Well, well, well. After all the build-up to the race for the vacancy at the top of English football, it all ended in a bit of a damp squib, didn’t it? A BBC report detailing all that we needed to know was out two whole days before the FA even had the nerve to announce anything. It’s pretty poor on the FA’s part that they couldn’t withhold such vital information until they could tell everyone themselves, but this isn’t a time to complain about those in charge (it might well be soon though), it’s a time to get excited about England’s future with a new man at the helm. The thing is though, Sam Allardyce doesn’t get anyone very excited. He is as dreary, dreaded and stubborn as they come as managers, and his appeal certainly doesn’t spread all the way across our green and pleasant lands. Allardyce is a man, just as much as a manager, that divides opinion for his approach to the beautiful game, demonstrated by his track record over the course of his 22-year long managerial career. Yes, he may have transformed Bolton, Blackburn, Newcastle, West Ham and Sunderland into sides which could hold their own in the mid-table region of the Premier League table on comparatively small budgets, but does he really have what it takes to be England manager? How will we fare under his leadership? And how long will he actually last as the biggest boss in the country?
Well, if you read last week’s blog, you should already be quite aware of my thoughts on Allardyce in the position of England manager. Personally, I had hoped that the FA would take a bit longer in their decision rather than rushing into it after interviewing only two candidates (the other being Steve Bruce, who is just a Championship-standard remodelling of Big Sam), and would also look into the option of a foreign manager, but Martin Glenn and co. have had their say now. Glenn, by the way, hasn’t impressed anyone yet either, as his misguided and far too honest approach to the early days of being the head of the FA has seen him strike the rabbit-in-the-headlights pose on more than one occasion now, especially since he admitted he was ‘not a football expert’. Dear, oh dear, Martin, it may have worked as a businessman to say you don’t know the first thing about what you’re selling, but you won’t fool any football fans in a job such as yours by already making excuses. Do you want your job or not, because I’m sure there are thousands better qualified than you than would love to have the responsibilities you do. Change something Martin, and support Allardyce in improving the fortunes of English football, before it’s too late.
As for Allardyce himself, there’s a lot to be said about a man whose reputation precedes him in every debate. Obviously, we say Big Sam and you immediately think the archetypal wheeler-dealer, the gruff, tough Brummie, the methodical planner who quietly gets on with the task in hand. He has mellowed in his years, but Sam will always be known to the British public for being a bit of a grumpy man, often slagging off opposition counterparts for their previous comments or mind games, and not messing around when he isn’t happy. He can be difficult to deal with, but there is no doubt he has succeeded with almost every challenge that he has faced in his career, never exceeding expectations, but never dropping below them either. Mediocre some might say, but Allardyce is special because he has thick skin, he won’t take the proverbial s**t of the British media or of any players he picks.
Motivation is one of his key components, something he excels particularly at, as he couldn’t have achieved what he has without psyching his players up to play above what were considered to be their levels, instilling confidence into players who might not otherwise find it with another manager. If you want a manager who will plan himself to death too, Allardyce is your man. The Dudley-born boss has a reputation amongst his colleagues and players for his meticulous approach to planning, scouting out opposition and drilling tactics into his group of players so as to gain as much of an advantage over the enemy before they take to the field, as he knows his teams are usually inferior in terms of skill. He demands respect through his experience, achievement and continuous desire. Set-pieces are another vital aspect to his style, normally utilising the notable height of his attackers or centre-backs to put pressure on slighter defenders in the opposition box, then working for hours on the training ground just to find the right man to put the right ball in, making sure the team knows how he wants the game to be played. So no more Harry Kane corners for England.
But I wouldn’t say that this contributes to the style of England. We are not a hoof-ball nation, we don’t appreciate ugly play, but admittedly some of us can put up with it more than others (Man United fans?) just to keep challenging for trophies. Our national side does not have patient fans though, quite the opposite in fact. We don’t suffer fools gladly here; we will be on Allardyce’s case as soon as he slips up. But we are also willing to support him for now. He has until 4th September (or the 1st, when there is a friendly scheduled against as yet undecided opponents), when his first squad of 23 fly over to Slovakia to kick off the European World Cup Qualifying phase building up to Russia (gulp) 2018. He’ll at least have time to get his feet under the desk, get his tactics sorted and suits ironed until he has to face the music in just over a month.
One of the biggest fears about Allardyce and England is that he is an old-fashioned manager in a changing footballing world, someone not able to keep up with the demands of an era in football in 2016 where radical approaches usually prevail. He may be found out and compromised tactically on the biggest stage, as he is a fairly easy manager to read, and also because he hasn’t ever managed at anywhere near this level before. His brand of Northern, down-to-earth honesty in this business could prove to be an advantage or the root of his downfall, we’ll just have to wait and see. And is he just too normal (in terms of footballing over-Englishness) to achieve anything on the international stage? Or will his one-off, stubborn, impervious attitude towards the media and the opposition set him apart so much that he can really make a difference? Well, you have to hope that the latter would be right, but personally I can’t help feeling his methods hark back to the England side in the days of leather balls, tight shorts and crooked teeth (if you’d forgive the Austin Powers stereotype), when players respected managers more, gave more for their causes and got paid far, far less. Maybe that would be good for us, you never know, it is what won us our only major international trophy after all! Fernando Santos did win the Euros with Portugal this summer with a counter-attacking, highly organised style, making the most of his defensive ranks and allowing the likes of Ronaldo more freedom up front, despite being an unfancied side, so why can’t Allardyce replicate him? Well, maybe because we don’t have Ronaldo, but we can but dream.
That brings me nicely on to my next concern about Allardyce; what would his style actually be when push came to shove in September? And which set of individuals would make it into his new side? Well, we know that he has wanted the top job in English football for years now, and he has finally found the opening in 2016, so he should have a pretty good idea of how he wants to play. If you wanted something so badly, it would have to be on your mind how you would control things, how you would fix all the issues you can clearly see, so once that chance comes around to transform dreams into reality, you have to make sure you don’t mess up. Allardyce will put everything into place as soon as possible to put that safety net in place so he doesn’t mess up his one chance. New coaches may come in, as the roles of assistant manager and first team coach are currently unoccupied, with Paul Bracewell, Sunderland’s assistant manager (and former England international) possibly stepping in as Allardyce’s right hand man once again. I doubt Gary Neville will return to the fold considering the disastrous year he’s had, as for his own sake I reckon he should silently skulk back to bickering with Jamie Carragher on Sky Sports (and earning millions in the process). We need a coach who is actually focused on the success of the nation, someone who has past knowledge of what representing England is all about, maybe a Teddy Sheringham or even an Alan Shearer, someone also to counteract Allardyce’s defensive nature. What the England side needs is a pool of knowledge from which we can learn from mistakes made in the past, rather than repeat them like we inevitably seem to every two years, under every single manager.
But who would fit into the new-look side? Well, we can’t let go of our experience heads yet. Wayne Rooney, Joe Hart, Gary Cahill, James Milner and the likes of Theo Walcott, Leighton Baines and Michael Carrick on the outside of the squad can’t be written off, as like a wise man once said, you’ll never win anything with kids. Big Sam knows this too. He has never been the type to radically go straight from the old guard to the academy as soon as he steps into the job, nor the type to discard players who didn’t always perform in the last regime. We can expect Hart, Cahill and Rooney to feature heavily under the new boss, and Rooney to also keep his responsibility as captain, which so far he has done a good job with, until he retires from the international game. Formations probably won’t be vastly mixed up, with a range between 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1, maybe even 4-5-1 during qualifying, mainly traditional formations from a purist man. 4-2-3-1 may be a bit of a diversion from the norm for Allardyce, but I would like to think he’d be open to some variation to his style, as when you look at the players we have, 4-2-3-1 has to be the path we follow, as we are blessed with top wingers and solid holding midfielders. But if it wasn’t something that Big Sam didn’t have his heart in, you’d be sure that he would drop it, so it will be up to him which style he thinks will be most effective. But there are players which definitely deserve to stay in the side.
Other than those I’ve already mentioned, I’d say Eric Dier, Dele Alli, Harry Kane, Chris Smalling, Kyle Walker, Daniel Sturridge, Danny Rose, Marcus Rashford, Nathaniel Clyne and Ross Barkley should remain in and around the starting XI. Jamie Vardy, Jordan Henderson, Jack Wilshere, Raheem Sterling, John Stones, Adam Lallana, Ryan Bertrand and James Milner have question marks hanging over their heads, with combination of age, lack of form and all-round failure the reasoning behind their uncertainty. If these players don’t hit the ground running this season, the likes of Danny Welbeck, Mark Noble, Jonjo Shelvey, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Phil Jones, Andros Townsend, Luke Shaw and Danny Drinkwater could all return to the fold, and that would by no means be a bad thing for the fate of the England side.
Qualifying will be the period in which Allardyce can experiment. Honestly, with the five sides in our group (Malta, Lithuania, Scotland, Slovenia and Slovakia), we should be easily topping the table, maybe even with a 100% win rate if we get a little bit of luck along the way. Malta home and away, admittedly an unknown proposition, should end up with score lines of 5 or 6-0, whereas Lithuania and Slovenia, both of whom we faced in qualifying for Euro 2016, should be looked at with six points each as the target. Scotland and Slovakia will be our toughest opponents, but if we are looking at the wider picture Gordon Strachan is doing well with a pretty low-quality bunch of players north of the border and Slovakia shouldn’t even be in our league. We have players plying their trade at the peak of the Premier League, the richest league in the world, whereas Slovakia have to pick from a spread of Serie A, Bundesliga, Slovak Premier League and Czech First League players, with a scattering of other players in Qatar, Hungary, Turkey, Denmark, Austria and Russia. All we need is the desire they have, and they would then be pushovers. But all in all, we shouldn’t have too many issues with this group, and Allardyce should be able to test his tactics and players in these games without many hiccups. At least that is what we hope.
But where Allardyce does need to learn from Hodgson is that he can’t change his mind once we reach the tournament proper. One of the biggest reasons the ex-Fulham boss failed is because he kept dabbling with something that would’ve worked had he not been so indecisive. Perhaps he wanted to play the way the media told him to, maybe he didn’t even know himself how he wanted to play, but it doesn’t matter now as he has gone down in history a failure. Allardyce won’t want to be remembered the same way, but the important aspect is not that he wants to do well, it is that he will put it into action when it actually matters. By the time Russia rolls around, we need to be aware of the formation and the starting line-up, as under Hodgson we never really were, and just look how that ended up. We don’t need a repeat of the same old rubbish we usually get served up.
Allardyce also has particular things to learn from other past managers in the chair he sits in now. He must have more heart than Capello, more backbone than McLaren, more motivational prowess than Eriksson and most importantly right now, more luck than any of them too. None of them were horrifically bad managers, they just each had their own weaknesses and Allardyce must learn not to show any of his. He must remain on the right side of the media, stay in touch with the fans and in control of the FA, and finally assert his position as head of the dressing room, inspiring performances out of each and every player he selects. Do this, and he will change English football for the better, providing a pathway for future bosses to follow and maybe even cementing himself as a ‘good’ England manager in the history books. It all seems so easy on paper.
I’ve got to be honest, prior to writing this blog I did think that most aspects of Allardyce’s style that we all know he excels in; scrimping, scrapping for results and getting more prepared than a health and safety officer, weren’t transferrable to the international stage, but after merging together my thoughts, I seriously think Big Sam can succeed. Obviously there are a lot of question marks over his head that he will have to eradicate over the next few months, but I do now actually believe that he has the experience, rigidity and respect required to pull this off.
He might make us into a bit of an Italian-esque side, defending and frustrating the opposition with more organisation than we have possibly ever seen before from a bunch of players with the Three Lions on their shirts, and in my opinion right now for England that would be a good thing. It’s not like a side that attacked other sides to death even won the Euros anyway, so why should we go against what is clearly a winning formula? Portugal, Iceland, Slovakia, Italy, Northern Ireland and Wales, they all succeeded at Euro 2016 as a result of their resolute defensive combinations, so why shouldn’t we hop on the bandwagon? As the saying goes, if you can’t beat ‘em, you might as well join ‘em. Obviously this style isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but neither is Allardyce and neither was Fernando Santos in Portugal, and just look what he did for his nation. Now, I’m not saying we’ll get anywhere near winning the next World Cup or Euros, but I do think we’ll vastly improve with a clear, defined message and style under Sam Allardyce. He can reorganise our broken system, and he will do it the only way he knows how; by grafting away at it, never relenting in his mission to reform English football. I for one have gone from a doubter to a believer in the space of just a few days, and I am willing to get behind our new boss for the duration of his tenure. I can only hope that the rest of the country does the same and our fortunes do improve in the near future. Anyway, if all else fails, he’s only got a two-year contract…
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!