Admit it, you thought Sam Allardyce was finished. Following his, shall we say, unceremonious removal as England boss, a job he’d publicly coveted for over a decade, you figured he’d be too emotionally bankrupt for another relegation battle. Slumming it at the foot of the Premier League table after his dream vocation had turned to ash in his mouth. To misquote Tyrion Lannister.
A 4-0 home defeat to Sunderland in February was certainly strong evidence that the fires were burning low for Sam. In the post-match media pit following the game, Allardyce was a picture of spirit-trampled ennui. Barely able to summon the energy to blame anyone. Just a well, sh*t happens shrug in front of the bouquet of microphones and off he went. A spent force.
Only, we were all wrong. Big Sam has plenty more to offer at the top level. While the trauma of David Moyes’ calamitous stab at the Big Time looks to have broken him, threatening to whitewash any previous good work he’d done at Everton and Preston, Allardyce is quickly rebuilding his reputation. Crystal Palace is the perfect battleground for his talents and we were stupid to think otherwise.
What sustains the former West Ham manager more than anything is the delight he extracts from beating the supposed super coaches of the sport. In his days at unfashionable Bolton, nothing would get Allardyce chuckling more than a tactical, and in his eyes philosophical victory over Arsène Wenger or Rafael Benítez. An attritional 1-0 grind against The French Professor could have him purring for months.
Now at Palace, with a raft of young whizzes at the top clubs — Jurgen Klopp, Antonio Conte, Mauricio Pochettino— there’re new targets to be shot at. It was with timbres of irony that Allardyce insisted he’d win titles at Inter or Real Madrid with ease. But in his own mind, these coaches aren’t his superiors. They’ve just been afforded the opportunities and resources he never was. He belongs alongside them.
Judging by recent results, it’s a reasonable claim. April has seen a home win over Arsenal bookended by victories at Stamford Bridge and Anfield for his Palace side. They’ve surged up the table and wriggled free of trouble. ‘We exposed [Liverpool’s] weaknesses time and time again,’ he told the Sky Sports cameras after their latest scalp. Almost offering the wide-eyed apprentice Klopp some free advice. He’s a wily old dog.
Next on the list tonight is Mauricio Pochettino and Tottenham. I’m sure Sam has plenty of admiration for the Argentine coach. Even the most parochial of sorts can’t help but be encouraged by his fondness for promoting English youth from within. Tim Sherwood is a fan, as we discovered at the weekend. He’ll also look at the man in the other dugout on Wednesday evening and fancy his chances. Another occasion to show a so-called managerial prodigy that there’s more than one way to shoe a horse. He’ll relish the challenge.