The perception problem: Why Sam Allardyce doesn't get the credit he deserves
Sam Allardyce's uncultured persona has long put a glass ceiling on his ambitions.
In 2012, he said: “I won’t ever be going to a top-four club because I’m not called Allardicii, just Allardyce.” It was a tongue-in-cheek remark, but the Italian alias has doubled up as a facetious antidote to his abiding frustrations. By 2013, the sign on his office door read: ‘Ufficio Del Direttore (Manager’s Office); Signor Sam Allardicii.’
The unflattering portrayal of Allardyce as a long-ball merchant is so entrenched into the public consciousness that any discussion about what it represents has become redundant. Interviewers rarely approach him without a question about direct tactics. (And how it must sicken him.) By now, a more pertinent issue is the extent to which it hinders his career, and its power to shape our perception of his teams.
Do not underestimate it. Especially as the situation at West Ham edges closer towards absurdity. Since Allardyce took charge in 2011, the club has won promotion to the Premier League and finished 10th on two occasions. They now sit eighth. The supporters have become so unhappy with Allardyce that reports suggest his contract will not be renewed this summer.
Dump Jose Mourinho down to the Championship and see him achieve the same results, and his ingenious reputation would be reinforced. But Allardyce is disliked, even loathed. Emotions run deep when the relationship between managerial success and popularity can be so disproportionate.
The matter is partly personal. When West Ham lost 4-0 at West Bromwich Albion in the FA Cup two weeks ago, Allardyce was asked to apologise to fans. He refused, and it went down badly. In the press, one column said he was not engaging emotionally with the supporters. “Sam is only interested in doing the job,” it accused. Below, in the comments section, the top-rated remark read: “Praying for the day he does leave. Hideous man, hideous manager.”
The other part centres on that ‘unattractive’ style, which Allardyce sees as pragmatic, varied and discredited. He believes the hoof-ball cliché was attached to him at Bolton, the club he took charge of in 1999, led to the Premier League in 2001, and subsequently guided to 16th, 17th, 8th, 6th, 8th, 7th. Top-four candidates were often beaten; or, as Allardyce might put it, ‘out-tacticked’. “It was the other managers, they were embarrassed,” he says. “We were walking in someone else’s garden and they didn’t want us there.”
Never mind that West Ham are on course to achieve a positive goal difference in the top flight for the first time in years. Forget those home wins against Liverpool and Manchester City. Ignore the fact that, in the Premier League this season, only five teams have scored more goals than the Hammers.
For this is about perception. While Allardyce’s teams can displease the eye, that alone cannot bridge the current gap between performance and popularity. The problem for Allardyce is that he has become a personification of the barbaric punt on a muddy Sunday league turf. Adjectives such as ‘unfashionable’, ‘archaic’ and ‘backwards’ apply to everything he does, says and is. His style of play and personality are inseparable.
Without doubt, his persona provokes the opprobrium of his footballing style. His past as a centre-back, the ‘Big Sam’ sobriquet. More charismatic managers can go direct and survive, because their off-pitch image compensates for controversial tactics. Not him.
Allardyce knows it. “It's all a load of bull, isn't it?" he says. "I can't help bull. I think that it's all about the perception and the reputation of Sam Allardyce, not the West Ham players and how they play. It's all perceived to be like this and nothing else. It is a load of rubbish, and I can't help that.”
He does not always help himself. In January, he remarked: “All this tippy-tappy stuff everybody keeps going on about as the right way to play football is all a load of b******s sometimes.” He was immediately ridiculed as a simplistic tactician, as if the principle of possession football had been seared into some public moral charter as the way the game should be played. (And perhaps, in effect, it has.)
His graceless boasts project his sense of injustice. In 2010, he said: “I'm not suited to Bolton or Blackburn, I would be more suited to Internazionale or Real Madrid. It wouldn't be a problem to me to go and manage those clubs because I would win the double or the league every time.”
The context then was the England job, which he so craves, and for which the FA hired Fabio Capello. Even now, despite him being the best-performing English manager around, any mention of Signor Allardicii as a candidate to the national post is engulfed by taboo. Anachronistic football? Heavens, England invented the game. For the FA – an organisation already viewed as too conservative – the PR would be unbearable.
But ask Allardyce, and he would protest that he is as modern as anyone. This month, he said: “I don't think there is any coach more sophisticated than me any more.” And if his success were achievable by rudimentary management, would not more managers follow his recipe?
Also recently, Phil Brown, his old assistant, called him “a statistical genius. I think he's as good as Arsène Wenger, if not better”. It attracted predictable derision, but Brown knew that, behind the curtains, Allardyce operates a refined formula.
Detailed analytical tools, dietary plans, psychological profiling. The difference is that none of it is visible. “It’s always about the way you look,” Allardyce says. “And you can’t help that, can you?”
Thore Haugstad - @Haugstad1006