Sam Allardyce is an easy man to mock, an easy man to criticise and an easy man to begrudgingly admire, but he is far from an easy man to pity. And yet when he spoke of his desperation to simply enjoy life after almost 50 years in football and over 20 years in management, it was impossible not to feel just a little sympathy. He sounds tired; he sounds drained; he sounds like he needs a good night’s sleep without dreams of Kevin Nolan and how to circumvent zonal marking with an indirect free-kick. At 62, Allardyce’s long race might be run.
His resignation from Crystal Palace leaves English football with just five managers over the age of 60 – Harry Redknapp (70), Neil Warnock (68), Arsene Wenger (67), Graham Barrow (62) and Gary Johnson (61). It’s telling that the first pair in that list have both had significant breaks from the game and hold reputations as firefighters, Barrow is a caretaker manager and Johnson’s last four appointments have all come post-Christmas when desperate clubs are seeking a short-term solution. Wenger is the odd man out as one of the last old men standing.
It is Wenger’s relegation from the top table that has created a top four managed only by men in their 40s for the first time this century, but it has been aided by the underachievement of Jose Mourinho, who has adopted – even in middle age – the air of the grumpiest of grumpy old men. The 40-year-old who arrived at Chelsea with a twinkle in his eyes and a bounce in his step is now a 54-year-old curmudgeon. That’s what football management can do to a man.
“I will not be on the bench until I am 60 or 65 years old. I feel the process of my goodbye has already started,” said Pep Guardiola in January, speaking like a 45-year-old man who has looked in the mirror and realised that he already looks ten years older. Bald head, grey beard, sunken eyes and a tiredness that has already long forgotten that glorious sabbatical year when he left Barcelona with one wish – to be ‘left in peace’.
“I’m not going to train at 60 because I want to do something else in my life,” said Guardiola when asked to clarify comments that had hinted at imminent retirement and caused a level of hysteria that revealed a very British disdain for anything approaching idleness. “I started playing football young and my career was on the pitch. I want to do something else in my life.”
The clearly jaded Guardiola has only been in management for a decade, so imagine how tired Allardyce must feel after over 20 years. “I simply want to be able to enjoy all the things you cannot really enjoy with the 24/7 demands of managing any football club, let alone one in the Premier League,” says Allardyce, who has finally accepted that football management – a career that drains the mind almost as quickly as playing football drains the body – is a younger man’s game; it requires the kind of sustained energy that is rare in a sexagenarian.
This season alone we have seen Francesco Guidolin (61) sacked amidst rumours that he would leave training to others so he could watch cycling and Claudio Ranieri (65) sacked after senior players reportedly found his behaviour to be increasingly erratic. Ignoring the anomaly that is Wenger, the next oldest Premier League manager is now Tony Pulis (59), a man far better suited to the role of firefighter than project manager, as evidenced by the alarming way his teams’ form drops off at the end of the season.
(Take a minute now to be astonished that promoted Premier League manager Chris Hughton (58) is two months older than Mick McCarthy; that’s what happens when you don’t become a full-time manager until you are in your 50s.)
There are still those who refer to sacked Crystal Palace manager Alan Pardew as a “young British manager” but the reality is that, at 55, he is in danger of being filed under ‘past it’. Alan Curbishley – Pardew’s successor at West Ham – was eased into that box at 50 because he had the tired air of an older man. We live in an era when having a date of birth in the early 1960s is as poisonous to job applications in football management as any other profession, and having being born in the early 1950s makes you qualified for nothing more than a rest.
Sleep late, get a dog, play with the grandchildren, drink a pint of wine, enjoy yourself, Sam. Leave the coaching plans, the press conferences, the board meetings, the phone calls, the counselling sessions, the scouting trips and the community projects to men like Eddie Howe and Marco Silva, who were still at school when you were starting your managerial career. They will soon grow tired and seek the same peace.