On Saturday I went to the West Ham vs Manchester City game. As you’re no doubt aware, the home side ran rings around the champions for an hour and deservedly took the three points after surviving a late City onslaught. It was a good, hard-fought match and it told us a lot about both sides.
Like most neutrals, I spent most of the game looking at City and wondering how Sheikh Mansour could possibly have spent so many hundreds of millions of pounds and ended up with only three super-talented players. A couple of days after the event, however, I’m thinking only about West Ham and Sam Allardyce and the latter’s seemingly inevitable ascent to the England job in 2016. It may seem improbable but the wheels are already in motion and if all goes to plan then there’s little anyone can do to stop it.
The most important factor in Allardyce’s favour is that the tabloid press has it in for Roy Hodgson. It’s always going to be hard to win the hearts of the hacks that spend their working lives filling the red tops with hateful half-truths when you’re a courteous, avuncular and slightly odd-looking middle-aged journeyman. It’s next to impossible when you’re all of those things and also a hate figure for the one of the two Premier League clubs which drives most traffic to all major football news sites.
It doesn’t matter that Hodgson is in the process of helping a talented new generation into international football, that he’s got them playing attractive, incisive and possession-heavy football and that he’s won every Euro 2016 qualifier so far. It doesn’t matter that the only reasons England went out of the 2014 World Cup at the first hurdle are that they got stuck in by far the hardest group and that Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge forgot to pack their shooting boots.
What matters is that Hodgson looks a bit funny, gives journalists unexciting, modest quotes and did a bad job at Liverpool once. Short of winning Euro 2016 – spoiler: England don’t win Euro 2016 – there’s nothing Hodgson can do to save himself.
Allardyce knows that he has two years to build his case to be the next England manager. His name has been in the mix for about a decade now – since the latter days of Sven-Göran Eriksson’s tenure, at least – and the biggest objection to him getting the job has always been the style of football he favours, it being obvious that it only works if you’re an underdog looking to punch above your weight.
Like Hodgson, Allardyce failed at the only big English club he’d ever been trusted to work at because he managed them as though they were the minnows he’d just left behind. Overly wedded to a style of training that improved less-talented players basically by taking all on-pitch agency away from them, he reduced good, creative players to predictably programmed robots and a team that should have been proactive, inventive and potent to one that was exactly the opposite.
The difference between Allardyce and Hodgson is that while everyone remembers that Big Sam did a bad job at Newcastle, the fact remains that no major national newspaper, magazine or website attempts to curry favour on a daily basis by consciously pandering to Newcastle fans. Few journalists outside the North East will view Allardyce’s England reign through the red mist that inevitably colours most coverage of Hodgson.
It’s true that Allardyce became and remains seen as a firefighter – the guy your club hires if its low-budget squad lands itself in a relegation scrap and leaves the fans relishing the distant prospect of perpetual mid-table security. The job he did at Blackburn did little to change that perception and, until now, it’s been the same story at West Ham.
Indeed, the main reason Big Sam’s England candidacy seems so outlandish is that for most of the summer he was on the brink of being sacked by the Hammers. Most Irons fans have always vocally opposed his trademark route-one hoofball and the results that would in Allardyce’s mind have justified the means rarely arrived, which inevitably put him at loggerheads with Davids Gold and Sullivan.
He survived for two reasons. Firstly because although West Ham were unspeakably awful on a regular basis last season, injuries to their strikers and the disappointing form of big money signings like Matt Jarvis and Stewart Downing meant that having a good season was nigh-on impossible. This year, all of his signings have hit the ground running.
The second reason is that Gold and Sullivan, showing the kind of restraint that we don’t often see from owners, kept in mind that despite everything that had gone wrong, Allardyce is still a talented manager. He has a good eye for talent, understands how football works and leaves no stone unturned when trying to improve his side. The chairmen told Allardyce his job was safe on the proviso that the style of play became more attractive.
To Allardyce’s credit, he listened and accepted their criticism as constructive. They weren’t asking him to change any more than they were challenging him to improve. To play more expansively would be mutually beneficial: not only could he improve West Ham’s fortunes, if he was successful with a new style then he could rehabilitate his image as a tactical dinosaur, thereby giving him a good chance of getting the dream job he must surely have given up on.
Watching West Ham on Saturday, it was hard to believe that they were coached by the same man who had failed so miserably at Newcastle, let alone one who declared that “pretty football has never won anything” while Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona were hoovering up trophies with play that was as elegant as it was effective, and while the same core of players were European champions and newly crowned World Cup winners with Spain.
The Hammers were everything the Allardyce’s Newcastle should have been. Their diamond midfield was simultaneously fluid and structured, the attacking combinations were imaginative and productive and both of their goals were the result of intelligent passing moves and composed finishes. Most encouragingly, it wasn’t a surprise that they played so well: they have been excellent in all of their games since Allardyce switched to the diamond and Alex Song, Diafra Sakho and Enner Valencia came into the side. The importance of the new arrivals can’t be overstated.
On Sunday morning, the Allardyce For England bandwagon began moving as Fleet Street’s best and brightest (ahem) debated his suitability as a successor to Hodgson on Sky Sports’ Sunday Supplement. They were testing the water, putting the idea out there, seeing how the public responded. Judging from Twitter (ahem #2), the popular answer seems to be “he couldn’t be any worse than Roy”, which is exactly the kind of answer the Sunday Supplement chaps like: it shows that their organised campaign against Hodgson is doing the trick.
If a week is a long time in politics then two years is an eternity in football, but with Harry Redknapp’s stock falling further with every passing week, Gary Neville still wet behind the ears and every other English manager barely worthy of discussion, Big Sam must know that if he can keep this unexpected surge of momentum going on the pitch and rely on the media to beatify him off it – as they did Redknapp in the last days of the Fabio Capello era – then the job is his to lose.