game at the weekend. There’s always this sort of amused passive-aggressive self-satisfaction about them but which also seems very close to ‘can’t you take a joke, mate?’ and a push in the solar plexus. Allardyce fits into that world perfectly. In fact he’s the silverback of the group that is most likely to say ‘you can’t say anything these days’. His admiration of Farage is a stink that is hard to wash off, at least for 48% of the population.

For as long as I’ve been writing for F365 – which is 23 years – there have been all sorts of financial allegations made of Allardyce, some, all or none of which may have been true, despite the corruption allegation by Panorama in 2006. But it seems likely that the Daily Telegraph knew of them and his entrapment as England manager only happened because they suspected he would eat it up. And while absolutely no laws were broken, the sight of an England manager exploiting his knowledge on how to get around things such as third party ownership, in return for a potential £400,000, while drinking a pint of wine, well, let’s just say it was a bad look.

Sam Allardyce

It only justified what his critics had always said about him and added another reason to find him objectionable. Most thought it was rather funny but as no laws were broken, it only fed his supporters’ grievances and while he admitted an error of judgement, it was very much an ‘if anything I’m too nice’ error. “Entrapment has won on this occasion and I have to accept that.” So, sorry, not sorry, then.

In Big Sam World, he’s as good as the best, it’s just that he’s never been given the chance to prove it at a big club because he’s not a foreign and thus not sexy, because to be foreign is to be sexy in the Big Sam universe. And although Pep Guardiola has been very nice about him, absolutely no-one could claim Allardyce has changed the way football is played, which is definitely what the Spaniard has done. Allardyce’s great achievement was finishing sixth by knocking it into the channels.

It’s easy to say how good you’d be at something in the full knowledge you’ll never have to prove it. But it is something else entirely to massage all this disinformation, the delusions and grievances into a persecution complex where English managers are discriminated against and have all but been outlawed in their own land, which is the essence of what our man said in an especially hang-dog ‘poor-me’ interview on BeIn with the Toxic Twins. You could think it had the whiff of xenophobia or worse about it.

Even in his press conference on joining Leeds he was on the defensive from the start and couldn’t resist telling everyone how good he is, to such an extent that it felt more like some sort of psychotherapy session designed to boost his own flagging self-worth. It was as though he’d been asked ‘why are you here when you’re so sh*t?’ when, of course, he hadn’t. It actually seemed quite bonkers.

He seems to be forever trying to portray himself as a thoroughly modern, school of science, progressive manager, while at the same time upholding the values of the leg squeezer geezer Proper Football Man, up to and including supporting right-wing bigots and all the values that come with that. Those two positions are obviously not compatible. And one of them isn’t true.


Three great moments
A moustachioed Excocet missile:

Classic Proper Football Man behaviour:

His dance moves do look like he’s on the touchline shouting ‘knock it long for Kev’:


Future days?
Roy Hodgson has shown the way for the older manager. Come in for a few games late in the season, turn a club around, then depart with full pockets and a superior look. Rinse and repeat. If Sam succeeds at Leeds, this is his future. If they go down, it’s more time in the Spanish villa or more time talking sh*te to the Toxic Twins.

He’s always been a bit of a comedy figure, or maybe a caricature, albeit one which sounds like he’s eating a thick soup when he’s talking. He seems to play up to this, which is why me and Alan Tyers once wrote a series about him and Peter Reid on F365 about 15 years ago, having drink-fuelled adventures, ending up in the ventilation shaft of the Bangkok hotel, drinking wine made from fermented foetuses of mice and on Strictly, naked except for a beer barrel strapped around him, with Reidy dressed as a circus monkey on roller skates. Glory days.

But however you feel about Allardyce, he is box office. Football needs its characters, whether they are angels or devils – they are important drivers of the ongoing soap opera. Many will be hoping that he comes good one more time and saves Leeds from the drop; many will be hoping he makes a total fool of himself in what we must now call, Frank Lampard-style.

Henry Winter must surely at some point have called him footballs’ Red Adair, but I’m not sure it’s much of a reputation to have, if only because the height of its ambition is to finish 17th. But it’s got him another gig and somewhere between half a million and two million quid. Not that he needs the money.

Whatever happens, it isn’t likely to shift the dial for anyone. No-one who already thinks he’s a chippy anachronism – an analogue man in a digital world – is likely to change their mind.

Throughout writing this I have kept spelling Allardyce as Allardyche. I know why. Dyche is the inheritor of the ‘why’s he’s never in the discussion for a big job’ crown from a partisan English football media who are too often keen to arse lick English managers, for obvious reasons. They told us Dyche was more than a long-ball merchant and we’d see how good he was when given better players at Everton, just like they always said about Allardyce. If they and their client media quit being so defensive about their reputation and embraced the truth, rather than trying to paint an alternative picture to the one which we can clearly see with our own eyes, it would be to both their advantages.

The irony is that Big Sam absolutely was a decent manager for a while. A certain sort of player clearly responded to him. Whether the modern player still will is open to question. Perhaps those who like eating fried eggs are rubbing their hands in glee. Maybe they’re looking forward to having a go on the vibrating plate.

If he can organise a chaotic Leeds United and stop them conceding so many goals, he will deserve praise. Had he not spent much of the last 15 years telling everyone how f**king wonderful he really is, and if he wasn’t football’s Brexit Britain, he would be more widely appreciated than he is. Leeds won’t care as long as they stay up, and as long as he doesn’t stay on. If he does, expect them to be booing him out of the club by October, disgusted by the football their great club is now playing.

All of that being said, he will give everyone a lot of content over the next month and that’s the important thing.