They call him Big Sam. At 6’3 that’s not an unlikely nickname, especially when you’ve spent most of your professional career crunching through opposition centre-forwards. But the mythology of Big Sam goes beyond mere volume.
Sam Allardyce has just been appointed to the role of England football manager. The great poisoned chalice of international sport, Allardyce succeeds Roy Hodgson, a man whose own affectionate moniker was extracted from his speech impediment. But there was nothing big about Woy.
Allardyce is taking over at a time of crisis. If it hadn’t been for the success of Wales (and relative success of Northern Ireland) at the Euros, far more Brexit jokes would’ve been thrown out after England’s calamitous defeat to Iceland, during the Nordic nation’s historic run to the quarter-finals. But the 2-1 loss to a country consisting of little more than 323,000 people and some pumice was a seismic shock to the footballing establishment.
Enter Big Sam, a man with an approach so averse to nonsense he doesn’t even know the meaning of the word. In fact, he’s generally unconcerned by the meanings of words, because football, for Big Sam, is all about winning. Or, to be more precise, getting the correct ratio of wins to losses to ensure that, at the very least, the minimum expectation target is hit. A shameless gum-chewing pragmatist, Big Sam is precisely the grafter required to rebuild after crisis.
It has taken the FA almost exactly as long to find a successor for Hodgson as it took the Conservative party to find Theresa May for Prime Minister. Like May, Allardyce had to fend of minor interest in some rivals (including his old pal and certified poor man’s Big Sam, Steve Bruce) but has ultimately swept into the job accompanied by a sense of inevitability. Greg Dyke, Chairman of the FA, conceded that the selection panel, consisting of Martin Glenn, David Gill and Dan Ashworth, are ‘convinced he is the right man, and I’d agree with them.’
Allardyce and May have a lot in common. Jose Mourinho, when he was Chelsea manager, condemned Allardyce’s style, enigmatically accusing him of playing ‘football from the 19th century’. Likewise, May is doing her fair share for the reputation the 19th century, championing herself as a One Nation Conservative. But above all, they are both unshowy selections, more perspiration than inspiration, and more suited to repair than creation. Solidly intransigent in nomadic professions, they now find themselves at the tops of their respective piles.
Things haven’t always come easily for Big Sam. At Newcastle, Allardyce was caught between a rock and a hard place (the rock being Mike Ashley and the hard place being St James’ Park) and it took only a year after he was dismissed for the club to be relegated for the first time in its Premier League history.
A similar situation occurred with the Venkys at Blackburn, proving that when Big Sam is not allowed to be Big Sam, he leaves a trail of destruction in his wake. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and, at 61 with the jowl of a bulldog, Allardyce is the great old dog of British football.
While Theresa May is sweeping around Europe, cleaning up David Cameron’s mess, Allardyce will be going back to the drawing board to redress the chaos left by the dithering Hodgson. Both are leaders with a point to prove – Allardyce has long maintained that he isn’t properly respected, famously claiming ‘I won’t ever be going to a top-four club because I’m not called Allardici’ – and a perception that they are steady hands on the tiller, rather than blockbuster appointments. If Boris Johnson is breathing down May’s neck, then it’s Arsene Wenger doing the same to Allardyce.
But Allardyce is a subtle progressive, noted for bringing innovations like sports psychology and communications technology into the mainstream of English football. If he had David Cameron’s PR team, they might be putting it out that he’s a ‘quiet revolutionary’. Instead, he’s just seen as Big Sam: a Northern lump-it merchant, plugging the gap whilst the fantasists wait for Jose Mourinho or some other ill-suited force of nature. Allardyce and May both have a colossal repair job on their hands, and a similar modus operandi for getting it done. Who will be more successful (or last longer) remains to be seen.