Sam Allardyce: England Manager

by | Jul 21, 2016

With a wave of a magic wand filled with money, the decision was made. Sam Allardyce is the new England manager. There were a couple of of late kinks that delayed his ascendency to this poisoned chalice. Signing a contract was reportedly delayed by wrangling over money, whilst there was a mild social media panic this afternoon when Steve Bruce, who’d also been interviewed for the job, suddenly resigned as the manager of Hull City. This, however, turned out to be a false flag which had more to do with the chaotic state of that club at the moment than anything else.

It’s a fascinating appointment, because Sam Allardyce is a fascinating man. In an era of celebrity and stardust, he’s a throwback to a different era, the middle-ranking manager who broke into the Premier League and stayed there. In an increasingly cut-throat environment, he has always managed to find himself back in work and has always managed to largely achieve what was expected of him. His playing style hasn’t always been to everybody’s taste, but the pernicious reputation that has followed him around of being a long ball man is exaggerated, and the image of him as an outpost of barbarianism in an ocean of tactical high culture has been similarly hyperbolic.

It’s difficult to say whether he’s the right man for the England manager’s job or not, primarily because it’s difficult to say whether such a person might even exist. This particular job has been a reputational graveyard for many years, to the point that to describe the England team as unmanageable doesn’t seem wide of the mark. We know that Allardyce has a skin of similar thickness to that of an elephant, which will undoubtedly be helpful when dealing with an increasingly toxic and intolerant press, and it’s difficult to imagine a team of his playing like rabbits transfixed by car headlights, as England did more often than not during in France this summer.

His detractors will point to his levels of tactical unsophistication, but whether this is as much of a problem as some might think is up in the air, if we even consider there to be much in that viewpoint in the first place. Where England failed most lavishly at Euro 2016 was in terms of two key issues. The first of these was the cold, blind fear that seemed etched onto the faces of the players at every turn, and it’s difficult to imagine an Allardyce team being allowed to let the weight of the world rest on their shoulders. The other was the entirely predictable, one-paced brand of football that they played. This is is where Allardyce may have bigger issues. Can he be tactically flexible and able to mould the players around a system rather crowbar his formation to fit those that he would like to pick? We shall see.

Whatever the upshot of it all is, it should be fairly entertaining to watch from a distance, if only because Big Sam doesn’t give a shit about what you or I think. This is, after all, the man who stated – and almost certainly genuinely believes – thate he would flourish at Inter, Real Madrid, Manchester United or Chelsea. After four years of the relative humility of Roy Hodgson, this may make for something of a culture shock for the players, but this may not do them any harm, and it further helps Allardyce that England’s international stock has seldom been lower for many years. There will be an expectation of qualification for the next World Cup – and whether that’s justified or not is broadly irrelevant – although the likelihood of the boom and bust cycle that follows this team around will be considerably lower should they reach the finals in Russia. But that’s what makes this a job that no manager can ultimately succeed at.

We might not necessarily believe as much from the football that they have fielded in the past, but England do at least have a history of selecting thoughtful people as coaches of the national team. Walter Winterbottom, Alf Ramsey, Don Revie, Ron Greenwood, Bobby Robson and even Terry Venables were smart and shrewd coaches in their own way. In recent years, however, the job has become something of a graveyard for reputations. Sven Goran Eriksson, Steve McClaren and Fabio Capello all saw theirs drown in the deep waters of the team’s failure to match expectations in tournaments. The machine chewed them up and spat them out. And those who casually dismiss Sam Allardyce because of the popular myth of him being a lumpen-headed Anglo-Saxon incapable of anything doing anything tactically apart from launching long balls into penalty areas like artillery are doing him a disservice. It’s simply not possible to survive in the Premier League as a manager for seventeen years if that’s all that you have to offer.

But how has Allardyce remained at this level for such a long time? In a recent interview with the Guardian, the West Ham United defender Aaron Cresswell confirmed that Allardyce works hard with his players, working on their weaknesses every day. This is all very admirable, but this doesn’t sound like a skill-set that will be particularly useful for a coach who only spends a few weeks every year with his players. The international coach has a very limited time-span within which he can work with his players, and the question of what extent Allardyce would be able to iron out the kinks in his players feels like a reasonable one to be asking. This is not a criticism of Allardyce – it’s a valuable skill-set if one is to get the most out of a squad of players – but it does shine something of a light on one of the most significant problems that any international coach has. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of a player’s club manager to be coaching good habits into players. The international coach can only take the resources at his disposal and attempt to mould them into a successful unit.

Can Sam Allardyce succeed as the coach of the England team? Probably not. The entire culture of professional football in England is very good at making money for clubs and players, but it long ago became unmanageable in terms of how toxic in terms of the national team. A combination of a league system that is somewhere between ambivalent and hostile towards England and a press that claims to be the biggest supporters of the team whilst being instrumental in stirring a culture of unrealistic expectation with scapegoating when everything unravels means that any England manager who manages to be successful will always do so in spite of the country rather than because of it. Sam Allardyce has extremely thick skin, though, and that might be the most important single attribute that he can bring to the job. He’s going to need it.

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