James Lawton: Time for Allardyce to manage his players not to be a politician or a self-promoter

Allardyce needs another famous victory over Arsenal more than ever before
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Back when Sam Allardyce was the lord of more or less all he surveyed, when he touted himself as England's head coach of destiny with a fine confidence, and, with his mates at the League Managers Association, very publicly brandished red cards in the direction of any football man who had not slavishly piled up his coaching certificates, some saw him as a pillar of the game. Who knows, they may still be proved right, but if this Premiership season is proving anything it is that the stakes and the bar has never been raised so high.

These are radically different days than when Sam Allardyce made a name for himself not as an innovator, not as a purist, but a spoiler in those times when it seemed there need be no limit to his ambition. He suggested that all that was needed to transform him into one of the power centres of English football was a small name change. Sam Allardici would do it very nicely, thank you.

No matter that the long throw was a cornerstone of his tactical onslaught on the meritocracy of the game, that his Bolton invariably appeared to have been gorging on the best cuts of red meat for several days when Arsenal, especially Arsenal, showed up, Big Sam was the Big Voice. Eddie Gray, he said, wasn't qualified to manage Leeds because he didn't have the right badge. Some of us thought this was a shame because Gray had spent his formative years operating in a Leeds United side of such skill, and ferocity, they would probably have grown weary of the options presented to them by Allardyce's one-dimensional Wanderers.

However, the terrible beauty of the game is that every so often it puts everyone under pressure and tomorrow night at Newcastle we will get a better measure not of Allardyce the politician and self- promoter, but a football man who has to dig down into all his resources and these are not the ones spelled out in coaching manuals and truly shape the mood and the confidence of a group of millionaire players.

It is Allardyce's potentially savage fate that before the start of a run which may well shape his future, games against Birmingham, Fulham, Derby County and Wigan, Allardyce must duel with, of all people, Arsne Wenger.

Wenger left the Reebok Stadium, more times than he cares to remember, bedevilled by the fear that however much talent he collected in the wake of his championship team, he might never again capture the weight and the resilience that it takes to win titles. He once lost a title, effectively, at The Reebok when Thierry Henry disappeared and Arsenal, already hearing the hoofbeats of Manchester United, dwindled before our eyes.

Now Wenger goes into the lair of his stricken nemesis proclaiming one redeeming truth about a Premier League which might fairly be criticised for its greed, its myopia, its lack of interest in the well-being of the national team and some rather alarming technical deficiencies in the important matter of proper defence. It is that mediocrity of thought and style has never been exposed to more serious, at times even disembowelling punishment.

Allardyce's Newcastle discovered this painfully enough when they met their first top-four team the weekend before last. Rafa Benitez's Liverpool found a stride and a conviction that announced an entirely different class and they maintained that mood quite imperiously in putting down Bolton on Sunday a Bolton which a week earlier had caught Manchester United without Rooney and Ronaldo and any real appetite for a physical battle.

It meant that by yesterday morning the top four was once again a statement of superior resources and a sharply higher class of football.

Whoever gets within serious striking distance of these formidable pace-setters at the finish, whether it is Martin O'Neill's Aston Villa, who made such a significant contribution to a superb match against Arsenal at the weekend, a Manchester City maybe refreshed by Sven Goran Eriksson in the January transfer window, or a Blackburn Rovers steadied by the resolve of Mark Hughes, will be able to claim work of an impressive order.

Given the structure and the bite of his team against an often sublime Arsenal, O'Neill must be rated favourite. His players are acquiring the most vital habits in the game; they are attending to detail, they are battling to the limits of their not inconsiderable ability. The result was a match which had become a competitive glory long before the end.

This is the nature of the challenge facing Sam Allardyce as he prepares Newcastle for tomorrow night. He needs another famous victory over Arsenal more than ever before but the suspicion is that it will require new methods, and maybe a new vision. It is a big ask for Big Sam but then he has never been shy about posing a few himself. He should know, too, that the most searching ones are always likely to come from a game that sometimes takes up a life, and an interrogation, all of its own.

Hatton not boxing clever in dangerous game of hubris

Ricky Hatton has done so much for British boxing there has to be a certain reluctance to say it, but then some of his statements in Las Vegas are beginning to smack of the great bane of so much of British sport, the dreaded hubris.

Here, for example, "The Rumble in the Jungle was supposed to be a mismatch. You look at Ali. He was oblivious to pain. Soaked it up. Those big right hands I took from Kostya Tszyu. I thought, 'Oh, that stung a bit, but I don't care'. It must break their hearts. Because of the challenge that was in front of me, I felt oblivious to pain and tiredness. I don't think I left him alone for half a second. I don't see myself feeling even slightly tired against Mayweather. My heart will explode before he stops me coming at him. I've got too much fire in me."

Admirable sentiments, no doubt, but there is some slight difficulty in equating the right hands of Foreman and Tszyu. Foreman was a punching machine of immense force.

Tszyu, impressive warrior though he was in the best of days, fought against Hatton with the reluctance of a man who might have just been talked out of retirement. Come to think of it, he was.

This is not to say that Hatton will not fight with all his usual nerve and ardour in the small hours of Sunday morning. However, Mayweather is a prickly character who puts much store in his pride. He is also spoken of, with some reason, as the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet.

He will not have warmed to another of Hatton's pre-fight announcements, the one that said that whenever he feels doubt creeping into his heart he simply shoves in a DVD and watches a Mayweather fight.

It's a good sound bite but it might just be counter-productive. Ask any old fighter who deep down fears he might be slightly over-matched and he will tell you that one thing you do least of all. It is to concentrate the mind of your most dangerous opponent.

Murali's sorcery stretches to silencing Barmy Army

For as long he practises his deadly art, there will be questions about the legitimacy of Muttiah Muralitharan's bowling action. However, genius is rarely accepted without a question or two and for the Sri Lankan sorcerer there can only be the deepest satisfaction that he has overtaken his great rival Shane Warne's total of 708 Test wickets.

As England were enmeshed in his brilliance, we are told a group of monks paid reverence from a rooftop. Also there was a prolonged shrieking that must have poured apprehension into the hearts of the English victims. However, there was a bonus. The noise apparently drowned out that of the Barmy Army. Is there no limit to the wonder of Muttiah Muralitharan? It appears not.

Larsson leaves real world behind

Facing the world after his sensational winner for Birmingham City against Tottenham Hotspur, the hitherto retiring Sebastian Larsson described his feat in a way never heard before in the jaded old vineyard of the interviewing mixed zone. He said it was "surreal". It is language not known to slip from the tongue of his new manager Alex McLeish. However, what's in a word? McLeish was, anyway, already over the moon.