West Ham: Smashing the ceiling Big Sam built

Date published: Saturday 27th February 2016 3:50

‘I do actually fear for West Ham,’ Richard Keys told us in an article titled ‘Be Careful What You Wish For…’

‘West Ham should be careful what they wish for with Sam Allardyce – better the devil you know,’ wrote Stan Collymore.

All the teams he’s left have plummeted afterwards. Look what happened to Blackburn, Bolton and Newcastle when Big Sam left. Be careful what you wish for, West Ham fans,” said Alan Shearer.

“Is it the right thing for West Ham? Are West Ham going to jump from where they are now to being a club that can challenge for the Champions League places? That’s not going to happen overnight. Sam knows his way around the Premier League. Tried and trusted. It’s one of those. Be careful what you wish for,” said Graeme Souness.

The message to West Ham fans was clear. Sam Allardyce guarantees safety, he ensures security. And you want to swap him for an untried, untested, unproven quantity? Slaven Bilic has never managed in the Premier League, you know?

‘Be careful what you wish for’ became the phrase which engulfed West Ham’s summer. After four years, the club had parted ways with Allardyce, and his relationship with the fans was seen as partially culpable. The manager had besmirched the beloved ‘West Ham way’, and a rift emerged as a result. It was time to move on.

Allardyce’s return to Upton Park exemplified the club’s progress since his departure. A 1-0 win over Sunderland puts the Hammers in fifth, having accrued their highest-ever Premier League points total after 27 games. It was a victory the man himself would have been proud of. The Hammers were uncharacteristically poor on Saturday, attempting fewer shots than their relegation-embattled opponents, and claiming a lower percentage of possession and total of passes in the second half. After taking a one-goal lead through Michail Antonio on the stroke of half-time, the hosts ground out a victory. Big Sam had been Allardyce’d.

Sunderland were 19th when they deployed the Big Sam safety net in October. Four months and nineteen games later, they have not moved. It was the fear of such stagnation which encouraged West Ham to instigate change in the summer. If only they had been careful what they wished for.

West Ham and Sam Allardyce was always a strange combination: a club which preaches the virtues of attractive football, and a pragmatic manager who values points over performances. The Hammers had suffered ignominious relegation to the Championship in 2010, and sought to employ a manager with the know-how to restore their top-flight status. Allardyce succeeded, and he preserved their place in the Premier League. For that he deserves credit. But that was never the problem.

The club is currently breaking through the glass ceiling; Allardyce is the man who constructed it. “I did everything they asked for and they wanted more, and I found that extremely ungrateful in terms of what I’d done for them,” said the then-unemployed manager in August last year. Allardyce infamously branded the fans “brainwashed” and “deluded” over the clear divide in opinion on playing style. On Saturday, attention turned to the reception the former boss would receive from the fans. Pundits demanded a degree of respect, expecting the controversial figure to be jeered out of east London upon his return. But there was no booing. There was no animosity. There was no ill feeling. Nothing.

Allardyce left nine months ago, but the West Ham on display on Saturday afternoon barely resembled the team he built. Just four of the starting XI were signed under his tutelage. Only two of the substitutes were Allardyce signings. Of the 18-man matchday squad, Allardyce bought six. His successor has constructed two thirds of a football team, a superior football team, in just eight months. In terms of net spend, Bilic’s outlay is just £3million more than in his predecessor’s final season.

The progress Bilic has overseen has been dramatic, but in terms of the Premier League table, it is not glaringly obvious. West Ham are now fifth, with just four points separating them from the Champions League places. At this stage last season, Allardyce had guided the club into eighth, with the gap to the top four eight points. But where the Hammers won just three of 18 games since the turn of the year last campaign, such a regression in form looks remarkably unlikely under Bilic. Indeed, they have now won more league games this calendar year than Allardyce managed in 2015.

But Allardyce provided a guarantee – albeit a very different guarantee – that Bilic could not. Wrote The Guardian’s Jacob Steinberg, a West Ham fan, last summer: ‘Bilic is the most obvious candidate. The Croat would be an exciting appointment and it is unlikely that life would ever be dull with him around. He could electrify Upton Park. Yet he has never managed in England or in one of Europe’s top leagues. He would be a risk.

‘Just do not be surprised if they are coughing and spluttering in the winter months and wondering if they were in good enough health to chuck Allardyce in the bin,’ concluded Steinberg. Less coughing and spluttering, more impressing and flourishing. After a marriage of convenience ended with a messy divorce, West Ham and Allardyce quickly found new partners. But the former are the ones who have found true love elsewhere.


Matt Stead

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