“As far as I'm concerned, the first thing you can do for me is to chuck all your medals and all your caps and all your pots and all your pans into the biggest f***ing dustbin you can find, because you've never won any of them fairly. You've done it all by bloody cheating.”
The alleged words of Brian Clough, delivered through the thespian vessel of Michael Sheen, in 2009’s fictionalised football biopic The Damned United. As Clough did in the film, and in real life, Sam Allardyce arrives at Leeds United as a man at odds with what the club represents. While this iteration of Leeds has very few pots or pans to speak of, what they did have until recently was an identity.
While Don Revie’s Leeds were snarling, uncompromising beasts of the football pitch, the modern era has been characterised by an almost self-injurious attacking style. “We’re gonna score one more than you” made flesh. Two managers, one with England ambitions and one with an all-too brief stint in that very chair, separated by decades, have walked through the gates of Elland Road. One was an aesthete in an era of pragmatism. The other a pragmatist brought in to steer the aesthetes to safety.
Were time not the ultimate adhesive of all things, you’d almost be tempted to swap them. To plant Allardyce in a dressing room with gifted but gilt-edged pros like Billy Bremner, Johnny Giles and Norman Hunter. Equally, imagine Clough breezing into a club purpose-built to serve the whirling dervish attack of Marcelo Bielsa? What alchemy would Old Big ‘Ead have wrought with the youthful malleability of Crysencio Summerville, Sam Greenwood and Georginio Rutter?
Sadly we’ll never know. Neither man was bequeathed the Leeds United they truly deserved. But the plight of one can inform and educate the other. Just as Clough was left to melt in the pressure-cooker heat of a Leeds that was his opposite, so too must Allardyce be careful.
‘Big Sam’ has been appointed because, on the surface, this looks like the sort of job he does. Your team is doomed, you’ve tried everything else so you break glass and pull the emergency lever. Allardyce comes in, shores up your defence, plays football that is hard to watch but harder to beat and keeps you up. Apart from a relegation with West Bromwich Albion in 2020/21, twas ever thus.
Sam Allardyce says there is no manager ahead of him in terms of football knowledge and experience.
Allardyce bristles at the assertion of course. The man who once claimed he’d win the double every season at Real Madrid were his name only “Allardici” sees himself as an elite coach. Speaking during his first press conference as Leeds manager, the ex-Bolton Wanderers boss said, "I might be 68 and look old and antiquated but there's nobody ahead of me in football terms. Not Pep, not Klopp, not Arteta.”
Be that as it may, there is no getting away from the fact this is an almighty task. It might be one Allardyce is ultimately ill-suited to. While he has pulled numerous clubs back from the brink of relegation, he has never done so in just four games. Dig into the fixture list a little deeper and you get a sense for the breadth of the task.
Champions Manchester City will provide the opposition in Allardyce’s first game in charge. While a trip to the Etihad does afford Sam the chance to back up those better-than-Pep boasts, it is hardly the ideal fixture for a relegation-threatened side. Then Leeds will welcome the upwardly-mobile Newcastle United to Elland Road. The Magpies are chasing Champions League football and will have plenty of incentive to come away from Yorkshire with a result.
Things get slightly easier from there, though a visit to West Ham United is still potentially a heated relegation six-pointer. Finally, Allardyce’s new charges will finish the season by hosting Tottenham Hotspur. Despite the north London club enduring a dismal season, they still boast the considerable talents of Heung-min Son and Harry Kane.
Allardyce is arguably facing his most difficult survival mission yet and he is doing so with a less-than-ideal squad. This Leeds unit has been composed for the purposes of Bielsa’s attacking football and Jesse Marsch’s slightly-adjusted but still heavy-pressing style. Javi Gracia got only the briefest of tunes out of them, but he is more of a progressive than ‘Big Sam’.
Allardyce prefers to build from the back and he must do so with the league’s worst defence. Meanwhile, a once-fairly potent attack has eroded. Leeds haven’t scored more than a single goal in a game for over a month. This team is not set up to play to Allardyce’s strengths, nor to mask his shortcomings. It is a team completely at odds with the sort of manager Allardyce is. Just as Revie’s Leeds were too functional and aggressive for Clough, Bielsa and Marsch’s bastard child looks too soft-centred for Allardyce’s purposes. Oh what the old stager would give to field a Bremner or a Giles.
Allardyce will have to make do with what he’s got. If he fails, he’ll last less than the 44 days Clough famously endured in the Leeds hotseat. The former England manager’s initial deal is for just four games. Brian Clough never managed England, while ‘Big Sam’ took the Three Lions for one game. Now Allardyce has another chance to surpass the legend figure. Clough needed just eight games to become a Leeds villain. Allardyce can become an Elland Road icon in just four. Welcome to The Samned United.
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