Sunday 22 April 2018

'Ah Mr Alderdice, will ye ever stop killing each other up there' - The wonderful story of Big Sam's rise to the top

Sam Allardyce and his then assistant Bill Kinnane with his modest transport during his time in Limerick. Photo: Limerick Leader
Sam Allardyce and his then assistant Bill Kinnane with his modest transport during his time in Limerick. Photo: Limerick Leader
David Kelly

David Kelly

The man in the dark glasses is hatching a plan. Not a grand plan. But for a teenager to whom the League of Ireland may as well be Las Vegas, any old plan is a grand plan.

Especially when there's 20 punts involved. To an impecunious student, that was a week's travel and two nights' beer.

Suggesting a down payment, the bespectacled, besotted and bespotted child amongst adults is given the lowdown.

Limerick City have been drawn to play non-league Pegasus in the first round of the FAI Cup in a fortnight.

Allardyce in his new job. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire.
Allardyce in his new job. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire.

Both teams have league games the following week; hence nobody from Limerick can scout the opposition.

"That's where you come in!" John Reddick tells me. Reddick is a former Limerick player, from the north, who lives in Cabra and is friendly with a stalwart from your hero's club, St Pat's.

The world turns. We are in a Harold's Cross pub where the wages are being delivered to our players; we can hear the jingling of coins in envelopes whose indiscreet windows reveal the true hierarchy of our struggling squad.

"Can you work for the enemy!?" someone asks, as a newly-minted winger speeds past us at a pace not seen for any of the 90 minutes just a few hours before.

"Everyone has a price…"

Johnny Walsh was too diminutive to ever be accused of being cock of the walk. But he knew he was good. Anyone who grew up in the 1980s knew Johnny Walsh was good. He was good enough to win a cap - or two! - for Ireland.

Sam Allardyce with the Limerick squad. Photo: Limerick Leader
Sam Allardyce with the Limerick squad. Photo: Limerick Leader

(When eventually he asked the FAI for a cap for playing Trinidad and Tobago, they gave him two, thinking he'd played both Trinidad and Tobago).

And he was a one-club man. Limerick through and through. "About 16 managers," he guesses. "More," he hesitates, "or less."

So when another one pitched up in the summer of 1991, Walsh, now a 34-year-old veteran amongst kids in a team relegated for the first time in their history, he thought little of it.

"I'd awful trouble after a cartilage operation a few years earlier so I didn't do a pre-season as such," recalls Walsh, who still has his own flooring company in the city. "I'd do my own thing, a bit of cycling, the odd run."

His first meeting with Sam Allardyce was not propitious.

"He told me flat out I wasn't getting a contract," said Walsh, who was probably on around £110 a week (he smiles at recent suggestions Allardyce was "only" on £200 a week.) "So I says, grand, can I train away here so until I get something sorted. He says not a bother. And that's how we left it for a couple of weeks."

Allardyce was already making an impression on a mostly fresh-faced squad whose complacency had presaged relegation. Julian Lyons turned up for Allardyce's first home game ten minutes after the scheduled meet-up time. It was what he had always done. Allardyce benched him.

Walsh was a local hero. But Allardyce didn't care about reputation.

Even his own. Folklore has it the local sports editor began his first interview with the immortal words, "Ah Mr Alderdice, will ye ever stop killing each other up there?" The journalist thought he was addressing the northern politician, John Alderdice.

"I didn't want to leave," adds Walsh. "I'd been with Limerick all my life. 16 years. There were a couple of other clubs interested in me, but not me in them."

Limerick didn't begin the season in the blaze of promotion glory with which they would end it. And so Allardyce approached Walsh again.

"'I was wrong', he told me, flat out. 'No problem,' says I. 'At least you're man enough.' And I was man enough to go back. And just to let him know it wasn't about the money, I went back for a tenner less a week."

Walsh was a Wes Hoolahan of the time; a waif-like presence in the middle, elegant, deft, intricate. Allardyce had a soft spot for men of flair, always has. He lamented the mis-use of Frank Worthington, for example.

"He liked playing ball," recalls his assistant, Billy Kinnane, now an FAI Scout, with whom he lived at the time.

"He played 4-3-3, with Brian Swords on the wing. He recruited Tommy Fitzgerald and had young Barry Ryan up front, they scored 40 goals between them. He'd play three at the back against certain teams when he wouldn't want to run that much.

"He'd been in Tampa and was amazed they had six physios. That's where he came across sports psychology and tactics. We'd spend three hours on a Saturday night working out a plan to beat UCD."

"He was the best manager that I ever played for," adds Walsh of the new England boss. "He was highly organised, would write everything up on a board and players knew what they were supposed to do. But we had freedom too.

"He convinced us what we could do and gave us confidence to do it. It was all about trying to play when it was on. None of the long-ball stuff that people labelled him lazily with afterwards."

Ryan had been due to join Cork City but was persuaded to stay. Man management was a key attribute.

Chris Waddle's recent rant about England's lamentable Euro 2016 displays - "They're all headphones!" - is apposite.

"I remember being on a long away trip on the famous minibus," says Kinnane. "A lot of the younger lads had Walkmans but Sam went mad.

"'Take them off!' he'd yell. 'Talk to the fella beside you. Ask him about his life, his family, his interests. Talk to him now because if you don't talk to him now, will you talk to him on the pitch?' He knew how to handle people, even then."

I met an old Bolton friend of his, Carl Davenport - 'the Dav' as he is known to Cork soccer folk - in the Hi-B bar this summer on the eve of the Ireland friendly against Belarus and talk fell to the upcoming Euros.

"Sam should have that job, you know," said the great man. We ring him two months later when events conspire to produce just that scenario.

"I rang him last week you know," laughs Davenport.

"I said to him, how is that you win a second division title with Limerick and get the England job, while I'm the only man to win two league titles with two different Cork clubs and I'm on the shagging dole!"

From little acorns. Limerick would beat Pegasus 1-0 in their FAI Cup clash and were drawn to play another non-league side in round two; either Moyle Park or Glenmore.

Your humble corr once more scouted the opponents, offering astute observations such as the tall ginger lad goes forward for corners; hardly a forerunner for ProZone.

Still, Limerick won again. "It showed he left nothing to chance, even then," recalls Kinnane.

Allardyce - I thought he looked more like Leicester defender Bobby Smith - handed me the crumpled £20 wrapped in a friendly handshake himself in Bluebell's clubhouse.

They would face Cork City in the quarter-finals. My services were not required. Limerick would lose.

A brief scouting career was over and soon, too, Allardyce's LOI stint. But if he ever needs a dig-out, he knows where to find me . . .

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