Viva Fat Sam, or How I Learned to Stop Passing and Love Percentage Football

Story by Aaron Bliss

Let me open by stating that these are my cogitations alone, and do not necessarily represent the views of other contributors to the site.

I like to look for patterns in the game, and a pattern emerging in recent years has been the pattern of glamorizing ‘route one’ football as something to aspire to. Esteemed pundits like Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson would suggest teams like Bolton and Stoke should not be apologetic about their regressive style of play, as it ‘made the most of their resources’ and even suggested it lent a romantic edge to the top division.

Of course, Sam Allardyce was the progenitor of this rewriting of football history. In the early years of the Premier League, most teams played a variation of the ‘hit and hope’ brand, none more so than Wimbledon, but everyone hated them and they didn’t give a flip. They would suggest this was simply because they beat the big boys, rather than the fact that, while the ball was in orbit, Vinny Jones had broken a leg and John Fashanu had smashed a cheekbone with those wild elbows of his. This was amateur league played by professionals. But any mention of Wimbledon was usually met with a wry smirk and roll of the eyes. They were hard-drinking, prank-playing lads. People did not take them seriously. And, as the years rolled on, flair players like Gianfranco Zola, Juninho and Wim Jonk would see even mediocre mid-table clubs able to adapt their style to one slightly more easy on the eye. As the money rolled in, so the talent burgeoned, and most teams moved on from the long ball. That is, until Fat Sam rolled into town with his promoted Bolton Wanderers side.

With an impressive CV in the lower leagues behind him, Allardyce took up the Bolton job in 1999, and guided them to promotion in 2001. During his long tenure at the Reebok Stadium, Allardyce kept them up and established them as a Premiership force through forceful percentage football, relying on set-pieces, long throws and second balls before anything else. This was something of a throwback, but Allardyce managed to turn the argument around by claiming he did reams of research and introduced fitness and analysis techniques years ahead of his time. With the grace of a gruff politician, Allardyce even denied the ‘long ball’ accusation, insisting that they would be considered ‘long passes’ at any other club. In his later years, he did indeed progress this style slightly with a token ageing ‘finesse’ player or two: see Jay-Jay Okocha and Youri Djorkaeff, and he did eventually qualify the Trotters for European competition for the first time in their history.

Despite his impressive success at modest clubs, Allardyce has always carried around a negative reputation. Part of it has surely spawned from his belligerent attempts to dress up his style as anything other than ‘up and at ‘em’ football, while going hand in glove with this is his notorious ego, which has seen him make farcical quotes about wondering why clubs like Real Madrid are not knocking down his door. The ‘Big Sam’ moniker was always applied to his ego as much as his waistline.

Taking a look back through Allardyce’s managerial career, a clear pattern begins to emerge. He is always recorded as being dumbfounded at his sackings: see Preston, Blackpool, Newcastle and Blackburn Rovers. Recently, he also has a habit of working for, to put it as bluntly as I am able: arseholes. In fact, these mostly are his most successful employers. Phil Gartside, the man who once suggested that no teams should be relegated from the Premier League, gave Fat Sam a ten year contract, before slagging him off when he dared leave for pastures new. David Sullivan and David Gold, the men who made their fortunes chiefly from pornography, have been investigated for corruption, and are always ready with an opinion on matters that don’t concern them, employed Sam at West Ham, where he claimed promotion by the skin of his teeth last season. A lengthy collaboration seems imminent, despite the chagrin of some fans believing Allardyce betrays the West Ham football traditions. In fact, surprisingly, the only time this ‘arsehole connection’ failed was at Newcastle, where resident a-hole Mike Ashley actually sacked him, though wags may suggest that he wanted a puppet rather than another arsehole with a waistband to rival his own. A change of ownership hurt him again at Blackburn, but I’m sure he’s had the last laugh at that debacle.

So welcome back to the Premier League Fat Sam, we haven’t missed you, but the media has. You’ll be pleased to know Tony Pulis has taken your work on to the next level, only he doesn’t deal in subtlety. Only 6 foot plus brutes or human trebuchets allowed at the Potteries. Let the hoofs commence!


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