The in-thing

A month in the old school with Sam Allardyce

Written by: Moxcowhite • Daniel Chapman
Artwork by: Eamonn Dalton
An image showing Sam Allardyce's big head in close up, in triplicate

Big Sam. Big Sam Allardyce and his pint of wine. The manager Jose Mourinho once said coached “football from the 19th century”, who once sent Louis van Gaal into a dossier-printing apoplexy by flipping an Uno reverse and accusing him of playing long ball. Peter Reid’s mate who kept his moustache from the 1970s all the way into the Premier League. The chewing gum, the ego, the West Brom team that Bielsa’s Leeds battered 5-0. And now he’s here, for a month, the symbol of Leeds United’s regression from the high of that season’s 9th place finish. 19th century? Leeds United didn’t even exist in the 19th century. Sounds great. Take me back.

Yet there was a time when Sam Allardyce was the template for all a 21st century football manager was going to be. A five-part series written by Gordon Sharrock for the Bolton Evening News in October 2002 aimed to go behind the myths already circulating around Allardyce’s Bolton Wanderers in their second season in the Premier League. Myths were fair because Bolton didn’t really make sense. Hard working warhorses like Mike Whitlow, Colin Hendry and Dean Holdsworth were combining with experienced flair players like Rod Wallace and Youri Djorkaeff, with a dusting of randomness from Iván Campo and Jay-Jay Okocha. When Bolton got attention, it was usually for upsetting people: at the end of 2002/03 they only lost two of their last thirteen games, getting draws against the top two, Manchester United and Arsenal. You couldn’t make it make sense. So people looked at the 0-0s, the 1-1s and the 1-0s, and the ball being banged long and high through Bolton skies, and drew their own conclusions.

They were wrong, according to people around Bolton. ‘Today Allardyce is one of the most ‘switched-on’ managers in football,’ wrote Sharrock. ‘In his three years at the Reebok he has assembled a backroom staff that boasts as many degrees, as many ‘ologists’ and as much scientific expertise as any club in the Premiership … and then some.’

Sharrock’s series, and other articles from the time, describe a club seeking competitive advantages through practices that now seem normal, or even quaint, but at the time were cutting edge and even suspicious. Allardyce was described by Louise Taylor, in 2001, as ‘devoting untold hours to surfing the internet, gleaning all he can about the latest innovations in sports science’. In an era of dial-up connections and bulky desktop tower PCs, the idea of someone in football crouching over a desk tapping at a keyboard like some nerd was still anti-athletic. Taylor had interviewed Robbie Elliott ahead of Bolton’s FA Cup semi-final a year earlier, who told her how Allardyce had ‘even compiled and edited a Villa video designed to prepare his charges for this afternoon’s encounter’. Players watching videos, instead of being out on the training pitch, was a wild idea. But, Allardyce told Sharrock, “Paul [Professor Paul Balsom, consultant match analyst] and our Prozone lad will come up with specific clips and hit you between the eyes with them. Sometimes a 25-minute session with them can be as good as you could get on the training ground.”

Allardyce told Sharrock how hard he’d had to fight to bring his ideas in. He’d argued that the club couldn’t afford the best players, but the best consultants cost peanuts by comparison, and part-time relationships would allow for trial and error. “There have been quite a few people who have been here and gone and we have never talked about them. They have turned out to be not what we were looking for.

“It took me the best part of eighteen months to get computers into this club, but now, if you come and watch the staff, nearly everybody is tapping away on their laptops, logging their information onto our database, which is hugely important to us. We log everything: the medical, the physical, the psychological, the technical and the tactical. We record how we handle various situations — a game, for instance; if we won it, what did we do by way of preparation?”

One example of Bolton’s innovation, buried in one of Sharrock’s 2002 articles, is ‘a new hi-tech monitor, similar to the satellite-navigation system on a vehicle, [that has] helped Allardyce and his team combine football and fitness work in the same session rather than in two separate sessions’. GPS technology — those satellite sports bras players started being seen wearing in the late 2010s — still feels new twenty years later. In 2001, Allardyce talked about his willingness to try every new idea. “If our club go from Prozone [computer graphics] to psychologists to fitness coaches, to dieticians, to sports doctors, to qualified physios and five football coaches, I don’t know where else there is to go except for pulling out a few of the player’s wisdom teeth, which seems to be the big deal now in Europe.”

The problem with Allardyce as scientist and innovator was two-fold. One of his obsessions was statistics, and throughout football history, stats have tended to give managers of less funded, less talented teams the same ideas: defend the point you start with, keep the ball away from your goal, outwork the opposition, possession equals risk so get rid of it. When success started coming for Bolton — 8th in 2003/04, then 6th, 8th, 7th — it was achieved without scoring fifty goals in a single season. All those new ideas, all that cutting edge sports science, combined in Bolton with Allardyce’s 1970s instincts — beer-fuelled bonding sessions, darts sessions, players racing each other on motorised toilets — and a distinctly old school style of play. He has stuck firmly to the numbers ever since, describing playing out from the back as ‘brainwashing’. “The worst thing for me is playing to your centre-half in his eighteen yard box. I’m still convinced that the stats show that you lose more goals against you then you’ll ever score.”

The other problem was always, basically, himself. Bolton were Premier League insurgents at a time when Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea were taking over from Arsene Wenger’s invincible Arsenal, making Alex Ferguson — in whom the British game had placed its sense of superiority — look old fashioned even though he, by hiring Steve McClaren as his assistant, was also quick to embrace Prozone and CD-ROMs. Allardyce, outwardly bull-necked and obdurate, but fragile, took this personally, believing he should be a candidate for one of the big jobs.

“It’s not fashionable to pick an English manager or coach,” he said in 2001. “You ask yourself whether some of our top sides are more interested in a suitable figurehead rather than someone who can do the job properly. It’s the in-thing to be a foreigner.” And again in 2001: “Sadly, people like me are not the in-thing now. You need to be Italian, wear sunglasses, drive a beautiful car and know all about the beautiful game.” Bolton, at this point, weren’t even in the Premier League yet. At West Ham in 2012 he claimed to have his tongue in his cheek when he said, “I won’t ever be going to a top four club because I’m not called Allardici, just Allardyce,” but he was too consistent on the point to ever really be joking. “I’m not suited to Bolton or Blackburn,” he said in 2010, “I would be more suited to Inter Milan or Real Madrid. It wouldn’t be a problem to me to go and manage those clubs because I would win the double or the league every time.”

This bitterness became his caricature, not helped by his double dalliance with the England job. First, in 2006, Allardyce was interviewed to take over from Sven-Göran Eriksson, but according to Big Sam he was too progressive. “I wanted to do a real knock-your-socks-off interview for the FA, so I put together a PowerPoint which looked at every single detail,” he wrote in his autobiography, “But then Brian Barwick, the chief executive, told me there were no PowerPoint facilities at the interview venue, so I had to print off hard copies for the panel.” The job went to Steve McClaren. More famously, when Allardyce did get the England job ten years later, he talked his way out of it after one game in the most old-school way possible — caught on camera by undercover reporters, grifting on the side over a pint of what looked like either white wine or at best extremely crap lager.

In many ways, the story of a smoothly operating and upwardly mobile exemplar of innovation, disintegrating into a bitter caricature of the very aspects his haters used to mock, as a result of his own egotism and hubris, makes Sam Allardyce the obvious candidate to be Leeds United manager through the month of May 2023. But given four games will not be enough to put much science to work in Leeds, what can Allardyce do in these four weeks?

The one hope is psychological, another area in which Allardyce was ahead of his time. He was not the first in football to use a sports psychologist, but he was the first in the Premier League to employ one 24/7 as a key part of his staff. In 2002 that was Mike Forde, who talked Gordon Sharrock through their work on match days.

“We have a set routine during games, which helps the players,” Forde said. “I sit with Sam in the directors’ box during the first half, and between us we discuss the key things that we went into the game looking for. Five minutes before half-time we will agree on the key things that we are going to present in the dressing room.

“At that point I head down to the dressing room and write certain key points on the whiteboard, and sort out the video clips which Sam will be able to show to the players on the large plasma screen. Everyone is constantly monitored on the pitch, and therefore responsibility is unavoidable.”

Soon after promotion to the Premier League, Allardyce was talking about his use of sports psychology straight after a surprise 0-0 draw away to David O’Leary’s Leeds. “Our sports psychologist feeds us information seven days a week in team units,” he said. “It’s all about the type of info he gives us to make us feel positive about ourselves and give us some negatives about the opposition. We had it last season as well. The further you go in this game the more you realise the mind is as important as the skill factor.”

The mind is also the only factor Allardyce can turn to at Leeds. Three days of training is not going to make Weston McKennie a playmaking rival to Kevin De Bruyne. But just because it’s the last option doesn’t mean it’s worthless. In Marcelo Bielsa’s first press conference at Leeds, he was asked about communicating with his players without a shared language. Bielsa didn’t think the language barrier was insurmountable, but agreed that communication was key.

“Getting players to play and appealing to their emotions and inspiring them to play,” said Bielsa, “getting your message across to players, management is all about that. I think the biggest factor which gets players playing is emotion and, if you speak sincerely, words and how you express yourself go hand-in-hand with activating those football emotions.”

If a sincere bollocking then an arm around the shoulder from Big Sam is all we’ve got left to activate the players’ football emotions and keep Leeds United in the Premier League, maybe, somehow, it can be enough. Allardyce said, in his first press conference at Leeds, “I might be 68 and look old but there’s nobody ahead of me in football terms. Not Pep, not Klopp, not Arteta. It’s all there with me … In terms of knowledge and depth of knowledge, I’m up there with them.” The same hubris since 1999, the same objection to being sidelined out of fashion. Leeds, though, won’t get a fraction of that depth of knowledge in four weeks, not even for his reported £3m bonus. Leeds just want the bit that works. ⬢

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