FBH Throwback- Big Sam: Football dinosaur or misunderstood innovator?

sam allardyce

This article originally appeared in Football Bloody Hell in May 2022

‘The Club’ found themselves plummeting towards the bottom of the table. Tipped for mid-table mediocrity before the season began, they were now in real danger of the drop. Rumours had leaked that the manager had lost the dressing room. The chairman of ‘The Club’ had just released a statement of support for the manager, the final nail in the coffin. “Which club?” I hear you ask. It does not matter. It is irrelevant. Somewhere in the shadows, something, or somebody lets out a chuckle.

A week later, as ‘The Club’ inevitably drops points to a relegation rival, dropping down to 18th place in the Barclays, the manager is sacked. ‘The Club’ send out a call. From the deep, dark depths of unemployment, a large figure emerges, taking a greedy swig from his pint of wine. He steps through the puff of smoke, as though about to wow Matthew Kelly with a little crooner classic, before taking a seat at the press conference.

“’The Club’ are delighted to announce the appointment of Sam Allardyce as the new manager.”

Having carved out a reputation for himself as a ‘survival specialist’, Allardyce became THE go-to man for any poorly run club panicking that they had found themselves in a little bit of trouble. West Ham under the Dildo Brothers, Blackburn under the Venky’s, Newcastle under Mike Ashley. There is a bit of a common theme running through here, and since any side that have anything resembling a footballing philosophy are far too efficient to be rolling the ‘Big Sam’ dice, he hasn’t really been anything other than a stop-gap appointment, a footballing backup plan, which has meant that since leaving Bolton he has never really had a true footballing home.

Due to the reputation he now has for being something of a dinosaur, it might come as a surprise that Big Sam was once considered something of a footballing innovator. A footballing James Dyson, or Alexander Graham Bell. Fuck those American nerds in Silicon Valley, this was a true, proudly British, innovator. Saying that, it was, ironically, his time spent in The Land Of The Free™ playing 11 games in the North American Soccer League (NASL) for the Tampa Bay Rowdies in 1983 that his statistical way of analyzing the game took off, with the club sharing the facilities of NFL side Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Allardyce was amazed to discover just how far ahead of the English game they were in terms of preparation and conditioning, particularly the attention to detail for each individual player. Imagine his surprise, during an era where English players were still nailing a nice big full English brekky before training before stopping off for fish and chips on the way home, pulling up in the good ol’ US of A (famed for their healthy diets and lifestyle choices) and being greeted by a club nutritionist. Add to this the masseurs, the doctors, the psychiatrists, the statisticians, the analysts. It introduced Big Sam to just how far football had to go in order to catch up to other sports, and in turn when he became a manager, he glanced towards other sports for inspiration for innovation.

Allardyce’s favourite way to ensure he was getting his money’s worth from his resident nerds, was to use the statisticians and analysts that he had put in place to use the data they had available to them to see exactly what was required from the player playing in each position. Allardyce would then see which players at his disposal (or he could bring in) were best suited to playing there, even if it was not the role they had traditionally fulfilled.

Whilst the likes of Ricardo Gardner was dropped from left wing to left back, Spanish duo Hierro and Campo were shifted forward from the centre of defence into midfield and Henrik Pedersen was moved out onto the left wing from his favoured centre forward spot before dropping him even further back to left back. Allardyce’s most iconic positional shift, however, was him plucking a spotty young Scouse centre half from the youth team and playing him as a centre midfielder due to his ability to pick up second balls, something that would go on to become a key feature of Bolton’s style of play. Young Kevin Nolan excelled in his new role and would go on to play 345 games for the club, before linking back up with Allardyce at both Newcastle and West Ham.

After spending an initial nine years at Bolton as a player after rising through the ranks there, he then returned for a year in the mid-eighties before moving swiftly on again. A well respected, dominating centre half, Big Sam was something of a lower league journeyman. He was actually offered the vacant Millwall job when he was 28, which he declined as he felt he was too young to make the step into management. After spending a bit of time over the Irish Sea with Limerick, he built up his reputation at Blackpool and Notts County, before returning to Bolton as gaffer in 1999.

Inheriting a strong squad, particularly its Scandinavian spine of Eidur Gudjohnson, Jussi Jaaskelainen and Claus Jensen, Allardyce led them into the Division One Play-Offs during his first season, despite the Wanderers being in the bottom half when he took over, as well as the League and FA Cup semis. Not bad going for his first seven months. He then sold Gudjohnson and Jensen for a combined £8million and opted to pump this money into improving the facilities at the club and the backroom staff, deeming this more important than the playing personnel. The approach worked, and Big Sam took them up via the Play-Offs in his first full season in charge, beating Preston 3-0 in the final. He then secured their target of Premier League safety for The Trotters over the next two seasons, finishing 16th then 17th respectively. Despite the relatively lowly position, Big Sam’s boys began to earn themselves a reputation for mixing it with the big boys, and beat Man United twice, as well as Liverpool and Leeds during these first two years.

It was during the following season however, their third consecutive in the Prem, that Bolton really began to turn into the loveable (or hate-able, depending mostly on the team that you support) assortment of misfits and has-beens that really took it to the big boys. A side bordering on iconic, it really is the quintessential Big Sam side. Scandinavian bargains, a bit of British grit and determination, and some elderly flair acquired from the continent for one last shot at the big leagues before a final payday in the Middle East. A ragtag group of misfits lead Bolton Wanderers to an extremely solid 8th place finish in the 03/04 season, before really firing them into the big time by qualifying for Europe for the first time in their 131-year history, finishing level on points with Champions League-winning Liverpool in 04/05.

Having usually favoured a 4-4-2 up to this point, Allardyce adapted to a 4-5-1 formation during the 03-04 season, somewhat ironically packing a midfield that seemed to spend a lot of the time arching their necks watching the ball fly over their heads. There was, however, a method to the madness, as the knockdowns from their striker fell to the feet of the more skillful and wily attacking midfield players twenty yards further forward than if they were receiving the ball from the defence.

Having alternated between Michael Ricketts and Henrik Pedersen, and not being convinced that either were the answer, it was the signing of Kevin Davies, a once highly-rated striker whose career had stalled massively, that really took the club to the next level. This was the signing that meant that Allardyce-ball could truly be implemented, as Davies was perfect for battling for aerial balls pinging in his general direction, despite being just six foot. ‘Battling’ could not more accurately describe Big Kev either, frequently finishing as the player in the Premier League to be both the most fouled, and to give away the most fouls. This suited Allardyce down to the ground of course, with the actual football being demoted to a secondary aspect behind a series of set pieces.

Alongside Nolan, a number of more technically gifted players were tasked with producing moments of magic in the midfield once the ball had found their way to them, whether intentionally or not. The likes of Youri Djorkaeff, the first of the Greater Manchester Galacticos (as they were known by absolutely nobody) – the signing that really put Bolton on the map, the superbly named Stelios Giannakopoulos, Per Frandsen and El Hadji Diouf contributed, but there is no doubt that the main man was the charismatic Nigerian Jay-Jay (so good they named him twice) Okocha.

Buy this iconic Jay-Jay Okocha poster from the Football Bloody Hell shop
Buy this iconic Jay-Jay Okocha poster from the Football Bloody Hell shop

A key member of Nigeria’s AFCON winning side in 1994, and the more famous 1996 Olympic Games winning squad, Okocha had begun his career in the German third division after attending training with a friend whilst on holiday and asking if he could join in. Needless to say, the coaches at Borussia Neunkirchen had been suitably impressed, inviting him back the next day to offer him a contract. His career blossomed from there, especially once signing for Bundesliga side Eintracht Frankfurt. It was here that Jay-Jay really began to make a name for himself, scoring an incredible solo goal past the indomitable Oliver Kahn where he jinked past the keeper twice, threw in a little shimmy to shake off the defender that had rushed over to cover, before thumping it into the back of the net.

From then on, he was known as one of the most exciting midfielders in Europe, but despite a move to PSG always just teetered on the borderline of a move to a bigger club, with a few teams rumoured but ultimately decided against making the plunge. It was the French giants’ signing of Ronaldinho that opened the door for Okocha to leave the club, with the Parisians deciding after a solitary season together that the pair of them were too similar to play in the midfield together. Big Sam was the lucky beneficiary of this, and it was only a matter of time before Jay-Jay jinked and jived his way into the hearts of the people of Lancashire.

These flair players collecting Davies’ knockdowns were complimented by a sturdy defensive base, playing pragmatic football, with hard-working midfielders such as Gary Speed in front of an anchorman usually consisting of Hierro or Ivan Campo, although Allardyce was liable to switch the two back to centre half at a whim.

The centre back partnership was a little more unsettled, with it tending to be former Serie A and UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup winner Bruno N’Gotty, formally of AC Milan and PSG, plus one other. N’Gotty would go on to win Bolton’s player of the season that season and was usually complemented by a young, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed Tal Ben Haim or the first Tunisian to play in the Premier League, Radhi Jaidi. Behind them in goal, they had the ever-dependable Finn Jussi Jääskeläinen, the player with the most umlauts to ever play in the Premier League (possibly).

Whilst Sam would remain at the club for another couple of years, his strategy remained largely similar, signing the likes of Jared Borgetti and Hidetoshi Nakata, with little success, although he did strike gold by offering Nicolas Anelka an escape route from his spell in Turkey, when other managers may have turned their noses up at him due to his off-field issues. Allardyce was interviewed by England for the vacant post following the sacking of Sven in 2006, something which may have caused his already inflated ego to think he had grown too big for the Wanderers, and, combined with Gartside’s reluctance to issue him a more substantial transfer kitty for his push for Champions League football, may have inadvertently led to his resignation in April 2007.

Of course, the ever self-assured Allardyce thought he was the perfect candidate for the England job, for which he was overlooked in favour of Fabio Capello, who of course only had the eleven Serie A titles as a player and manager (or nine depending on how you view the whole Juventus scandal), two La Ligas and a Champions League in his resume – which pales in comparison to Allardyce’s, who of course won the Play-Offs with Bolton, the third division with Notts County and a League of Ireland title to his name. A travesty he was disregarded.

Modesty has always been one of Big Sam’s key attributes, famous for saying that he wasn’t suited to the likes of Bolton, but instead Inter Milan or Real Madrid, where he would “win the double or the league every time.” He would have done the same at Man United or Chelsea of course, the hard part was simply reaching the Champions League, once qualified, winning the whole thing was a piece of piss. And of course, who can forget his claim that the reason he was overlooked for bigger jobs was his lack of continental flair, rather than managerial ability, stating that he would walk into a top-four club had his name just been Allardici rather than Allardyce. Of course, once he did manage to get his hands on the job that he so desperately craved, there would be no way that he could fuck it up… Right?

After his endeavours at Bolton, which it could be argued do not get the recognition they deserve (despite me not recognizing his endeavours a paragraph or two ago), either side of his infamous stint at England, Big Sam gained himself the reputation as the short term survival specialist he is now famous for, with his four-year spell in charge of West Ham the only time he has lasted anywhere longer than two years since leaving Bolton. During this time he managed to stablise and keep up Everton, Palace, Blackburn, Newcastle and Sunderland. Eventually, at West Brom, Big Sam greeted his old rival relegation as an old friend and slipped down a division for the first time in his thirty-year managerial career.

Whilst his age, 67, may point to him only being a short-term solution, I’m sure the main man himself would argue that he still has it in him to complete a club rebuild in the ilk of the one he managed with the Trotters. After all, he is just a spring chicken in comparison to Roy Hodgson, who has been entrusted with the unenviable task of keeping Watford afloat. I’m sure Sam is itching for the opportunity, and just needs a short-sighted chairman to panic and give their manager a boot. Potentially a long-serving club legend with his side all but guaranteed to go down? Someone you might think has enough brownie points in the bag to be given the opportunity to bring them back up? If a club, *cough* Burnley *cough* was stupid enough to be in this situation, surely, they will take the opportunity to give Big Sam his final curtain call, giving him the chance to have one last laugh in the face of his doubters. And Chico Flores.