Most people involved in modern football receive considerable media training from quite an early age. This manifests itself in several different ways, from the studied mind-games and self-promotion of Jose Mourinho to Michael Owen, who has spent well over a decade as a professional footballer without having ever managed to say anything of note in an interview. There are still some people left, however, an increasingly small number, who come from a different era and don’t seem to have been taught the art of talking a lot whilst saying very little. It is these people that, whether intentionally or not, provide us with considerable entertainment with occasional glimpses into the inner workings of their minds.
One of these people is Sam Allardyce, the manager of Blackburn Rovers. Allardyce, in many respects, is the absolute antithesis of the modern, sophisticated Premier League manager. As a player, his top level experience was scant – a couple of seasons with Bolton Wanderers and thirty-odd games for Coventry City – and the early part of his managerial career seemed to fit this profile, as he became a one-man managerial tour of various middling Football League clubs with whom he had varying amounts of success. It was back at Bolton, though, that he broke through what we might have thought was the glass ceiling in establishing Wanderers as a Premier League club. A spell at Newcastle United proved less successful, but at Blackburn Rovers he has returned to more successful times, managing a Blackburn team with a comparatively modest budget to relative safety in the Premier League bear pit.
The single most fascinating thing about Allardyce, however, is the occasional glimpse into the inner workings of his mind that he offers in interviews. The latest of these came last week when he stated, to general guffawing in the media, that, “I would be more suited to Inter Milan or Real Madrid”. To the outsider, there is nothing in either his career to indicate that he would be able to satisfy the singular demands of supporters of such massive clubs as these. These are clubs whose supporters expect a constant stream of trophies and for those trophies to be won with style and grace. Allardyce has a system which has been successful at Bolton Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers, but no matter what angle we look at it from, it is impossible to see it working at a club with the expectations of Internazionale or Real Madrid. When he took the Newcastle United job (a job which, at least in terms of the expectations of the support, has more in common with Inter or Real than any of his other managerial positions), though, he was found to be wanting.
Some in the media have speculated that Allardyce is continuing to try and position himself for a shot at the England manager’s job when Fabio Capello departs in 2012 (or at the end 2011, depending on whether England qualify for the European Championships or not). There is an ongoing debate on whether England should pick an English manager for the job which will intensify as the end of Capello’s time looms larger and larger on the horizon, and Allardyce hangs around in the background of it like an ogrish shadow. If there is one thing that has been proved beyond any reasonable doubt over the last twenty years or so, it is that what could be described as the “traditional English model” is fundamentally flawed. What, at a practical level, could Allardyce bring to the position of England manager could conceivably result in the improvement in the entire culture that surrounds the team at present?
This debate, however, is for another day. For the time being, perhaps we should just wallow in Sam Allardyce’s lack of self-awareness. That a manager that is so much from (and of) a different era should be able to hang around in the ultra-modern world of the Premier League provides us with a rich seam of entertainment should be a cause for some degree of celebration. In Sam’s mind, he is a behemoth, a tactical genius with man-management skills that are unrivalled and who says what he likes, regardless of the consequences or what other people may or may not think of him. He took Bolton Wanderers to fifth place in the Premier League and into the UEFA Cup. Why, he may rationalise, shouldn’t he be given a chance at a super-club or in charge of the England team? After all, Roy Hodgson managed Inter for a while, didn’t he?
Even those of us that don’t hold Sam Allardyce in the highest regard as one of the greatest managers in European football surely find it difficult to find fault with his self-belief. The dark moments of self-doubt of the likes of Brian Clough are not for him. He is the bull in a china shop of the Premier League, saying what he likes and liking what he bloody well says. He seems almost gloriously oblivious to the shortcomings that so many others see in him, and this utterly unbreakable self-confidence may just have been the single most important factor behind Bolton Wanderers becoming an established Premier League club of ten years’ consecutive service and Blackburn Rovers defying gravity to finish last season in tenth place last season. Sam Allardyce appears not to recognise it, but he has a role in the Premier League and he is very lucky to be where he is. It is down to the FA to recognise this and, when hiring the next England coach, do so with the understanding that the skill set required to build a successful national team and that required to get Blackburn Rovers to tenth place in the Premier League have differences that Sam Allardyce seems unlikely to be able to bridge.