The England Managerial Race: Sam Allardyce

I make no bones about being depressed at the prospect of the next England manager. We have enjoyed five years of Sven Goran Erickson, during which the expectations we hang around the national team have risen spectacularly. Under him, we went into the 2004 European Championships pretty much expecting to win, and, Brazil aside, we’re doing the same for the 2006 World Cup (we were right then, and we’re right now). Although there’ve been criticisms of Sven – no loyalty, and his teams can’t get interested in matches against minnow sides – the facts are that we have always had enough playing talent over the years to compete with the best in the world, and now we’re actually doing so. And because I can’t see an English – even a British – coach to match Erickson at the moment, I think that all this is going to come to an abrupt end once the tournament in Germany is over.

Best of a bad bunch is Sam Allardyce. Allardyce is without any shadow of a doubt a great club manager, and were I him I’d be looking for one of the “big” club management roles now. There’s a more interesting than usual analysis of the Allardyce effect from the Guardian’s Jamie Jackson here:

It is five seasons since he dragged Bolton into the Premiership, and during that time the perception of Allardyce as the stereotypical English manager has shifted. ‘People respect Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho as foreign innovators who have brought new ideas,’ says a senior source at the FA. ‘Sam Allardyce has quietly been doing the same things for a long time. He’s not quite the classic throwing-cups-of-tea, old-school English manager you might think.’

Allardyce was one of the first managers to use ProZone, the computer system that tracks every physical detail of a player during a match. He is wired up to an earpiece during games and has consulted the expertise of Humphrey Walters, the business guru Sir Clive Woodward credits as being a big influence in England’s 2003 rugby union World Cup victory. The Bolton squad are offered massages, t’ai chi, yoga and Pilates. Some, though, wonder whether his approach is gimmicky and question why he has such a large backroom staff (17 at the last count).

‘There is a feeling at the club that it is all about him,’ says one first-team player. ‘He can treat players harshly and some of the top players feel he cannot add anything to their game. That is maybe why he needs so many people around him.’ The players are aware that many pundits question Bolton’s basic style – famously described by radio commentator Alan Green as ‘ugly football’. ‘In Europe we might struggle,’ the player adds, ‘because we can be attacked down the wings and in the final phase of a match.’

I view Sam’s large backroom staff favourably: it’s the sign of a man who knows where his own limits lie, and who knows how to overcome his own limits by building an effective team. Of the current candidates therefore, it’s no surprise that he’s the one with the superb record in reigniting the interest of top-name stars, to say nothing of integrating them into a proper team. Sven has treated England as a club, with a relatively fixed squad, and the result is a side familiar with itself and with its own culture. Sam’s done this at Bolton – it’s the context into which you have to place his loyalty to the likes of Kevin Davies. It may be he can do the same with England.

The “gimmicky” charge is a red herring. None of the top managers around at present are quite the geniuses they are sometimes flagged up as. Most of the “innovations” that have come into the game in England since 1990 are in the realm of the obvious – don’t get drunk, eat properly, don’t train stupidly. The rest are in the realm of the strange – popular sports injury specialist from Germany, Hans Muller-Wolfhart, would be treated very differently by the British press were he American.

Fans, though, seem to like Allardyce. He might be behind Martin O’Neill and Curbishley in the betting for the England job, but for many he is the popular choice. ‘Big Sam’ struck a chord with supporters when, a little more than two years ago, he remarked during a spat with Arsene Wenger that if his name was ‘Allardici’ his status would be the equal of that enjoyed by foreign coaches.

It’s been said. In truth, part of the status enjoyed by foreign coaches has come precisely because they aren’t English – because there’s been a widespread feeling for years, only beginning to fade now, that the English game has been, in Pete Davies’ phrase, “All Played Out”. It’s no use asking Sam to play the part of smooth, urbane operators such as Venables, Erickson or Wenger, for all that he’s probably the most intelligent of the group.

Instead, Sam could look to South America, where another hyperactive, gumchewing, thickset retro-manager has enjoyed considerable success. Luiz Filipe Scolari, World Cup Winner, European Championship Finalist and general old-fashioned manager is widely considered, although not by me, to have outfoxed Erickson twice. He’s been mentioned in the context of the England job. If Sam is serious about the step up to Lancaster Gate, he’d do well to play on this, because if he can’t be the English Sven, he could very well pass off as the English Scolari. But he needs to do it soon.