Sam the manager is winning fight for recognition

Allardyce fine-tunes the mind games and suddenly the Premiership elite are taking his Wanderers seriously
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The Independent Online

The unenlightened will blithely assume that "Big Sam" is the natural successor of "Big Jack", both of them uncompromising central defenders who put the fear of God into opponents but are liable to suffer a condescending raised eyebrow or two when attempting to carry their respective experience, reputation and that prefix into management.

In fact Sam Allardyce, once as idolised in his own position at Burnden Park as Nat Lofthouse was in his, resembles Jack Charlton only in that he is a dominating character who has acquired cult status among his team's followers by achieving results that should be unattainable, according to all conventional laws of talent accumulation and management.

While the Fulham manager Jean Tigana has been been able to assemble his players with the extravagance of an "It" girl at Harrods, Allardyce has been restricted to the equivalent of patronising Ronnie Barker's corner shop in Open All Hours. In the summer, the Bolton manager did sign Henrik Pedersen from Silkeborg for £600,000, Djibril Diawara from Torino on loan, and Akinori Nishizawa from Cerezo Osaka – the first Japanese player to join an English Premiership club – also on loan; plus Nicky Southall from Gillingham, although those acquisitions followed the sale of Eidur Gudjohnsen to Chelsea and Claus Jensen to Charlton for a combined £8m in the preceding 12 months.

Yet, whether because of redoubtable spirit or the appliance of science, and it is probably a combination of the two, Allardyce's men stand proudly at the summit of the Premiership, with their manager of just under two years the subject of a burgeoning reputation.

True, three straight victories do not a season make. But as BSkyB's commentator Rob Hawthorne reflected wryly after the latter of those triumphs, Monday night's 2-1 defeat of Liverpool: "Sam needs 40 points for safety, so that's just another nine wins and one draw to go."

By Christmas, we may be chronicling Wanderers' terminal decline, but one suspects not, judging by the manner in which Allardyce has developed a strategy to maximise the potential of his multicultural squad when confronted with the Premiership élite. This is the third occasion Bolton have been promoted to the Premiership in six years, and the man who has emerged at this level from the relative obscurity of reserve manager at West Brom, player-manager at Limerick, youth team coach and caretaker manager at Preston, Blackpool manager and having run Sunderland's centre of excellence, will go to all ends of the earth to preserve those precious credentials.

Nobody would suggest his side assembled from around the globe – three Danes, a Finn, an Icelander, a Jamaican, a Senegalese, an Italian and a Japanese, although as he was attending Malta v Bulgaria under-21s on Friday night, that may well have increased by now – could compare with the Owens, Heskeys and Gerrards of Liverpool, but they appear well balanced, and in harmony.

"You have to sign players from different cultures because you have to get players wherever you can, players prepared to play for you," he says. "We have to teach our new foreign players that desire to help each other. Success is not all about skill, but about team spirit, too. The big thing about Bolton and our success has been the willingness of the players to work for each other. We mustn't lose that."

For the benefit of those outside the North-west, it should be emphasised that Allardyce's Bolton Wanderers are the antithesis of the bruising, bone-crunching style of defending that once endeared him to the old Burnden Park regulars. Nor has it been directly inspired by the Wolves' hard-man Ron Flowers he worshipped as a boy from the Molineux terraces.

In his idyll, Allardyce's team would be committed to attack and play an open 4-3-3, but he recognises that, at times, pragmatism must have a significant place in the new Reebok tactics book. Not too many sides restrict Gérard Houllier's men to five opportunities in a game, not even Bayern Munich the previous Friday in the Uefa Super Cup, but that was what the experienced captain Gudni Bergsson and his fellow defenders managed against last season's Treble winners.

Allardyce is an imposing figure on the touch line. Even with that trademark moustache removed, he retains that bearing of a World War II bomber pilot. He is an intriguing blend of the old and new school, happy to surf (the internet that is, for novel approaches to coaching) or sup (with his players), although he will stand no nonsense from those who would destabilise the operation.

He is a staunch advocate of sports psychology. He has had psychological profiles compiled of all his players andhas even encouraged his great friend, the more sceptical Peter Reid, to do likewise. "The profiles help me to understand my team and how they might respond to different pressures," he explains. "I want them as a back-up to my instincts and experience. They are there as tools; they are not to be used to judge individuals. If you do that you're in desperate trouble because you lose trust."

Many of his players will testify to the success of his methods. The former Bolton player, Robbie Elliott, now with Newcastle, who at one time would have put clubbing well ahead of the class-room in his spare time, has started a degree course in sports science. He attributes that transference in priorities to Allardyce. "He changed my attitude to life and opened my mind to things," says Elliott.

Allardyce also employs the expertise of a fitness trainer, Ed Baranowski. It is significant that in last season's First Division no team scored more goals after the 60th minute. On Monday, the instinctive reaction after Emile Heskey had cancelled out Michael Ricketts' goal was that Liverpool would emerge the stronger. In fact in fitness terms, Bolton rarely looked like capitulating.

Allardyce's coaching career simmered for several years after he had retired from a playing career that took him from Bolton to West Brom via Sunderland, Millwall, Tampa Bay Rowdies, Coventry, Huddersfield and Preston. At one time, such was his frustration he bitterly attacked the way in which foreign players were being turned straight into coaches. "Sadly, people like me are not the in-thing now," he said. "You need to be Italian, wear sunglasses, drive a beautiful car and know all about the beautiful game."

But times have changed. Allardyce, for one, has demonstrated that a thoughtful, inventive and shrewd practitioner can emerge from the ranks of the old-fashioned stopper – and much closer to home.

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