Thursday 18 October 2018

Firefight specialist an awkward fit for any club with ambition

Sam Allardyce has already lost jobs because the fans couldn’t tolerate his style of play. Photo: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images
Sam Allardyce has already lost jobs because the fans couldn’t tolerate his style of play. Photo: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

Daniel Taylor

In happier times for Sam Allardyce, back in the days when he was managing Bolton Wanderers and not carrying the same baggage that now weighs him down, he wanted some advice about the best way to deal with the media if, as he confidently assumed, his career in football management was going to continue on its upward trajectory.

The man he asked was Alastair Campbell and the trick, according to Labour's spin doctor, was to see the difficult questions coming in advance, be prepared with a diversion tactic and, if necessary, veer off on a tangent rather than providing a direct answer.

Allardyce, by his own admission, taught himself to say anything to "distract and confuse" his audience. "It was good advice," he wrote in his 2015 autobiography, "and I learned to do it subconsciously, always conveying the message I wanted to deliver, not the one the media were after."

If anyone pointed out that the question hadn't been addressed, he explained, he was already moving on to the next subject. Switch topics, keep talking and don't get drawn into the nitty-gritty. And, though he didn't add these words, never be afraid to tell everyone how marvellous you are.

On that basis, it isn't easy to know what to make of his assertion that his talks with Everton's majority shareholder, Farhad Moshiri, concluded this past week with an understanding that, contrary to what some fans might want, there was not going to be a change of manager. "We have some clarity moving forward now," Allardyce said. " We discussed next season, and if I wasn't going to be here why would we be discussing next season at great length?"

Allardyce might want to believe that is the case - or, rather, he might want us to believe that is the case - but perhaps it is better to keep an open mind when Everton have high ambitions, with a new sporting director, Marcel Brands, joining in the summer, and there is such a weight of evidence that the manager's relationship with large sections of the club's fanbase has broken down.

For that, I have seen Everton's supporters described as ungrateful, unreasonable and unrealistic when Allardyce has, after all, achieved the prime objective of keeping the club above the relegation quagmire. He has done it with something to spare and it can come as a jolt, when Everton seem to have spent the entire season in a state of near crisis, to find the team squatting defiantly in eighth, regardless of the anti-Allardyce banners and mutinous songs.

The truth, however, is that he has always been an awkward fit for a club with Everton's aspirations. As a result, many Evertonians have found it difficult to embrace him from day one. Sometimes in football it just goes that way and it is unusual, in the extreme, that the manager forces a complete rethink. Indeed, the only time I can remember that happening is in the case of Martin O'Neill, going back more than 20 years to his early days at Leicester City.

Leicester's fans took a long time to recognise O'Neill's expertise. There were protests and lots of aggro. He won them over but he kept the less complimentary letters in his desk and maybe it was true, as his friends used to say, that the 'O' in O'Neill used to stand for obstinate. After Leicester's promotion, their cup finals and top-10 finishes he would often amuse himself by digging out those letters and, in a couple of cases, ringing up some of the people who had written them.

Unfortunately for Allardyce, it is difficult to envisage the same kind of happy ending in his case. He has already lost jobs at West Ham and Newcastle because the fans could not tolerate his style of play, and maybe it counts against him in his current job that Liverpool, the club Everton will always measure themselves against, are producing the kind of attacking, adventurous football they have craved at Goodison for so long.

While Everton have some of the dreariest statistics in the Premier League, Liverpool have scored at least five goals past every opponent on their way to the verge of a Champions League final - 10 over two legs against Maribor, eight against Spartak Moscow, six against Hoffenheim, five versus Sevilla, Porto, Manchester City and, in the first leg of their semi-final, Roma.

Everton, on other hand, went into the weekend 19th out of the 20 clubs in the Premier League when it comes to the number of shots they have managed on Allardyce's watch, 19th in terms of efforts on target, 19th in chances created and 19th for attempted dribbles. Again, Allardyce can point out that the only statistics that should matter are the points that have taken the team into the top half of the table. Plainly, however, it does matter to many Everton followers. The supporters want more. Is that so unreasonable?

When Allardyce took the job he talked about an opportunity to show he was more than just a firefighter. That, more than anything, has been the most disappointing part. The football has remained lumpen since it became clear Everton were free of relegation danger. Allardyce has still been the man who substituted an attacker, Yannick Bolasie, with a centre-half, Ramiro Funes Mori, in a 1-1 draw at a Swansea side five places off the bottom. He has abandoned Davy Klaassen when surely these would be opportune moments to experiment with a £23m player. And when it comes to spinning the truth, how about his assertion that Everton were below now-relegated West Brom before he took over?

That would be true if Allardyce wants to claim Everton's 4-0 defeat of West Ham on November 29 as his own work. But it wasn't. It was David Unsworth's final match as caretaker manager - Allardyce watched from the directors' box - and the win meant Everton moved up from 17th position to 13th. Allardyce, to give him his due, has moved Everton another five places up the table but he should know enough about the business to understand he cannot take anything for granted this summer, no matter what he might say in public.

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