Rain hammering down on Pendle Hill from storm clouds as black as night: it is an early morning scene in Lancashire that Sam Allardyce has observed a thousand times before, but there seemed to be a particular poignancy in it yesterday as he wondered whether he would ever know a different landscape.
Allardyce returns to Bolton, his spiritual home, tomorrow for the first time since football, a game which seemed to have him marked out for wider horizons than these, brought him back down to Lancashire earth with a bump. When he launched his Newcastle United managerial career at his old club on the first day of the 2007-8 season, saw his side go 3-0 up inside 27 minutes and left with the points, the firmament seemed to be his. Then he became one of those many souls burned by Newcastle's slow combustion and it was after nearly a year out of football, that he was offered a way back in by Blackburn Rovers last December.
A glance at the Premier League table this morning tells you that Allardyce, once talked of in the same breath as Fabio Capello for the England coach's position, really is right back where it all began. His side are two points and two places above his old club, flirting with what Allardyce described yesterday as the "R word", and facing up to an unwelcome piece of club history. Defeat at the Reebok would be Rovers' 12th in a row on their travels – which last happened in 1965.
Allardyce has never made much secret of his belief that, as he once famously put it, life might have taken a different course if he was a foreign manager answering to the name of "Sam Allar-dici." He reflected, on his appointment at Ewood Park, that "I probably think I should be at Real Madrid but I'm English, aren't I?" (Juande Ramos had just left a beleaguered Tottenham Hotspur for the Bernabeu at the time.) But his struggles since leaving Bolton imbue him with a feeling that he has something to prove at a stadium where his four consecutive top-eight finishes between 2004 and 2007 ought to have said everything. "If you go back you want to show them what you've got and what they perhaps might be missing," he says.
What Allardyce achieved there is behind him – "the past is in the past" – but the glint in his eye as he recalls it all hints that he didn't appreciate the contentment until it was gone. "It was fantastic time, a fantastic era for me," he says. "The club and team I built in that time has gone down in the history books. That can't change. Whatever people think or say it's down there in black and white. I think it was an outstanding time to be managing in my career."
More outstanding than current times, for sure. At Blackburn, Allardyce finds himself with fewer resources than ever – ironic, considering he left the Reebok "because they didn't want to finish fourth and I did," as he tells it now. Top four aspirations are something that no modest Lancashire club can have now.
"It's about financial clout more than ever before and Blackburn's got less," he says. "A few other clubs have started to spend more than they usually would. Portsmouth and West Ham have had a go and look at the cost of that, financially. Football might be the closest thing to my heart but I understand the business too. I understand that no football club like ours can extend themselves like that for success. It might be catastrophic later on. And then, you've got your Aston Villas, Man Citys and Sunderlands – now spending millions and millions and that makes life more difficult."
There's a sting here for Allardyce, who waited and waited for the Sunderland job after Roy Keane quit and accepted Blackburn's offer when it became clear that no one from Wearside would be calling. So while Steve Bruce has been rapidly assembling a squad, Allardyce has had to make do and mend. His six acquisitions have all been foreign players, a nod to his old Bolton transfer strategy, but it has been Nikola Kalinic, not Nicolas Anelka; Gaël Givet, not Gary Speed. Allardyce, for whom subsequent league games against Fulham and Stoke City make this a big week, paints an austere picture of how he's found life at the other end of the Premier League. "It's got such huge pressure that revolves around it," he says. "Living in the bottom six is a very difficult place to be. There's always that 'R word' that's talked about almost from the very start of the season. It's so transparent now; no matter what you do, you're in the public eye." How far he seems to have travelled from Bolton and the days when he was, as he says, "on a particularly high roll – on the up and up." Allardyce has certainly not lost the belief that he is capable of managing at the highest level. "It sounds a bit big headed, I know, but I'll always know I could manage anywhere in the world," he says. But will the opportunity arise again? "Probably not," he concludes. "But that's life."
My other life
*Away from the daily struggles of life managing a football club, Big Sam Allardyce is a keen darts player. While at Bolton he was handed a wild card entry into a regional darts final of the UK Open. "It will be a different kind of pressure and who knows what might happen?" he said at the time, before going down 5-0 to Peter Castle.
Allardyce also helped launch an arrows event with Phil 'The Power' Taylor, along with his then-players James 'Machine Gun' Milner and Steven 'The Hitman' Harper. "I know Sam well and he's a decent player," Taylor said. "Phil's a great guy," Big Sam replied in turn. "It was fantastic to have the chance to play with him."Reuse content