Given the mythos and comic embellishment that seems to surround Sam “Big Sam” Allardyce, there would have been more than one journalist in Burnley’s press room slightly disappointed at the lack of bravado in the West Ham manager’s words as he addressed the room after his team’s second win on the bounce.
No talk of ‘proving critics wrong’ or ‘doing things my way’, no talk of interest from continental giants either. Perhaps, on the first day of his 60th year, Sam had learned the benefits of humility. Even when questioned on his soon-to-be expired contract, he refused to be drawn out of his relaxed disposition.
When you’ve got 13 years in the Premier League and 20 years in the manager’s job, the anxiety of contracts is not a great hardship
It was only three months ago that the former Bolton manager was bookies’ favourite to be the Premier League’s first managerial casualty – an already unstable position made more perilous by a pre-season defined by poor results and even poorer relations with the club’s owners, Messrs Gold and Sullivan.
With most of the pressure coming from a turgid 2013/14 Premier League campaign that saw West Ham finish three places lower than the previous season, the club’s ownership demanded – no doubt aware of the negative reactions from most fans – that the manager must not only improve the team’s showing, but also to do so in a more aesthetically pleasing manner – something along the lines of the often espoused, rarely seen ‘West Ham way’ that is ‘memes’ through all generations present at Upton park.
Rarely has a manager been more publicly challenged by his paymaster. Though, in truth, Gold and Sullivan, may have well taken a leaf out of the ‘Mike Ashley book of public relations’ and seen Allardyce and talk of classic West Ham football as a convenient lightning rod for fans discontent, drawing focus away from next season’s move away from the Boleyn Ground, home to West Ham United for 110 years, to the Olympic Stadium – an unpopular proposition for many fans but, from the club’s ownership at least, financial pragmatism.
Wether or not Gold and Sullivan may look at the club’s move to a modern, functional stadium (with one previous owner) as the final piece in a jigsaw to ‘do a Manchester City’ and attract interest from a wealthy foreign individual remains to be seen, but key to any future for the ‘Irons’ was always going to be Premier League football something Allardyce has seemed capable of delivering, despite an injury-plagued wobble in January.
In truth, the ‘Big Sam’ style of football is a gaseous concept, similar to that of the ‘West Ham’ way. At the heart of it Allardyce is, and always will be, a pragmatist. Last season’s game plan rested on the fitness of a certain Andy Carroll to act as an attacking platform on which the utilitarian attacking talents of Stewart Downing and Matt Jarvis could be launched. Alas, Plan A unravelled as the ex-Liverpool striker lurched from injury crisis to fresh injury crisis, leaving West Ham’s attacking threat looking makeshift at best, something David Gold was quick to criticise in the summer.
This season, having learnt the lessons of the last campaign, and with more financial stability resulting in more breathing room in the market Allardyce was able to build a new attacking threat. Enner Valencia’s signing after catching attention at the World Cup may have found certain critics tapping at their transfer ‘golden rule’ – don’t buy a ‘World Cup star’ post tournament, they’ll be overrated and overpriced – but the Ecuadorian has impressed in the opening fixtures, a fact helped for his penchant for scoring spectacular goals – his header against Burnley was clocked at 35 mph.
Equally as eye-catching has been Allardyce’s other signing Diafra Sakho, who’s early season scoring exploits – including a deft lob in his team’s 3-1 win over Liverpool – means he is already only one goal away from equalling last season’s top goalscorer, Kevin Nolan.
Nolan, so often labelled as an ‘Alladyce player’, may have to bide his time on the bench since returning from a shoulder injury as the new-look West Ham midfield performs as well as it has been – a nod to the manager’s pragmatism. Signing Alex Song on loan from Barcelona raised many an eyebrow, but the careers of Jay-Jay Okocha and Youri Djorkaeff suggest that Allardyce can get the best out of players, given the right set of circumstances.
Given the pressures exerted by fans, owners and media on Sam Allardyce in the last campaign it is no small victory for the manager. Sitting 4th (and considering the team were unlucky for to have not got at least draws against Spurs and Manchester United respectively) and in a style befitting the expectations of the supporters – only 15% of all passes so far this season are those considered ‘long passes’ – all things point towards a promising season, and perhaps some vindication for the club’s manager.