Sam Allardyce: 'This season is all about winning...and I'm a winner'
A bullish Sam Allardyce tells Sam Wallace he just needs his West Ham team to buy into his methods and promotion awaits
Of all the places in England, Canary Wharf is perhaps the last one you might expect Sam Allardyce, "Big Sam" himself, to have made his home, three months shy of his 57th birthday.
But he loves it there especially, he says, his apartment, where a straight-talking Black Country lad who made his name in Lancashire lives next door to investment bankers.
It is 10 years since Allardyce first won promotion to the Premier League with Bolton Wanderers. It is 20 years this summer since he launched his management career at Limerick with a priest for a chairman and a transfer kitty raised by shaking a tin around local pubs. It is 30 years since he last decamped to London, as a player signed for £90,000 by Millwall. But the less said of that the better given Allardyce is now in charge at West Ham United.
He got to know Canary Wharf when Bolton Wanderers played away at West Ham and Charlton Athletic and is a regular in the Italian restaurant where we meet. As usual the story Allardyce has to tell is full of all the stuff that makes football interesting: transfer coups, billionaire owners, brutal sackings and the whiff of betrayal from those around him.
But most of all it is about taking on the challenge of restoring West Ham to the Premier League just two years before they are scheduled to move into the Olympic Stadium with a 60,000-capacity.
He takes great pride in having built a Bolton Wanderers team that achieved things the club had never done before (qualify for Europe) and he would like to do the same at West Ham, starting against Cardiff City in the Championship tomorrow.
Sacked by Mike Ashley at Newcastle and then again at Blackburn Rovers last year by the Venkys Group when they bought that club, does it depress him, being back in the Championship? "It doesn't depress me, because there are times in life when you take the chance to go and do better," he says. "And it went horribly wrong for me at [Newcastle]. But I sit comfortably with it because it was through no fault of my own."
Confidence is not something Allardyce lacks. Not now after the long struggle up through the hierarchy with Blackpool and Notts County to Bolton and certainly not since he established himself over nine years as a Premier League manager. And confidence is exactly what a beleaguered West Ham needed after last season's dismal relegation.
"It is a different challenge," he says. "It's not about trying to survive in the Premier League. It's about winning. A lot of the Premier League is just about surviving, for the money, and not about winning. I'm a winner and it will be exciting to try to win something this season.
"I'm me and I run a football club based on my structure, my model. My model has been developed over many years and I know that model works if everyone supports it. I have to get everyone believing in the expertise I own in that particular area. People will always question you in this job but I have the answers to make them understand what I am doing. The most important thing is to make West Ham believe they are winners. The team on the field are paid to win. They are not paid to play football and see how it goes. They are paid to win, in this case in a marathon season of 46 games."
He has signed Abdoulaye Faye, Joey O'Brien and Matt Taylor already and you would not bet against El-Hadji Diouf, another player from his time at Bolton and Blackburn, pitching up at the Boleyn Ground. But it was the signing of Kevin Nolan from Newcastle that caught the eye, especially as Allardyce had persuaded him to drop down a division.
"Kevin felt no loyalty to Newcastle United for what he had done there. We are a people business. Our understanding is something we built because he was a young lad when I came in to Bolton. I was a younger manager totally obsessed with making Bolton Wanderers a successful club. All those values he has taken away with him, but when he sought some loyalty back [at Newcastle United] it wasn't there.
"If you take a footballer for granted you will find that he will not be very happy and he will do one of two things. He will either leave or he just won't be as committed as he was before. There was a tremendous commitment from him. That's the element that's most exciting for me. It is what he is going to demand from the players and making sure we get out the division at the first time of asking. He has just experienced it at Newcastle. They got 102 points and he scored 17 goals [in their Championship winning season, 2009-2010].
"So when he's telling [West Ham team-mates] what it takes to get promoted, how are they going to argue with him? Carlton Cole can't argue with him. Scott Parker can't argue with him. Robert Green can't argue with him.
"Kevin can say to them, 'To get out of this league we are going to have to do this and if you don't do it you're going to get a shock. You will find out it ain't so easy'. That's one of the big pluses for me."
Allardyce has fought to keep on most of the staff at West Ham – "highly qualified, and in the right areas" – who he feels are more crucial than ever to keeping his players strong and focused over a gruelling 46-game season. He expects a lot of his staff and they tend to feel loyalty back to him. Which brings us to the uncomfortable question of Steve Kean, his successor at Blackburn.
Allardyce had taken Kean on at Blackburn when he was an out-of-work coach. Kean was given the manager's job the day that Allardyce was sacked by Venkys. Venkys were advised by the TV rights group Kentaro, whose affiliate company also happened to have Kean as a client. So how will Allardyce feel when he next encounters Kean on a touchline?
"I would say the thing is firmly in Steve Kean's court. Only he knows when he wakes up and looks in the mirror. He spoke to me once and I think that since then we have never spoken. [That was] the day I left. I rang him and said 'I've been sacked'. That was it."
Does Allardyce think Kean knew he was about to get the job? "He had to have, didn't he, really," he says. "They were sacking Neil McDonald [Allardyce's No 2] at the same time as me so I was saying 'Why? Why are you sacking him? Neil needs to take over. He's been a manager. If you don't like Sam Allardyce's face, fair enough but here's the man.'"
Pushed on what really happened at Blackburn behind the scenes, he said: "You know the answers to that. I can't repeat it.
"They [the Walker family trust] were desperate to sell the club for many, many years. My satisfaction at Blackburn was that I created so much interest in Blackburn. I know it sounds like I'm blowing my own trumpet but I might as well. Jose Mourinho does it all the time and everyone fucking loves him, so why shouldn't I?
"I created such a vibrant football club that there were four or five [groups] who wanted to buy it having never previously shown any interest. Based on the fact that I was producing profit with results. It wasn't the best – Arsenal's profit ratio is so massive and obviously Manchester United sold [Cristiano] Ronaldo for £80m – but our profit ratio was fantastic.
"The year we finished 10th [2009-2010, his only full season] we made a profit rather than a deficit having [previously] kept them in the Premier League. It was the same at Bolton. When I left Bolton I made a net profit after eight years. That was not even including Nicolas [Anelka] because I left before he was sold."
And so it starts again, this time at a club that inspires great loyalty in its support despite the absence of any sustained success since the 1960s and no top-flight league title in their history. West Ham is a club for the incurably romantic and in that sense Allardyce fits right in because, as befits his nickname, he does like to think big.
"This team have to be ready to move and create a new history. To remember the past but to have people talking about the current time. Which is what people talked about at Bolton with the new Reebok [Stadium] legacy. It was not just about Nat Lofthouse. Now, the kids will talk about Anelka, Djorkaeff, Hierro, Campo, Okocha, Candela, Speed, Gardner. It's a modern day legacy. No one finished higher on a consistent basis than we did. If you look at the difficulties in our time compared to [the 1950s side], it was a greater achievement.
"So creating the new modern day history, for me has to go with the new stadium and not forgetting Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters. Not forget Alvin Martin or Tony Gale from the time when I played – they might not have won anything but it's the highest they have been since – and look to create a new modern day history."
These are strong opinions, and not everyone will agree with Allardyce but the man is past caring about that. He wants to be successful. So it is with some trepidation that the subject is broached of his alter ego, a satirical Sam Allardyce account on Twitter so popular it has more than 66,000 followers and was the subject of a legal attempt by Allardyce himself to shut it down. It is popular because it captures a commonly-held view of Allardyce with an absurdist twist. It is near the edge but it can be very funny.
"I have no idea about Twitter," Allardyce responds until he is persuaded to see the spoof as a back-handed compliment. "Yeah, you've changed my view, that'll do me. Mrs Allardyce reads it a lot. I suppose one day I'll have a look at it. It's a bit like an impressionist doing an impression of you. He might take the piss out of you, but you're happy he's done it."
Fair play to Big Sam. He does not always take himself as seriously as some have assumed. And do not doubt his commitment to making West Ham successful.
As his alter ego @TheBig_Sam recently tweeted to an aspiring manager seeking advice for his first game "Suit, ear-piece, head full of dreams. Sorted". For the real thing, one imagines tomorrow afternoon will be much the same.
From Bolton to Upton Park (via Tampa and Limerick) - Allardyce's career
1983: Tampa Bay
1983-84: Coventry City
1984-85: Huddersfield Town
1986-89: Preston North End
1989-91: West Bromwich
1992: Preston North End
1997-99: Notts County
2007-08: Newcastle United
2008-10: Blackburn Rovers
2011- West Ham United
*After winning the Third Division title by a 19-point margin at Notts County in 1998, Allardyce caught the eye of his former club, Bolton. Under his management, the club gained promotion to the Premier League in 2001.
He quickly established the club as a Premier League force, leading them into Europe for the first time as they finished runners-up in the 2004 Carling Cup.
Allardyce left Bolton in 2007, citing his desire for silverware, but endured an unpopular spell at Newcastle. A mixed spell at Blackburn ended abruptly last December. He took over at West Ham in June.
The Wisdom of Big Sam
*I would be more suited to Inter Milan or Real Madrid. It wouldn't be a problem for me to manage those clubs because I would win the Double or the league every time.
*l make no apologies about how we go about our job. We are a very attractive team, no matter what anybody says.
On his Bolton team, September 2005
*There is no other Sam Allardyce, there is just the one. There never has been and never will be another Sam Allardyce. Sam Allardyce doesn't manage like anyone else.
*The fact that I have done virtually every job makes me comfortable about walking into any management position.
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