Sam Allardyce has long seen himself as one of football’s innovators, a groundbreaker at Bolton and now pushing the boundaries at West Ham. The man who dabbled with sending out a striker-less side in the first part of the season began the New Year by ushering an XI out of the away dressing room at Craven Cottage on Wednesday without a single centre-half.
Allardyce would no doubt rather be regarded as an English Vicente del Bosque than a southern Craig Levein, who four years ago fielded a Scotland side in Prague with no front man. But the result at Fulham, which ensconced West Ham firmly in the bottom three, shoved him a step closer to joining Levein in football’s dole queue.
Tomorrow’s challenging FA Cup tie at Nottingham Forest is unlikely to have any bearing on his future – Allardyce will field a young team – nor next week’s first leg of the Carling Cup semi-final against Manchester City. It is what comes after that that matters to those in charge at Upton Park.
Blessed with employers who operate with the safety catch on, Allardyce is safe for now. The Davids, Gold and Sullivan, are not prone to impetuous firings and have consistently backed their man; Sullivan did so again when they met on Thursday.
However, there are limits to the co-owners’ patience and the first two months of 2014 will settle Allardyce’s fate. By the end of February, they will have been to Cardiff and Aston Villa and hosted Swansea, Norwich and Southampton. If West Ham remain rooted in the relegation zone then the thread by which Allardyce’s job is hanging will be cut.
The manager’s selection at Fulham was forced by injury as the club have had misfortune heaped upon medical misfortune. West Ham’s defensive solidity was Allardyce’s comfort blanket but since Winston Reid injured an ankle in training in November, it has been whisked away. James Collins and James Tomkins are also out, leaving the club without a centre-half – 11 goals have been conceded in the last four games and there has been a solitary league win since Reid was sidelined.
Of his 25-strong senior squad, Allardyce has 14 available. Kevin Nolan, so long Allardyce’s stalwart but badly off colour this season, has been fined two weeks’ wages for his second red card in little over a month. He will serve the first of his four matches suspended tomorrow.
How many more games Andy Carroll will miss remains the £15m question. West Ham invested much of their transfer kitty on the striker, believing he would be fit by September. Carroll trained again with the first team, or what’s left of it, yesterday but Allardyce will resist the obvious temptation to hurry him back. Mid-January is the latest date offered.
Allardyce can point to misfortune at the back but the failure to stock the striking cupboard is his fault. He has much to do in the transfer window. Johnny Heitinga said no but the Carroll-esque Lacina Traoré is set to arrive on loan if he receives a work permit. The 6ft 8in Ivorian was part of Anzhi Makhachkala’s fire sale, joining Monaco but the Ligue 1 side are happy to loan him out until next season.
Over all this looms the Olympic Stadium. The refitting of West Ham’s 54,000-seat home-to-be is under way. In his Christmas message to supporters Sullivan painted a happy picture of what to expect come 2016.“The stadium will attract better players,” he said. “If we’re perceived as a big club with a great stadium in the heart of London, a lot of foreign players who might not have come will be attracted to West Ham.”
It is not a game plan that includes Championship football, as Allardyce is all too aware. Right now, he admitted yesterday, “life is exceptionally tough”.