Saviours arrive at Christmastime. At least that’s the theory. West Bromwich Albion have turned to a strange kind of hero.
Sam Allardyce has high regard for his own ability. The 66-year-old may, in his darker moments, reflect with regret that his unique selling point now comes down to three words: never been relegated.
West Brom might undermine even that inglorious boast. The scale of the challenge was made apparent to Allardyce in the 3-0 defeat by Aston Villa on Sunday. Next up are Liverpool at Anfield. “I just hope I can wind them up again,” the former England manager said of the champions. Allardyce is highly conscious that one of his teams was the last visiting side to win a Premier League match in front of the Kop. Crystal Palace secured a 2-1 victory on their way to – you guessed it – avoiding relegation three years ago. Jurgen Klopp’s team exacted revenge on Palace on Saturday by trouncing them 7-0 at Selhurst Park. There will be considerable satisfaction on Merseyside if Allardyce is put in his place in similar fashion.
The man from Dudley divides opinion but it is easy to see why West Brom moved to bring him back to his Black Country roots. Allardyce is a significant upgrade on Slaven Bilic, who was sacked earlier this month. There was a huge groundswell of sympathy for the Croat, who guided the club back to the Premier League in the summer but the likeable Bilic often appeared tactically naive. That accusation could never be aimed at Allardyce.
In the age of Pep Guardiola and Klopp, some view the West Brom manager as a dinosaur, a throwback to an age of ugly Englishness. That is unfair. The ‘Big Sam’ persona feeds the cliché but Allardyce is much more sophisticated in a football sense. He was at the forefront of change in the domestic game two decades ago, embracing the continental approach to nutrition and the use of analytics. He was using ProZone at a time most English managers thought it was a red light district. Arsene Wenger led the revolution, creating Arsenal sides that were bigger, stronger and faster – and more skilful – than ever before. Allardyce was like the Frenchman’s evil twin; he upped the ante on size, strength and speed with Bolton Wanderers but used those attributes to counteract craft, rather than express it.
The big jobs were out of his reach. A mildly xenophobic-sounding self-pity crept into his utterances. “I won’t ever be going to a top-four club because I’m not called Allardici, just Allardyce,” he said eight years ago, articulating his frustration. He insisted that the comment was a joke but the humour barely masked deep levels of resentment. There was some truth in it, too. Since Wenger, clubs have been drawn to cosmopolitan, exotic foreign coaches. Allardyce had more to offer than many of the imports but his earthy Englishness appears vulgar by contrast. The ‘Big Sam’ image reeks of the pub, six pints, a curry and a hangover in training the next morning. It’s not true but the character has established himself in the public’s mind. Who would want that? No one - at least until a club gets into trouble.
Allardyce is fated to be a firefighter. England offered a final chance to send his career in a different direction but hubris and stupidity caused him to lose the job after one game. It was Allardyce’s bleakest moment as his Big Sam alter ego lived up to all preconceptions.
The Hawthorns has put its trust in the new manager. He would particularly enjoy getting something at Anfield and his relations with Liverpool have been fractious over the decades.
His long-running feud with Rafa Benitez is part of it, as is his friendship with Sir Alex Ferguson. It would be a real Christmas miracle if Allardyce can eke out a point against the champions after less than two weeks with the West Brom squad. It normally takes him more than a month – and a transfer window, ideally – to arrest the downward trajectory of a team.
One positive for Allardyce is Christmas has come early this year in football terms because of the delayed start to the season. Last year Boxing Day marked the halfway point in the campaign for most of the division. West Brom have four more games to work with than is usual at this point.
Few managers are more bullish about their own abilities than Allardyce. He is confident he can bring redemption to the Hawthorns but, at some point, living on the edge will catch up with him. West Brom are lacking in many departments. Christmas saviours risk getting crucified at Easter. Relegation would be the final blow to Allardyce’s reputation and probably end his Premier League career.
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