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Saturday 24 February 2018

From council estate to dream job. . . via Limerick

New England manager Sam Allardyce. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire
New England manager Sam Allardyce. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire

Paul Hayward

The journey began for Sam Allardyce on a council estate in Dudley, on a green that "was brown and bare and muddy" from over-use.

Those memories flooded back on a day when he put on his monogrammed shirt, dark suit and Three Lions lapel pin for his unveiling as the new England manager.

Most men in that position introduce themselves with a certain bureaucratic coolness. Allardyce was happy to declare himself in dreamland. He made the toxic tracksuit sound like the best outfit a man could have.

He exuded pride and pleasure, 10 years after he was first interviewed for the post, and 25 after he started in his crazy trade as player-manager at Limerick.

Since then the road has taken him to Preston North End, Blackpool, Notts County, Bolton Wanderers, Newcastle, Blackburn Rovers, West Ham, Sunderland and finally to the England job.

Not for an instant was Allardyce willing to entertain the notion that he has been lifted from football's nether regions to a post above his station. He was, he said, qualified, deserving and ready to take on the mission of rescuing England from the debacle of Euro 2016.

This was an unveiling rich in emotion, sometimes hidden by Allardyce's brashness. Asked about his early years on a Black Country council housing estate, Allardyce was visibly moved.

"My old mate still lives there in his dad's house," he said. "I had a very strict upbringing, the old man being a policeman, so I think that stood me in good stead.

"I think the discipline he showed me from a very young age has taken me through life. His principles and my mum's principles have always stayed with me. It was a great place to be developed as a footballer.

"The area was Ash Green. It was a council estate with a green in the middle, but it didn't have much green on it. It was brown and bare and muddy because we played on it that much. That was where it all started for me."

This message was reassuring for those who want England to drop all the talk of 'DNA' and 'philosophies' and regroup around a manager who specialises in toughening up and uniting teams (witness Sunderland's relegation escape).

The burst of nostalgia was in tune with Allardyce's feeling of having fully arrived, 45 years after his debut as a Bolton player.

Read more: Sam Allardyce reminds everyone that he learned his trade in Limerick as he is unveiled as England manager

Read more: Sky Sports accidentally include a well-known Limerick criminal in tribute to new England boss Sam Allardyce

"It's been a whirlwind these last few days," he said. "It's the greatest challenge I've ever had and I look forward to it so much even with all the pitfalls there might be. It's my time, my chance."

As personal vindications go, it was stirring, but now his "time" is a ticking clock. His life becomes public property. The story hurtles into the familiar territory where most England managers start out optimistic and end up crushed. Welcome to the managerial graveyard?

But this, surely, was the best way to start: confident, bold, preaching togetherness and proclaiming his 'man-management' skills.

The fans, pushed beyond frustration to despair by the defeat by Iceland, will reserve judgment on the 18th England manager, who is sensitive to the allegation of long-ballism and quick to recite his record as a sports science innovator.

"I've dreamt about this job and I've fulfilled that dream, so I'm a lucky man," he said. "I am exceptionally lucky. Or am I exceptionally good? I suppose you'll decide that along the way."

In the in-tray already: the mental fragility of this squad, Premier League power, the lack of a winter break, unco-operative club managers, fresh doubts about Joe Hart, who to make captain, how to reprogramme players in only two days on the training ground: all the festering stuff all England managers have to confront.

And at the end of it all - very little chance of actually winning anything, if the last 50 years are any guide.

With this is mind it was worth asking Allardyce whether he thought he had taken a step down from Premier League management, now that there was no expectation of success?

"The expectation of me winning the Premier League isn't great," he fired back. "Would Sunderland be a Leicester? No. Would anybody else be a Leicester? Probably not for a long, long period. I hope that's not the case and that somebody else does it. But I think this is a new challenge. It's outside of my comfort zone - which is what I like.

"The challenge of the Premier League is not as big a challenge to me as when I first got there because I've done it for so long. I've managed in there for such a long time that I know I can achieve at that level.

"So this is a different level, this is a different challenge and I'm challenging myself to be able to meet that challenge to help England get to a tournament and do better than they've done recently."

There are a hell of a lot of "challenges" in that passage. But fear not, because Allardyce has zero doubt about his own ability. He says he was "good enough" 10 years ago, too, when Steve McClaren was given the job ahead of him. "I think I fit the chair," he said. "I'm 'ardened."

So with the support of the experts the FA consulted ("he's a winner, he's got the edge," Alex Ferguson said), Allardyce came through two interviews to beat four other candidates for a job that has finally been stripped of its spurious glamour.

In a sense Allardyce is back in the relegation zone, on another emergency call-out. But boy does he seem happy to have received that call. Pride is not the worst place to start. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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