Meet the Irish priest who set Sam Allardyce on the road to the England job
In the summer of 1991 Sam Allardyce received a phone call that would change his life.
“I said to him: ‘Sam, my name is Father Joe Young, I am an Irish priest and the chairman of Limerick - and I am hoping you will be manager of our football club,” laughs Father Young.
“He said to me: ‘Are you f***ing with me, Reidy?’. He thought I was Peter Reid playing a trick on him!”
This, though, was no joke. Father Young had been running through a list of managerial recommendations and landed on Allardyce’s name. As a West Brom fan he recognised the club’s former defender and coach, and made the call.
It was, says Young, “like when my father was backing horses – stick a pin in the paper and there you are. That was how I found Sam.”
It was an unlikely first step in a managerial career that promises to culminate with Allardyce being appointed England manager.
If he is appointed then Allardyce will be the figurehead of an organisation with an annual turnover of £332m and several hundred employees.
His circumstances at Limerick were very different. For a start they didn’t have any money, or any full-time employees. Allardyce was part-time, and so were the players in a town where unemployment, drug use and violence were so rife it was nicknamed ‘Stab City’.
What they did have was the partnership between chairman and manager. After that initial phonecall Young convinced Allardyce to fly to the west coast of Ireland to have a look around.
Allardyce, then 36, had little to lose. His playing career was just winding down, and he had been released from Bury’s coaching staff due to a lack of funds. All the same, Limerick was a strange place to start a career. Young, though, believed he had found a kindred spirit.
“When he arrived I took him to Thomond Park, the home of Irish rugby, and said: ‘Sam, this is what I dream of’.
“Then I took him to our ground, in Rathbane, which was alongside my parish at the time. I can’t even begin to tell you what it looked like, it was in such a state!
“I said: ‘Sam, I’ve always believed in the Field of Dreams. This is my Field of Dreams. Will you dream with me?’
“He turned and looked at me and said: ‘Why not’?”
It was the start of an unusual friendship. Allardyce’s family were still in England, so he would fly over to Limerick late in the week, staying in the house of his assistant, Billy Kinane.
He would take training before joining Father Young for some of his most important work: asking for donations to keep the football team alive. Allardyce was a natural.
“We had our begging bowl,” says Young. “It was like Oliver Twist, you know? ‘Please can we have some more, sir?’
“We would make it possible any way we could to pay the players. With the little I had I gave everything I had. Sam shared in that.
“And I tell you, my love for Sam Allardyce was unprecedented.
“When he was with the players he had a power to motivate them that scared me. He had a way of inspiring people through the drama of what he felt in his own heart. When he was in the dressing room I never went in to give a blessing, like I normally would.
“At one stage he pulled a player over who had a jar the night before. He said ‘you see that elderly man out there waiting for us to play? He has paid in what little he has, and you aren’t going to give him what he deserves’.
“We had crowds of around 500 [and games could not kick off later than 2pm as the club could not afford to turn the floodlights on], but with the passion Sam injected it felt the same as it would with 90,000 at Wembley.”
And the team began to get what they deserved. Under Allardyce they improved steadily, thanks in part to his own contribution from centre-back.
“I remember one time when he scored a goal with a header, and I just thought to myself: ‘Thank God we don’t have to pay for the nets’ it was that hard,” laughs Young. “It was the first time I had seen premier class football in my own city, and his salary at the time was probably less than it’s costing you to make this phonecall.”
Their partnership was to last a single season, however. With promotion and the title secured, Allardyce began to receive offers from England, accepting a role as Preston’s assistant manager.
“When Sam told me he was moving on I was very sad – in fact I cried,” says Young, who would succeed Allardyce as manager. “If I had won the lottery I would have held on to Sam Allardyce because he would have taken us into Europe.
“He gave the youth of Limerick a reason to get up in the morning, to believe there was more to life than sleeping in and taking drugs.
“Nothing he has achieved since has surprised me. He was driven by a belief that nothing was impossible. That’s why we called it the field of dreams, and I had the joy of sharing it with him for a while.”
They remain in contact, too. Last year a parcel arrived for Father Young, containing a West Ham tracksuit and a note. Allardyce had made Young the club’s honorary chaplain.
“That tracksuit has pride of place in my front room and no-one will touch it,” says Father Young. “I’m not saying it’s up there with a statue of Jesus Chris, but it’s not far away.
“And who knows - maybe if he gets the England job he’ll make me chaplain then, too!”