Laconic genius


In 350 BC, having just conquered the major part of Greece, King Phillip II of Macedon made the people of Sparta his next target. He sent them a threatening note which is believed to have read, ‘If I win this war, you will be slaves forever. I will destroy ye all, never to rise again.’ In arguably one of the greatest responses ever written, the Spartans replied with a single word message, ‘If’.

Which brings us, quite naturally, to the succinct, laconic manner of Big Sam Allardyce. This week brought about confirmation of Crystal Palace’s security in the top-flight, an event few thought was possible at the turn of the year.

It’s not a popular view, and I don’t use the term lightly, but he is a true genius of the modern game. Following the 4-0 victory over Hull on Sunday, an interviewer asked, somewhat foolishly, ‘Is this one of your proudest achievements in football?’ Allardyce replied, ‘Yes’.

Sure, Allardyce’s time with England was a sorry affair for all concerned. From the news of his appointment as England manager, something didn’t quite sit right about the whole relationship. Following the debacle of Euro 2016, his appointment was the pragmatist’s choice.

Although many point to the Iceland match as the main reason for change, in truth Hodgson spent 5 years at the helm without ever significantly improving us. His sacking ended a tumultuous year for the general public. As the saying goes, these things come in threes – Brexit, Trump and then the sacking of Sam Allardyce to complete the trio.

In the end, like so many of his predecessors, the press got him. The evidence used against him was flimsy, but it was a foolish act and one which had to be punished. He does remain, however, (ahem) statistically the best England manager of all time.

During his time with England, he was amusingly likened to Mike Bassett, but Allardyce has often veered from the traditional ‘four-four-f***ing-two’. For most clubs, he prefers a 4-3-3 system with a deep-lying central midfielder, which sometimes becomes 4-5-1 or 4-4-1-1 with the use of a diamond. He famously used a 4-6-0 set-up for West Ham when they beat an in-form Tottenham side 3-0. Despite regular criticism for a direct style of play, let it not be said that he isn’t both astute and flexible in his tactical approach.

This season, Allardyce galvanised a group of players who looked woefully short of confidence. Zaha, Benteke, Townsend, Cabaye, among many others, have look revitalised under Allardyce’s tutelage since January. His business in the transfer market was sound, and not entirely surprising – defenders were urgently required. The signings of Patrick Van Aanholt, Jeffrey Schlupp and Mamadou Sakho, contributed to resolute defensive displays, including headline victories against Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea. Sakho, already a firm fan favourite for the Eagles, was even nominated for Palace’s Player of the Season awards despite playing only seven league games since January.

On Sunday, Allardyce claimed that this was one of the hardest jobs of his career. As a pundit on Sky Sports, Jamie Redknapp dismissed Allardyce’s achievement as the ‘easiest job he’s ever done’, reiterating the same sentiment he raised two weeks ago on Monday Night Football. His logic was based on the quality of a handful of players at Palace’s disposal in comparison to their rivals. It’s a woefully distorted, bang-your-head-off-the-wall view from a man clearly harbouring ulterior motives. Niall Quinn looked visibly shocked by Jamie’s ‘my dad’s better than your dad’ observations.

One wonders if Redknapp was similarly dismissive of his father’s achievement with Birmingham a fortnight ago, having been in charge for only three games. We need not wonder. Redknapp Snr, meanwhile, still claims he would work at Birmingham for free. A noble confession, although there’s obviously a very clear distinction between that and actually working for free.

It is no coincidence that most Premier Leagues clubs Allardyce has managed have been relegated shortly after his departure, although in a different vein to Redknapp. Bolton, Blackburn and Newcastle have all tasted the Championship after his reign. Last week, Sunderland joined that list.

Allardyce comfortably kept the Black Cats afloat last season, with practically the same squad, embarrassing the performance of David Moyes. While the latter was chosen to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United following the most successful period in the club’s history, Allardyce was never even in the frame.

Perhaps being overlooked by the bigger clubs is down to his style, which feels, perhaps paradoxically, old-school yet refreshing. Simplified comments are a defensive mechanism, a conscious and useful tool used to set him apart from his contemporaries, the very folk who often criticise him for his direct style of play.

In 2010, when asked by a journalist about his credentials on a bigger stage, he spikily responded, ‘I am not suited to Bolton or Blackburn, I’m more suited to Inter Milan or Real Madrid.’ It was Spartan-esque fighting talk. Although it was clearly tongue-in-cheek, he is absolutely right. It will surely remain as conjecture, but I think he could easily make the transition to the higher echelons of European football.

Allardyce often infers that young managers don’t follow basic instincts, that they are too concerned with how they are perceived by the public, often at the expense of league positions and results. He is all too aware of the pressure of operating in a results business, ‘The only right way is winning, because if you don’t win, you get the sack. It’s been the same since football was invented’.

While not universally popular, Allardyce has continuously found a method to do this successfully. If he was given an opportunity at an elite European club like Inter Milan or Real Madrid, he would surely prove his doubters wrong once and for all. If.

Chris Henderson – follow me on Twitter here

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