When he was given the Newcastle job in May last year Sam Allardyce arrived in the North-east by helicopter, very much the high roller, complete with entourage and favoured tabloid scribe in tow. In a region where football values are allied to a traditional working-class view of life, it raised a few eyebrows. But that was nothing compared to how the locals felt about him eight months down the line: their hatred was visceral. The whole city wanted Allardyce out.
When he arrives in Blackburn this morning, Allardyce might reflect on the way he approached his short, unhappy spell on Tyneside which was, to a great extent, at odds to everything he achieved in the rest of his management career. At Blackpool, Notts County and Bolton Wanderers, Allardyce worked wonders at humble clubs with limited resources. At Newcastle he just seemed to lose the plot, consumed by the belief that he had secured a place at the top table of English management.
First of all there was, of course, the style of football. What Geordies will remember above all about the Allardyce reign, what they considered most unforgivable, was not the helicopter entrance, the vast backroom staff or even the disastrous signing of Jose Enrique for £6.3m. It will be the unremittingly unattractive style of football Allardyce championed that meant he never connected with the Newcastle fans. His team were 11th in the Premier League when he was sacked but he had completely misread the nature of the job and paid the price for it.
The challenge for Allardyce at Ewood Park is to demonstrate that he still has the qualities that made him so successful in eight years at Bolton. He may feel privately that at 54 it is hard on him that he is at yet another club involved in a relegation battle but also relieved that he has been given another chance. Before he took the Newcastle job he would, for instance, have considered the West Ham job beneath him, yet little more than one year later, when it came up this season, he was not even considered.
Why had Allardyce become so unpopular? He spent a lot of money on one very bad player at Newcastle – Joey Barton, £5.8m – and plenty more on the extremely average Enrique, Alan Smith (£6m) and David Rozehnal (£2.9m). At Bolton he had built up a huge back-room staff over the years which he brought over virtually en masse to Newcastle. As results began to go against him, that began to look expensive and unnecessary.
Allardyce demanded big changes to the training ground at Newcastle, new scouts were employed all over the country. In his previous job at Bolton he had built slowly, adding members of staff when the opportunity arose, changing according to the budget. Even at a club as accustomed to turmoil as Newcastle it seemed like too much too soon. His relationship with the agent Mark Curtis also caused aggravation in the intensely competitive world of football transfers.
In his defence, Allardyce also fell victim to a major regime change at Newcastle. The former chairman Freddy Shepherd gave him the job before he found the club bought out from under his feet by Mike Ashley, who has hardly shown himself to be an inspired football administrator since then. Allardyce would doubtless have got longer under Shepherd but even he would have had to have been uncharacteristically brave to ignore the attitude of the supporters towards their manager.
What version of Allardyce will turn up at Blackburn Rovers? At Bolton he could be a charming and accessible manager who would speak plainly about his players and occasionally reminisce about his time in football, like his first management job at Limerick in Ireland, where he and the chairman, who was also the local priest, would go out with the collection tins to raise money in the town's pubs. At Bolton he astutely signed players like Jay-Jay Okocha, Youri Djorkaeff and Fernando Hierro by paying big wages and little or no transfer fees.
The role of the underdog suited him well. He would recall the time that, as manager of Blackpool, he lost in the Second Division [now League One] play-offs to Bradford City in 1996 and afterwards was sacked by chairman Owen Oyston, who was then in prison, convicted of rape. Big Sam had seen both sides of football and lived to tell the tale, which was part of his appeal.
Yet like so many people that the game has kicked around there was an underlying chippiness about Allardyce that he had never got the credit that was his due. He could do little to disguise his dislike of Arsène Wenger, whose Arsenal team always got a hard time when they visited the Reebok Stadium. Allardyce was a natural disciple for Sir Alex Ferguson, in whose career he saw the potential for his own: an unremarkable player who had excelled in management by embracing new methods but retaining an old-school hardness.
The difference with Allardyce is it all unravelled too quickly. His son Craig was caught up in the BBC Panorama sting on corruption in football and, although nothing was ever proved in relation to Allardyce Snr, it did his father's reputation no good. His adherence to sports science and high-tech game analysis just looked pretentious when the results fell apart on the pitch for Newcastle. After he had left Bolton a couple of games before they finished seventh in the Premier League in 2006-07 and come close to getting the England job, his reputation was in tatters in less than a year.
It must have been dreadfully hard on a man who had worked in the lower leagues to establish himself and had broken records for his promotion season from the fourth tier with Notts County in 1997-98. In the 11 months since leaving Newcastle he has worked as a pundit, mainly in the Middle East, and done a few interviews expressing his desire to return to management. He has probably also recognised that he will never get a job as big as Newcastle again and that, while the lot of a Ferguson or a Wenger will never be his, life at clubs like Bolton and Blackburn is not so bad after all.
Happy Trotter: Sam's record
Big Sam's managerial history:
1991-92 Limerick Wins promotion in player-managerial role in only season at club.
1994-96 Blackpool Surprisingly sacked after just missing out on promotion.
1997-99 Notts County Leads Magpies to record-breaking promotion by 19-point margin.
1999-2007 Bolton Wanderers Transforms club on small budget, establishing them in top flight.
2007-08 Newcastle United Sacked after eight poor months in charge at St James' Park.
Bolton before & after Big Sam
1998-99 6th, Championship (Allardyce appointed)
1999-2000 6th, Championship
2000-01 3rd, Championship, win Play-offs
2001-02 16th, Premier League
2002-03 17th, Premier League
2003-04 8th, Premier League
2004-05 6th, Premier League
2005-06 8th, Premier League
2006-07 7th, Premier League (Allardyce resigns)
2007-08 16th, Premier League
2008-09 11th, Premier LeagueReuse content