It was towards the business end of the season a couple of years ago that Sam Allardyce found himself not in the heat of another survival scrap but under a different kind of spotlight on a daytime television show.
He was quickly in his stride, bemoaning Brexit bickering and declaring himself done with “flip-flopping” politicians. It was his way, he would later admit, of releasing “pent-up energy” as he found himself looking in on the game that had gripped him from his schoolboy days in the West Midlands Regional League.
There were repeat invitations to chew over current affairs but it took him only hours to accept when West Brom came calling in December, seeking a seasoned firefighter to douse the flames, even though the damage would be done and the scorch marks too tough to shift.
In an exclusive interview with Sky Sports, Allardyce is picking through the emotional debris of his first relegation from the top flight, contemplating the magnetic pull of management and mulling how the game at the top level is changing.
“I thought I would be over it, two years in, but when West Brom came…
“As much as I tried to leave it alone, as long as I tried to leave it – I’ve never spent as long away from the game as I did before coming back to West Brom – the draw was far too much.
“Why you want to get back in, that’s the addiction.”
Five days have passed since West Brom’s relegation was confirmed with defeat at Arsenal, but the sense of shock hangs heavy at the start of a press conference before we speak.
He has “never felt anything like this” for he doesn’t know how long. He “can’t get his head around it,” he says plainly. There have been sleepless nights, games called suddenly to his mind – so many nearlys – and thoughts of the canteen staff as well as players and supporters.
Questions about his future come thick and fast, given a break clause in the 18-month contract he signed to replace Slaven Bilic able can be activated by either party.
Is he driven to repeat his promotion tricks at Bolton and West Ham and bring the Baggies back up at the first time of asking? Is he in agreement with chief executive ‘Ken’ Xu Ke and sporting director Luke Dowling about how to do it? A decade on from his last taste of the Championship, does a cold wet night in – well, yes – Stoke still appeal?
Allardyce will only confirm that a decision will be made before the curtain falls on the campaign against Leeds and yet he is thinking about the enduring drug of the dugout.
“I know the stresses and the strains of management,” he says. “I’m prepared to put up with it.
“I’m prepared to put up with everything it brings you because I’m prepared to feel the good side; the turnaround, working with footballers to try and get them to play better but to also understand what’s needed at this level, whatever position or unit they play in.
“To have that responsibility for how it comes together as a team is is one I love taking.”
He has overseen more than 1,000 games as a manager and taken the helm at eight different Premier League clubs either side of that ill-fated brush with England, staving off relegation at Blackburn, Crystal Palace and Sunderland, before falling just short at the club where he started his coaching career more than 30 years ago.
The label of escape expert sticks more comfortably these days but the challenge of crisis management still appeals.
“It’s a place I’ve always wanted to be, the Premier League. The only other attraction I think would have been an international post, which didn’t materialise.
“Getting back in the Premier League would always be a priority for me; to try and help somebody the way I’ve helped many clubs at that stage of the season before.
“When you build a track record, sometimes you consider yourself much more than that but that’s the way it is; if that’s who people think you are or that’s the kind of job people think you can do, you try and do it to the best of your ability.
“When you’ve succeeded before, you try and do all those things again, as I did here. We turned the corner but not well enough.”
Allardyce took over a West Brom team with only seven points from 13 games in mid-December. The picture was gloomier than that of his previous missions but the story was one of only slow-burn improvement amid the challenges of the congested schedule.
His players slowly became fitter and more resilient – since losing their first four home games under Allardyce by an aggregate score of 17-0, they have lost only one of their last seven – but for some vibrant performances, the sort that suggested Big Sam was at it again, the frustration was a failure to capitalise on big moments.
“Our goalscoring let us down ultimately – we couldn’t turn draws into wins. We’ve missed the fans, too. Good or bad, boos or cheers, it’s not been the same.
“I think that may have been the difference in terms of giving the players that boost, that edge to be more clinical… Everton, Fulham, Newcastle… I’m not saying they would necessarily have made enough of a difference for us to stay up but certainly for us to stay in the race.”
Allardyce wanted to simplify the message for his players when he arrived at West Brom but he has another message to deliver to coaches trying to find their way.
The game, he says, risks succumbing to homogeny.
He has never shied from his own convictions, from promoting the best of British, from extolling the virtues of results over ideals.
Allardyce the pragmatist is suddenly speaking animatedly.
Everyone wants to play the same way… As a manager at 66, I really am glad I’m not in my 30s, with people telling me what I should do and how I should play. It’s detrimental to the world of football. The best league in the world should have different systems, different ways of playing.
“What’s the point of playing out from the back against Man City and Liverpool, the best high-pressing team in this country. If they drop off, you play out from the back. Where’s the space? Exploit the space. I tried to get the players to think about that.
“It’s a simple game that’s been complicated far too much by too many people.
“Has the Premier League got tougher tactically? No. The big change is that everyone wants to play the same way. Everyone’s been brainwashed into, ‘You must play this way, you must…
“As a manager at 66, I really am glad I’m not in my 30s, with people telling me what I should do and how I should play. It’s detrimental to the world of football. It’ll become boring. The best league in the world should have different systems, different ways of playing.
“To press every young manager into the same way hinders the development of coaches for me; they’ll end up trying to do something because of the pressure and they’ll end up losing their job and they will be perfectly good coaches who might not get another chance in football to manage.
I’m always going to promote British coaches; call me biased but I like to stick up for them all the way. Brendan Rodgers – it’s top the way he’s developed, what he did at Liverpool, what he’s done at Celtic and Leicester. And I look at someone like Karl Robinson, who’s done a terrific job getting Oxford in the play-offs while having to balance the books. Will he do enough to get noticed and move up? That’s another matter.
“We must let young coaches express themselves with the team and players they have and their capabilities. If they’ve got the capabilities to play out from the back all the time, great. If they haven’t, they will keep giving the ball away and the opposition will keep scoring. You have to find another way sometimes and if you don’t, you lose your job.”
He helped shaped the English game’s relationship with data and sports science while at Bolton but his assessment of the modern game’s insatiable appetite for analytics is just as grounded in realism.
“Evolving in terms of statistics and data and algorithms is important but it’s not the be-all and end-all that many clubs seem to be starting to think it is.
“I predicted algorithms would play a major part in football but not how big a part they’d play in our lives: ‘Good morning! Can I help you?’ But you can’t just listen to an algorithm. You must have people with eyes who have experienced the game making the ultimate judgements, particularly on recruitment.
“How you use the data is key. I take the data that’s relevant to me and make sure it gets driven in the right way by my coaches, the physios, the sports scientists, the strength and conditioning team, the nutritionist to improve the individual.
“The physical data, first and foremost, goes along with what position they play, because we have other people’s data too. What does the best Premier League full-back look like? What do ours look like and how much can we improve them? For us it’s difficult to have a top player in one position but collectively, if we all improve slightly, then as a team we can upset and disrupt teams with better players.”
It was about finding out whether he could cope with this level of football but he has the confidence and self-belief that he can. Credit to him for taking up the challenge and delivering. He’s tried his best to keep the club up.
The futures of his own star performers – players like Matheus Pereira and Sam Johnstone – will become clearer, like their manager’s, with time. Allardyce insists there will be no “cherry-picking,” that the club will get value should they sanction any sales – Pereira has three years of his current deal to run – but he gives a stark assessment about the chances of keeping loanees Okay Yokuslu and Mbaye Diagne: “We couldn’t afford them”.
The Baggies have bounced back within two seasons after each of their previous four relegations but Allardyce knows the conditions must be fertile, from the economics to the psychology.
“Those who cope with it the best financially have the best chance of bouncing back. Obviously, some financial restrictions have to be applied, there’s no doubt about that, but it depends how quickly the players who are here next year get over their disappointment – and what new faces come in to lift the group going forwards.”
Allardyce hopes fresh impetus can also come from within. The club’s teenagers reached the FA Youth Cup semi-finals, while Rayhaan Tulloch and Rico Richards are two promising youngsters who have been tied down on long-term deals. Despite a difficult recent restructure, there is optimism.
“I’d say to the youngsters there’s not a better time for you to go and prove you’re able to break into the first team,” Allardyce says.
“I hope that’s the case. The sad thing for me is because of [coronavirus] bubbles, it’s not allowed us to see them on a regular basis training with the first team. Maybe one or two of them would have played in the first team with me. You can watch them, yes, but it’s not the same as watching them with your first-team players, seeing whether they can cope.
“We didn’t want to drop down a division but the academy players have a better opportunity to put themselves in the picture. Finding a couple of players good enough to play on a regular basis could make a massive difference to the club going for promotion.”
Allardyce could go on, about the sleepless nights and the so-nearlys, about the club’s prospects and even politics: “I’ve still got plenty to say…”
But there are preparations for Liverpool – he has thwarted Jurgen Klopp in each of their last five meetings – and he wants his team to finish “as strongly as they can, with pride in our performances”.
Then it will be time to talk again but whatever the future holds, Sam Allardyce shows no sign of kicking his footballing habit just yet.
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