Happy Birthday Big Sam: Why Allardyce Is More Than Just A Survival Specialist

It is time for Big Sam to get his flowers
10:00, 19 Oct 2023

Survivor. Saviour. Sam. 

Sam Allardyce turns 69 today, a manager of which the above adjectives are true but for whom they pale in comparison to the most frequently cited: ‘Big’. Allardyce is big physically, standing 6’3 and looking like he’d take one look at your ID and say “Not tonight mate, not in those trainers”. His appetites are big, if the pint of wine he once famously sipped from during an ill-fated meeting with undercover Telegraph reporters was anything to by. But he is also a giant of the English game who has accomplished incredible things even against a backdrop of cynicism and the restrictive view of what “attractive football” looks like.

‘Big’ Sam’s teams will never win credit from the online aesthetes. In an era where every fan thinks they’re Marcelo Bielsa, where YouTube creators obsess over reverse-Christmas tree formations they’ve used on Football Manager that would never work in real life, Allardyce is an underrated figure. Seen as a tactical dinosaur in some quarters, the birthday boy actually pioneered some aspects of the modern English game

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Arsene Wenger came to Arsenal and replaced the club’s notorious drinking culture with a sophisticated approach to the nascent world of sports science. Jose Mourinho brought tactical periodisation into the Premier League lexicon. But Allardyce stands shoulder to shoulder with the pair for his own advancements. 

Sam’s time playing for the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the United States saw him share facilities with the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. A young Allardyce was amazed at the American Football side’s approach to analytics and sports science. Tailored trackers were being used to manage injuries and recovery while the scale of data was streets ahead of where football was at that point. Allardyce absorbed the lessons and brought them with him into his managerial career. ‘Big’ Sam never lost his fascination with American sports analytics, later meeting renowned ‘Moneyball’ innovator Billy Beane, the iconic baseball guru.

After spells at the likes of Blackpool and Notts County, Allardyce found a club that bought into his vision. Bolton Wanderers took our subject on in 1999 and saw the wisdom in his new-fangled methods. Prozone, a then-revolutionary piece of analytics software, was used to data-track players and potential signings. Numerous new staff came through the door as Allardyce built not just a football team but an entire operation at the Reebok Stadium. His methods worked as Bolton were promoted to the Premier League in 2001.

Allardyce gained a reputation for making unexpected signings that almost inevitably paid dividends. Bruno Ngotty was among the first, a France international who had won Serie A with AC Milan and also played for PSG and Marseille. Henrik Pedersen, a striker from Silkeborg in the Danish League. Signings no other Premier League club was looking at but that paid dividends.

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As the years wore on, Bolton made these transfers their stock in trade. Real Madrid’s Fernando Hierro and World Cup winning Frenchman Youri Djorkaeff would play for the club. As would nomadic enigma Nicolas Anelka, Nigerian wizard Jay-Jay Okocha and Spain international Ivan Campo. Some were discarded big name players who were seen as finished, but Allardyce’s data told him otherwise. Others were undervalued players who enjoyed their best years in a Bolton shirt. Allardyce knew things others didn’t and used it to steer Wanderers through a golden age. The pinnacle was reached when Bolton finished sixth and took part in the UEFA Cup the following year.

All good things must come to an end and Allardyce left with the two games remaining of the 2006/07 campaign after reports of a dispute with owner Phil Gartside. Bolton were fifth in the table at the time. 

Allardyce didn’t struggle for work and took the Newcastle United job. Fans were slow to warm to him, considering his style of football to be beneath them. He joined at a time of unrest, as Mike Ashley’s reign as owner began soon after he signed. Any initial promise after as solid start to the season faded when Newcastle endured a run of just five wins from 25 games. The fact they were the only Premier League team to lose to record-low points total record holders Derby County says it all. Allardyce was sacked and replaced with Kevin Keegan.

This was the point where Allardyce transitioned from Premier League revolutionary to football’s Winston Wolf. Like Harvey Keitel’s iconic Pulp Fiction character, Allardyce became the man you called when you got into a scrape. West Ham United made that particular call when they were relegated in 2011. ‘Big’ Sam got them back up at the first time of asking and kept them in the top flight. Finished of 10th, 13th and 12th kept them out of danger for the remainder of his reign. Allardyce left at the end of his contract, admitting he didn’t want to stay and the feeling was mutual among the Hammers’ board.

Allardyce would do a reclamation job at Sunderland, keeping them up after taking them over in 19th place. In doing so, he relegated Newcastle in the process, something both he and the Black Cats fanbase revelled in. The job he did earned him the appointment he cherished more than any: the England manager’s role. That would last one game, a win over Slovakia, before the Telegraph brought him down when he was exposed offering to help circumvent third-party ownership rules.

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‘Big’ Sam has continued in the Winston Wolf role ever since, even if the returns have begun to diminish. A mid-season appointment at Crystal Palace in 2016/17 led to a 14th-placed finish. At the end of that campaigned he retired from club football, though not for long. The following season he was parachuted in at Everton, taking the Toffees from 13th to 8th. But the old groans about his playing style persisted and he left in the post-season. What Everton wouldn’t give for another 8th-placed finish now…

That would be the last time Allardyce did a classic ‘Big Sam’ job at a struggling club. West Bromwich Albion were relegated under his management in 2020/21, when Sam joined in the December following the sacking of Slaven Bilic. It was the first time Allardyce had managed a team that was relegated from the top flight. He would add to that total last season, when Leeds United gave him just four games to try and save a desperate situation. 

But it is unfair to remember Sam simply as the desperation appointment at relegation-threatened clubs that he became. His spells at Bolton and West Ham show he was so much more. While his boasts that he would win the double every season at Real Madrid and Barcelona may have been a little wide of the mark, he was more than just a long-ball merchant toiling against the drop. Without his behind the scenes innovations, the very way we analyse football might look very different without him. Sam really is a survivor and a saviour, but he is also a trailblazer. Happy birthday ‘Big’ Sam, the pints of wine are on us.

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