Nature is healing as Big Sam answers West Brom’s call

Real surprise here is that the specialist in survival has never managed the Baggies before

Sam Allardyce has been appointed as West Brom manager on an 18-month deal, the Premier League club have announced. Photo: Peter Byrne/PA Wire

Sam Allardyce has been appointed as West Brom manager on an 18-month deal, the Premier League club have announced. Photo: Peter Byrne/PA Wire

 

There’s a knock on the sunbed. The lid swings ominously open, filling the room with an eerie blue ultraviolet glow. A 66-year-old man of medium to heavy build climbs out, accepts the bathrobe that is wordlessly proffered to him. There is a car out front with its engine running. A freshly-pressed suit and referee’s whistle hanging in the back. Destination: the West Midlands, and the Monster HydroSport Training Ground. And with that, Sam Allardyce returns.

Was this how it happened? On reflection, probably not. But then this has always been the thing about Allardyce, who has been summoned from the managerial antechamber by West Bromwich Albion after two years out of the game: the mythology performs as crucial a function as the man himself. When you hire Allardyce, what you’re paying for is not so much a coach or an employee, but a brand, a creed, a lifestyle. You’re buying wholesale into Allardycismo as an idea. You’re painting your world, or your little corner of it, a vivid shade of Big Sam.

It fits. It works. For a club 19th in the Premier League with plenty of history and tradition but very little you would describe as a direction or discernible identity, it makes perfect sense. Indeed, on some level it is surprising that Allardyce hasn’t already managed West Brom at some point, in the same way you occasionally need to remind yourself that James McArthur never actually played for Everton. (I know, right? Look it up!)

Taking a broader view, the summary dismissal of Slaven Bilic after a commendable 1-1 draw at Manchester City offers the first breach of the uneasy armistice that seemed to have developed between managers and their boards over this pandemic-inflected year. Until this week, Nigel Pearson at Watford was the Premier League’s only managerial casualty in 2020.

But with the table beginning to shake out and the full bleakness of the post-Covid landscape only now beginning to emerge, the old orthodoxies are beginning to resurface. Chris Wilder seems safe at Sheffield United for now. Likewise Sean Dyche, Mikel Arteta, Scott Parker, Steve Bruce. And yet prepare for things to get very messy very quickly, gritted teeth and stoic resilience giving way to fear, financial black holes and endless screaming: a journey that largely mirrors the country’s as a whole.

And so in he prowls, thundering on about shape and tightness and winning your battles and respecting the point. There’s always been a part of Allardyce that resented being pigeonholed as a survival specialist, that always longed to build something: the welder by day who dreams of being a dancer by night but is just too damn good at welding to give up the day job. Also, people keep asking him to weld things. Also, he’s not actually that good at dancing.

But equally there has always been a part of Allardyce that has secretly relished the struggle, taken genuine pride in his record of never being relegated from the Premier League. The easy life never suited him. Semi-retirement, with its interminable carousel of easy media gigs, never gave him the satisfaction he craved. And so ultimately the call of the dugout – the warm embrace of the freezing training pitch, the big lights of the big league – proved impossible to resist.

There are two big unknowns here. The first is Allardyce himself. He has been out of football for two years, which as he admits is his longest career break since he left school at 15. Has he changed? Has the world changed? Do the old truths still apply in a new landscape? In a game that has never felt more adrift, more bereft of simple hope and simple joy, crying out for a meaning and a purpose, is Allardyce really the man to supply it?

The second is the squad he inherits: a raw, fragile, deeply unbalanced mixture of the promising, the unfulfilled and the overpromoted. Sam Johnstone, Darnell Furlong, Semi Ajayi, Matheus Pereira, Conor Gallagher, Grady Diangana: there are the fringes of a good team here. But there are also too many makeweights, not enough change-makers, not enough goalscorers. Does Allardyce have a creative solution for any of this? Or will he simply bin the flair players, stack what’s left in a 5-4-1 and hope Charlie Austin and Branislav Ivanovic can head them to safety?

Perhaps this is exactly what West Brom need right now. Perhaps, by the same token, 18 months down the line they will decide they need the exact opposite. To grasp the appeal of Allardycismo, you really need to look at what comes before and after it: Ronald Koeman and Marco Silva at Everton, Alan Pardew and Frank de Boer at Crystal Palace. At West Ham, the enterprise and panache of Bilic was deemed the perfect antidote to four years of Allardyce. Now, with a satisfying irony, the reverse appears to be true.

This is how the ecosystem of football re-balances itself: Allardycismo as the natural corrective to Bilicismo and vice versa, yin following yang following yin following yang. Here’s to Sam Allardyce: the cause of, and solution to, all of your team’s problems. Mother Nature breathes a sigh. The world keeps turning. – Guardian

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