Many of us gave up on the England football team after Fabio Capello too was reduced to funting it up to the big lad. Even Capello couldn't get some of the world's best paid players to reliably pass the ball to each other. So not too many are holding their breath on Sam Allardyce succeeding, which could be a mistake. Or it could be, depending on how you define success.
If it’s winning the 2022 World Cup then God Almighty would be doomed to failure. Apparently there’s still a clock at the FA’s St George’s Park counting down towards England’s World Cup Final victory in Qatar: Allardyce has a lot on his plate but if that clock somehow accidentally on purpose gets broken it might provide a timely reality check.
England’s new manager is a Marmite character. He has managed to get under some continental skins. Arsene Wenger’s nose always seems to gain a little altitude whenever ‘Big Sam’ is mentioned. Rafa Benitez can’t quite pull off the same hauteur but it’s not for the want of trying, maybe because of one particular quote after a Liverpool-Bolton game.
“I don’t blame Benitez for claiming credit but as managers we know the truth,” said Allardyce. “It’s like making a substitution in desperation and it comes off. You get all the credit for your tactical brilliance when it’s often just luck.”
So it's hard from the outside not to warm to someone prepared to concede the obvious, especially at the expense of someone so PR-fluent as Benitez whose football intellect once somehow rationalised selling Xabi Alonso in order to buy Gareth Barry.
In response the Spaniard would no doubt invite anyone to examine his luminous CV, and Allardyce would probably respond that it should be luminous given the players Benitez has worked with over the years in contrast to some of the crows he himself has had to cobble together into teams.
“I won’t ever be going to a Top-4 club because I’m not called Allardici,” he once claimed, a statement saved from chippy petulance by the considerable dollop of truth contained within it.
Allardyce has never been fashionable, too open to ‘Bulldog’ caricature. He has now however got the job he has always desired and probably suspected would never get because of that lack of perceived glamour.
Not for nothing did he once proclaim: “I hate perception. There’s far too much of it in the game. We should stick to reality.”
Any happiness on his behalf however is tempered by how the England job has reduced so many to gibbering cartoons of their former selves, humbled by a job where perception is so radically out of synch with reality.
Praised as world-beaters or savaged as shallow fakes, the popular perception of the England set-up soars and dips like a swallow in a heatwave. And the mood has rarely dipped as low as it is now.
It may be fanciful to place the England manager’s job in a political context but also it’s also no big push for many to view the appointment of ‘Big Sam’ as a reflex return to stout yeoman values within a football culture out of love with foreign muck and in a mood for good old meat and two veg.
There’s no getting away from the big, bluff, roll-up-the-sleeves, get-stuck-in stereotype of a one-time second-rate centre-half whose managerial CV doesn’t feature a single bauble but is redolent with making the most out of relatively meagre pickings. There’s only one problem with that: it is, to use to use of one of Allardyce’s favourite words, bollocks.
Yes he’s big, brash, throws a shape sometimes, looks capable of looking after himself all the time, and favours calling spades f---ing shovels. But he can also justifiably claim to have exhibited over the years an admirably flexible and innovative football mind, a good eye for a player, tactical acumen, the courage of his convictions, and a capacity to get teams playing for him.
This is the man who got
playing with a smile, a feat of psychological subtlety which no continental sophisticate proved capable of.
So whatever the popular perception of the new manager the reality is that England are unlikely to want for sideline intelligence or intuition. They are also unlikely to want for a game plan with every player aware of what's required of them. And by sheer force of personality they might also cultivate a sense of conviction that was so transparently absent under Roy Hodgson.
These are virtues that make another smooth World Cup qualifying campaign perfectly realistic by which time perceptions will no doubt have altered again so that hopes rise ‘The Three Lions’ are going to conquer the globe again.
Everything we know about Allardyce indicates he won’t fall for it. He appears too clued-in to not recognise England’s obvious problem when it comes to tournament football which isn’t brains on the sideline but a lack of same on the pitch.
There remains a widely held perception that England possess a reservoir of playing talent which simply requires proper managerial leadership. And there is ability there: it’s just not the kind that ultimately decides tournaments – proper midfield talent.
There’s a reason Wales did best of the British & Irish sides at the Euros. They had a midfield that was encouraged to pass the ball to each other and was actually technically capable of doing so against high class opposition. None of the others, England and Ireland included, had, or have, the same. Capello was ultimately reduced to helplessness by that reality. It remains a stark reality. England’s problem won’t be a lack of wit and sophistication on the sideline but where it counts, on the pitch.