Down but not out: lampooned Allardyce can still make Albion proud | Jonathan Wilson
The summer of 2016 has a lot of answer for. What if England had not been beaten by Iceland in the last 16 of the Euros? What if they had not lost their nerve, if Joe Hart had not made that mistake, if somebody, anybody, had demonstrated any kind of clarity of vision and attempted a mode of attacking that was not just whacking the ball into the box or giving it to Wayne Rooney? What if they had then scrambled through a quarter-final against the anxious hosts, France, to set up (another) semi-final show-down with Germany?
Perhaps Roy Hodgson would have had his contract renewed, perhaps Sam Allardyce would not have been appointed and perhaps Sunderland would be a thriving Premier League side. Think back, to that final league game of 2015-16 at the Stadium of Light: a 3-0 win over Everton in front of jubilant stands to secure survival; Allardyce on the pitch afterwards, tie somewhere near his navel, celebrating before an audience that truly appreciated him; Allardyce downing bottles of lager in a brief post-match press conference; Allardyce with Jim Montgomery, the goalkeeping legend of the 1973 FA Cup final, holding court in the bar of the Hilton Garden Inn after that.
Whatever the symbolic importance of the Papa John’s Trophy success, that was probably the last time Sunderland fans were truly happy; certainly the last time it felt the club might be able to sustain itself as a Premier League force. Given what happened as Allardyce took the England job, how a craven FA and hysterical media reaction forced him to resign after a Telegraph sting that proved nothing other than that he was capable of looking slightly undignified after a boozy dinner, and his increasingly gloomy progress though Crystal Palace, Everton and West Brom, it might have been the last time Allardyce was really professionally happy as well.
Allardyce has become a figure it is fashionable in certain quarters to mock, the demonic spirit of English football’s primitive past, jowly long-ball, POMO and all that. But his demeanour disguises his radical edge. He was a pioneer not only of statistical analysis in English football, but of cryogenic chambers to aid recovery and the possibilities of the loan system. When the offside law began its present evolution, it was he who started experimenting with players lingering behind the opposing line. He has an inquiring, restless, imaginative and occasionally mischievous mind. When he complained he would get more respect if only he were called “Allardici”, he was only half-right; he is representative more generally of the overlooked middle.
Even his supporters tend to focus on how he can organise a defence and make a team hard to beat, those grudging acknowledgements that the game may not actually be all rabonas and nutmegs and giff-able content. But even that is slightly to misunderstand Allardyce. His Sunderland were actually defensively fairly fragile, leaking six at Arsenal and four at Manchester City and Tottenham. In the second half of the season they kept only four league clean sheets. What changed as he steered them to safety was that they themselves failed to score in only four games in that period, while putting four past Swansea, and three past Norwich, Chelsea and Everton.
What he did was to make the best of what he had, encouraging Patrick van Aanholt’s attacking forays from left-back for instance, and augmenting them with January transfers. The central defender Lamine Koné, who scored twice against Everton, may have been the arrival who briefly became a cult figure – before becoming disaffected under David Moyes – but the key signing was probably Wahbi Khazri, whose hunched shuttling on the left liberated Van Aanholt. More than anything else, Allardyce is a pragmatist.
There have been the easy sneers that his magic touch has left him as he has been relegated from the Premier League for the first time but there has been an upturn for West Brom – the problem was that it came too late. Their season in effect splits into three parts: there were the first 13 games under Slaven Bilic, which yielded seven points, then the following 10 under Allardyce that brought five. Since fielding the three January loan signings, Okay Yokuslu, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Mbaye Diagne, together for the first time in the Valentine’s Day draw against Manchester United, West Brom have picked up 14 points from 12 games – not startling but nor is it bottom-three form.
Relegation, in truth, was likely from the moment West Brom were promoted. Theirs was a squad that always looked thin and the summer transfer business was dismal. As Bilic fumed, West Brom brought in seven players on permanent deals, three of whom liked to operate on the left of the forward line, while none satisfied the demand for a centre-forward or a holding midfielder.
Whether that was the fault of the Chinese owners, of the sporting director, Luke Dowling, or of Bilic himself is disputed but the result was that Bilic began the season with an air of disillusionment, as though he were waiting for the sack. Sheffield United’s troubles perhaps disguised just how bad West Brom were in those opening weeks.
Had it not been for the pandemic, Allardyce would perhaps have been able to bring in his January signings earlier and the upturn would have come sooner. Even here there is a sense of opportunities missed, against United, against Newcastle, against Aston Villa. West Brom were not close to staying up – and Fulham, even more so, can point to the way for a large chunk of the season their results refused to track how well they were playing – but equally it is possible to imagine how with a couple more wins earlier Allardyce might have been able to conjure the survival spirit once again.
Allardyce is 66 and quit Crystal Palace seemingly through exhaustion. He has a stain on his record now. But nobody should think the old magic has entirely deserted him. Whether he looks to redeem himself at The Hawthorns and return West Brom to the Premier League, or whether there is another rescue mission elsewhere, there remains at least one more job to be done.