It's easy to laugh at Sam Allardyce. But put yourself in his shoes.
Go on – put yourself in those hobnailed boots of his, winch them on to a suitably reinforced footstool, and tune into the Champions League on Tuesday evening. How do you think it's going to feel, to see Milan visit Real Madrid under this character Massimiliano Allegri? Where did you say they found him? Cagliari! Got that agonised, brainy look, as well, hasn't he? Well, let's see if he gets Robinho tracking back, shall we? I think we all know the answer to that one.
As Big Sam divulged a few weeks ago, this is just the kind of game where he might finally get the credit he deserves. Real Madrid, Internazionale, Manchester United, Chelsea – he'd win the Double every time. "It wouldn't be a problem," he said breezily. And then the poor fellow had to watch everyone catching each other's eye, the way you do when cornered by someone whose boasts always betray some epic insecurity.
So perhaps we should indulge him a little, as he once again takes self-parody into Nobel Prize territory. I mean, what would happen if Silvio Berlusconi got to hear all this Danny Murphy nonsense? It might cost Big Sam his big break.
Allardyce has made an indignant response to the Fulham captain's "outrageous" suggestion that he is among those managers who fire up players to a dangerous degree. Murphy, who also singled out Stoke and Wolves, implied that some coaches confine the tactical element in their team talks to the correct procedure for fixing bayonets.
As Allardyce pointed out, only three Premier League clubs have received fewer yellow cards than Blackburn this season. But discipline is exactly what Allardyce is good at. His men guarantee an unpleasant afternoon for their opponents, without stupidly provoking the referee. And that's just what the guv'nor loves to see: football as a man's game, where the best way to respect boundaries is to reach them. You need only consider his recommendation to Murphy himself: "If he's man enough, he'll apologise."
Allardyce protested that he is "too professional" to send out players to injure an opponent. Good grief, high standards indeed. Not even Murphy suggested anyone did that. He merely said that managers who get their players' blood up had to share responsibility for the brainless tackles that sometimes ensue. A brainless foul, Murphy might even argue, is the literal opposite of a calculated one.
Best of all, Allardyce then started referring to himself in the third person – a foolproof symptom of the pathological, Napoleon-on-Elba phase in any career of chronic self-regard: "Danny Murphy doesn't know about Sam Allardyce because he's never been managed by Sam Allardyce or coached by Sam Allardyce."
Poor old Danny Murphy. Like the rest of us, he can only judge Sam Allardyce on the ludicrous vanity of his public pronouncements; on his chippy, belligerent bearing; and the fact that his teams have long condensed the sort of virtues – stamina, commitment, physicality – that are together perceived by many other nations as a fig leaf to conceal inadequacies of technique and invention in the British game. Now it is true that a crude approach can also be effective – to a point. Both Allardyce and Tony Pulis, at Stoke, have managed to drop anchor in the Premier League at clubs with limited financial ballast. In itself, it would be churlish to disagree that is a respectable achievement. And both men do deploy one or two very skilful players, too. The blend is a triumph of pragmatism, but sometimes it can make the game more about hostility, about sharp knees and elbows, than imagination or entertainment. So be it. The problem is if this relative success persuades others that there is no other way to survive.
The experiences of teams like Burnley last season make the alternative seem hopelessly naive. Neutrals have been gratified to watch West Bromwich Albion and Blackpool start so well, but few believe they can survive in the long term by consistently playing better football than richer clubs. No, they say: forget the synchronised swimming, and stick with the water buffalo.
But is that truly so? There is a fellow in Germany whose work Big Sam may or not have been monitoring this season. Possibly Thomas Tuchel would not impress him as a proper football man. He's only 37, after all, and had a very brief playing career in the German third division before injury forced his retirement. He ended up working in a bar to help fund a degree in economics, but kept up an involvement in youth coaching at Stuttgart.
And he did so well that last year he was given his first senior coaching post at Mainz. The stadium has a capacity of 20,300, and Tuchel assembled a shoestring squad of loan signings and adventurous youngsters such as Lewis Holtby and André Schürrle. The "carnival club" play with terrific flair, pressing opponents and turning defence into attack at terrifying speed. And, having won all seven of their games in the Bundesliga this season, they can claim an outright record by beating Hamburg today.
That's all very well, Allardyce might tell you. Let's see if they're still up there at Christmas, never mind in 18 months' time. But it's important that someone makes a stand. And that's why we should be grateful to Murphy, as well.
Conceivably he was not aware that his comments would be so widely broadcast, and had no intention of lighting a tinderbox. But it would be nice to think that he was making a deliberate stand; that he is prepared for the backlash when Fulham meet the clubs he had the temerity to identify.
After all, it takes guts to stand up to a bully. In fact, it takes a man.
Packed stands of Bangalore suggest Test game is on course for a revival
Just as India was the focus of the heedless, headlong Twenty20 gold rush, so it has now brought succour to those revolted to see Test cricket betrayed for 30 pieces of silver. With the IPL suddenly stricken by expulsions and criminal investigation, Indians suddenly seem to have fallen back in love with Test cricket.
Most English observers myopically examined India's sensational 2-0 defeat of Australia for evidence of decline in Ricky Ponting's team. But there were far more significant portents for the game as a whole.
After winning an epic in Mohali, their last pair at the crease, this week India enjoyed a tumultuous seven-wicket win in Bangalore. Here was Test cricket going back to its roots. A policy of rotating matches to outposts with little cricket heritage had hastened the conclusion that Twenty20 had already killed off the five-day game. But it was just like old times in Bangalore, with packed stands and an atmosphere that palpably emboldened the home team. As Sachin Tendulkar (above) approached his latest, unprecedented landmark, 14,000 Test runs, every ball prompted an infectious pantomime – a disappointed sigh for every defensive shot, euphoria for every single, and pandemonium for every four.
He proceeded once again to lay the foundations of victory with 214 in the first innings, but just as significant was the partnership he shared with Cheteshwar Pujara on the final day. For the lad at the other end, making his debut at 22, in no way appeared overshadowed. Pujara has long been viewed as a potential heir to Rahul Dravid, when the time comes, and there was unmistakable symbolism in his promotion to replace Dravid at No 3 in the second innings – despite perishing to a fourth-ball grubber in the first. With 72 serene and elegant runs, he compounded the sense of vibrancy and renewal even as India approach a year at the top of the Test rankings.
In tandem with the news that a World Test Championship is a step closer, these are edifying days for those of us who have feared for Test cricket. For better or worse, India is the power base of the modern game. Just at the moment, that does not seem such a bad thing.Reuse content