Big Sam insists he's still on the up

After 10 years in the Premier League, Allardyce faces a fresh challenge at West Ham: promotion
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The Independent Football

Big Sam strolled to the dug-out for West Ham's pre-season friendly at Dagenham & Redbridge last week like Dean Martin walking on to a stage in Las Vegas – only with a better suit. He acknowledged the cheers with a breezy wave, joked with his coaching staff and was happy to pose for pictures with supporters and sign autographs after a 1-0 win.

But David Sullivan and David Gold, the owners, did not hire Sam Allardyce to beat League Two clubs. Taking West Ham back to the Premier League at the first attempt is his task, and once the Championship campaign starts, the relaxed figure of a summer evening has to deliver the intensity that was missing last season as West Ham sleepwalked to relegation under Avram Grant.

Allardyce accepts the challenge, and there is no hedging of bets with talk of stabilisation and regrouping, which is just as well. He knows that the size of his new club – not to mention the new manager – means that expectations are inevitable.

"No one else can put any more expectations and pressure on than me," he said. "Because I haven't come down here to spend a long time down in the Championship. I've come to win the club promotion and get myself where I've been for the last 10 years, and that's managing in the top league in the world."

The signing of his former Bolton regulars Kevin Nolan and Matthew Taylor have signalled his intent; Nolan, bought from Newcastle, is expected to supply the leadership a promotion-seeking team need.

"You're happy that that type of talent is moving a step down to try to get itself back up. Kevin and Matt have the same ambition as me: to spend as little time as possible in the Championship. But we're not taking it for granted that we're going to get promoted. There's a lot of reallyexperienced managers in this division who are wanting to do the same as me, and young up-and-coming guys who want to make their names. And a lot of money spent."

But West Ham are trying to unload more Premier League salaries. "We're reducing our costs and overheads where a lot are adding on to what they had last year, so it will be a tougher division. It's going to be damned hard work over a marathon season of 46 games. We have to perform at a consistent level and make sure we're always in a winning frame of mind."

That, he admits, required altering the prevailing mood. "The club was in despair really. Relegation leaves a club traumatised, from the owners to the fans, the players to the tea lady. And you've got to get them over the trauma and back to positive thinking. You win a game of football as much with your mind as with your ability."

Allardyce has won plenty of games with his own sharp mind – his instant exploitation of the new offside rules bordered on genius, and his application of sports science at Bolton was well ahead of its time – but he is still perceived as a typical northern former muck 'n' nettles centre-half.

Many of the perceptions are wrong – he is not a northerner, for example, having been born and brought up in the West Midlands – and the one that rankles most is his reputation as a long-ball coach, at odds with the West Ham way. "It bores me to tears, to be honest. It will be answered by our performances this year," he said.

The harshest judges will be West Ham's supporters, but though Allardyce admits it will be a while before he feels like a Londoner again – he played for Millwall for two seasons in the early 1980s – he appreciates the club's traditions, hopes to promote young players from their vaunted aca-demy, and relishes the responsibility of entertaining a demanding fanbase.

"They're like Newcastle fans. They live and breathe the club and work hard for the money to come and watch them, so we have got to reward them for turning up in their thousands, as they have done for many, many years. Even though, realistically, over the last few years it has been a bit of a yo-yo time for them. It's the Championship now and for me it's a big change from the past 10 years of success."

That analysis of his decade in the Premier League defies, rather than ignores, the fact that he was sacked at both Newcastle (prematurely) and Blackburn (illogically), and West Ham will surely settle for a repeat of his effect on his previous clubs. "Everywhere I've been there has been progression, even Newcastle," he said. "Even though we were six months into a complete overhaul of the club, we were 11th when I left and they'd finished 14th the year before.

"At Blackburn we completely turned that around, and everyone knows what we did at Bolton because we were top eight, top six and looking like a Champions' League-threateningside. West Ham is a different type of challenge, trying to win promotion and experience the joy of that." Succeed, and Big Sam will be waving to the crowds again in April.