Through Gritted Teeth #29: Sam Allardyce

by Chris Mann

The most wonderful thing about human emotion is its dizzying complexity. It is, of course, completely possible for us to harbour two apparently oppositional feelings towards one individual; to love and to hate in the very same instant. We are able to cultivate dislike towards an object/individual/institution without being restricted from expressing a simultaneous respect for it, our minds apparently happy to host confusing dichotomies of feeling, entanglements of polarised passions.

I mention this only because one man, Sam Allardyce, has over the years induced in me an emotional conflict of gargantuan proportions. I am not a violent man and yet I will myself to cause him physical pain; I am not a sentimental man and yet I long to praise him to the heavens. In short, Mr Allardyce has caused me more than my fair share of emotional tumult. I am at my wit’s end.

I vividly remember first taking against Allardyce the day before my thirteenth birthday. It would be the start of a prolonged enmity between us. As an enthusiastic young Southampton fan, my Dad had agreed to take me to St Mary’s for the visit of Bolton Wanderers on a cold February afternoon. Granted, it was hardly a glamour tie, but The Saints were enjoying a relatively successful season (they would eventually finish eleventh) and The Trotters boasted a handful of big stars such as Youri Djorkaeff and Michael Ricketts (yes, he was once a big star).

Sure, it wasn’t going to be a display of the finest football it was possible to see, but a decent contest was anticipated by the 31,000 inside the ground that afternoon. I remember the feelings of excitement that welled up inside me as I took my seat in the Northam Stand, babbling away animatedly as I thumbed through my match programme. One thing was for certain, this was going to be a great day.

The next ninety minutes transformed my boyish enthusiasm into cold-blooded cynicism as the two teams ground out the least inspiring 0-0 draw there has ever been. Long ball after long ball, fluffed chance after fluffed chance, heavy tackle after heavy tackle; it was enough to crush a man’s spirit. Southampton, at least as I remember it, had tried to play football but been stopped by Allardyce’s team of clodding Neanderthals. I would never completely forgive him for ruining my birthday treat. Things had got personal. Shit just got real.

Months passed, seasons changed, and Allardyce’s reputation as a purveyor of “anti-football” hardened. Bolton – the odd flair player aside – became known as the Premier League’s most physical and direct team, a club which achieved a degree of success despite flatly refusing to get the ball down and play. As something of a footballing aesthete I found Allardyce’s style particularly difficult to stomach, I began to view him as a scourge on English football, a manager determined to drag the game back to its primitive roots and sucking the joy from the spectacle as he went.

When ‘Big Sam’ quit his post at Bolton I was openly pleased that he was out of the game, laughing off his claims that he had left The Reebok to win silverware. It seemed like a new era of passing football could begin, The Trotters now able to explore their full potential and become the Brazil 1970 of the North West; I was sure of it. But then, no sooner had he left Bolton, he turned up at Newcastle United. Believe you me, I was livid.

I interpreted Newcastle’s relatively poor performances under Allardyce as some sort of universal justice for his stylistic approach to the game, but again found myself riled when he was appointed by Blackburn Rovers in the December of 2008. Predictably, Blackburn’s approach to the game – which had been attractive at times under Mark Hughes (if not Paul Ince) – descended into the realm of the direct and physical, ‘percentages’ replacing any sense of freedom or expressionism.

As much as I loathed Allardyce’s Blackburn and revelled in his dismissal back in December, by February I had come to a greater admiration and respect of his managerial abilities. As Blackburn slid deeper and deeper into the thick of the relegation battle under Steve Kean, it became clear that Big Sam had been maximising Blackburn’s potential, at least in the sense of cold, hard results. His teams may be medusa-like to gaze upon, but Allardyce’s ability to get teams to punch above their weight in the Premier League cannot be denied.

The thing is, no matter how primitive his tactical mind-set may be, no matter how direct his football, Allardyce gets the very best out of his players more often than not. I can’t abide his footballing ‘philosophy’, but, through the most gritted of teeth, I can admire his managerial achievements.

Big Sam, I salute you (sort of).


Chris is the hand on the tiller of the good ship The Equaliser, as well as co-editing Paragraph Lost, which is about books and things. You can find him on Twitter here: @equaliserblog. (And you can find somebody who definitely isn’t Sam Allardyce here: @TheBig_Sam.)

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