A gastropub in Manchester is a fitting venue for the latest corruption sting on England manager Sam Allardyce. While his poncey European counterparts are busy nosing the bouquet on a glass of dry white wine, Big Sam, who only took up the top job back in July, is laid back in his seat, the buttons on his shirt bulging as he swigs from a tall pint glass.
This is the image that you’ll see on the front cover splash of today’s Daily Telegraph. A 10-month undercover operation has concluded with the brassy headline: ‘England manager for sale’. Allardyce, it is claimed, has conspired with a couple of ‘businessmen’ to concoct methods of working around the English FA’s transfer rules, something that is presented as the ethical boundary for football managers today. Today, the FA has summoned Allardyce to Wembley for showdown talks and the Times are now reporting that he is set to be sacked.
It’s not the first time Allardyce has faced corruption allegations. Back in 2006, a BBC Panorama documentary alleged that both Allardyce and his son Craig had taken ‘bungs’ – payments made directly to players or managers to lubricate potential deals – for a series of transfers. No wrongdoing was ever comprehensively established, although Allardyce never made good on his threat to sue the BBC for libel. The whiff of corruption has followed him in the decade since then, with the Guardian reporting in 2014, while Allardyce was West Ham manager, that he had exerted pressure on certain players to sign up with a specific agent, who is also his representative.
Despite this history and a reputation for wheeler dealing, Allardyce was still deemed the man most likely to lead England to international footballing glory. His tenure, however, looks likely to be extremely brief. Bookmakers have already slashed the odds on Big Sam making it out of September with his job. Even if a decision isn’t made in the coming weeks, it is hard to see how he has a future in such a symbolically distinguished position.
And yet the allegations made against Allardyce in this most recent investigation aren’t quite as compelling as they might at first look. The idea that he is ‘for sale’ is slightly misleading. The £400,000 figure quoted on the front page of the Telegraph is for a ‘keynote speech’ he would give in Hong Kong or Singapore, something that would be considered fairly routine for a high-profile football professional. If we arrested everyone who got paid a six-figure fee for a lecture, then a number of our former Prime Ministers would be serving several life sentences and what a tragedy that would be…
The most obviously dodgy part of Allardyce’s actions was his offer to assist these ‘Far East’ businessmen in circumventing rules on third-party ownership. This practice, banned in England and France, is commonplace in many countries and is particularly prevalent with South American players. It is unclear whether Allardyce’s claim that ‘you can still get round it’ would hold up, but, if it does, it’s hardly his fault. Allardyce names two redacted third-party owners: they are the people guilty of bending the rules, and the FA too should be held responsible for leaving convenient loopholes open. This is the whole ‘tax avoidance versus evasion’ debate in a nutshell, and Allardyce seems to be well within the avoidance criteria.
Most tellingly, when they meet up again at what looks like it might be a nice Asian-fusion restaurant in Alderley Edge, Allardyce suffers a Nixonesque brow-mopping episode at the mere mention of ‘bungs’. It seems at first as though he’s being jokingly coy, saying ‘I haven’t heard that, you stupid man’. But in the second exchange he’s clearer and his innocence is more compelling. ‘You can’t pay a player, you can’t pay a manager, you can’t pay a CEO,’ he tells the reporter, ‘It used to happen 20-odd years ago…you can’t do it now.’
In all likelihood, Big Sam will lose the job he’s spent his entire career lusting over. Most attempts to weed out corruption in the game ought to be applauded, but given the scale of wrongdoing on the part of Fifa and Uefa in recent years, it feels like Allardyce has fallen victim merely to a degree of avarice, mixed in with the FA’s own draconian regulations and failure to strangulate loopholes within them. If Allardyce if forced to fall on his sword, it will be to the detriment of the entire English game.