Queuing up for some liquid refreshment at one of the country’s overcrowded beauty spots at the weekend, it was impossible not to overhear the excitable football chatter of a couple of Crystal Palace supporters nearing the bar.
This was a day before the prodigious result against Arsenal, so the Palace pair were not enthusing about their best performance of the season, they were simply reassuring themselves that other results in the relegation zone were going their way and thanking their lucky stars they had Sam Allardyce piloting them up the table.
“Do you like the way Allardyce has the team playing then?” another customer asked. “Good Lord no,” came the reply. “We are still terrible, the other day we won a game without even managing a shot on target [Watford and Troy Deeney’s own goal, presumably], but what matters is that we are winning. A few weeks ago we were down, we had about as much hope as Sunderland and Middlesbrough, but now we look as if we can keep out of trouble, because that’s what Big Sam is good at. Once we do that we can start looking for another manager.”
How sharper than a serpent’s tooth, as Shakespeare nearly said, to have a thankless fan base. Granted, my tiny sample might not be representative of the whole of the Palace support, and for all I know the bloke in the pub and everyone else might have changed their opinion completely after the result against Arsenal, but Allardyce himself will be familiar enough with this snooty attitude. He had it all at West Ham United. He might be a great operator when it comes to getting a side into the Premier League, and an even more formidable firefighter when hired to rescue seemingly lost causes near the bottom of the table, but unless you are actually in trouble he is considered too temporary a solution to fulfil the dreams and aspirations most supporters form for their clubs.
Yet this is the manager who, against all expectations, has just supervised wins over Chelsea and Arsenal in a little over a week. Fair enough, there was a defeat to Southampton in between, but how many other relegation candidates would take six points from that run of games?
In the last few weeks, since the Watford game in fact, it has not even been possible to say Allardyce has had Palace grinding out results or playing the percentages. Players such as Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend have been finding freedom to express themselves, Yohan Cabaye has rediscovered his form and Allardyce has been bringing the best from Mamadou Sakho and Christian Benteke, players whose confidence must have suffered after being shunned at their previous club. Luka Milivojevic, the defensive midfielder brought in during the January transfer window, looks an inspired signing. So why the sniffiness?
The general supposition might be that what Allardyce does so effectively cannot last, he can transform a team over a short period but only take it so far. Though he achieved the almost miraculous at Blackburn Rovers and Sunderland, Allardyce has not actually won anything in his long Premier League career.
By the time he left West Ham the club’s support was heavily prejudiced against him. There was never any danger of relegation while he was at Upton Park, but never any danger of a new contract either.
Allardyce usually promises solidity and safety, nothing more, and rightly or wrongly some clubs set their sights higher than that. Allardyce was never going to work long term at West Ham, just as, slightly unfairly, he was never given the chance to be anything other than short term at Newcastle United.
Allardyce went to Tyneside with a certain reputation, and a section of support took against him straight away. With time he might have won them over but he was an early victim of Mike Ashley’s takeover of the club, and all the previous owners’ plans for stability and continuous improvement went out of the window.
Newcastle originally went for Allardyce because they had been impressed by his patient but effective transformation of Bolton Wanderers. Here was a manager who could pay attention to the smallest detail yet still deliver on a five-year plan.
Allardyce was very good indeed for Bolton, who were never the same after he left, but it may be the case that a provincial club with limited expectations remains the only situation where his appointment might be welcomed. Blackburn were glad enough to have him in 2008, and in view of what has happened since must look back with a mixture of annoyance and regret at the folly of parting with a manager while 13th in the Premier League. Sunderland supporters usually take an unrealistically high view of the calibre of coach who might be persuaded to run their club, even they accepted that few other managers could have got them out of last season’s predicament.
That led to Allardyce’s appointment as England manager, not a common progression from the Stadium of Light, and a new predicament entirely of his own making. With his obvious attributes Allardyce was never likely to be out of work for long – indeed in the allegedly insecure business of football management his particular skill-set is practically guaranteed to be in demand every season somewhere – and given the impressive uplift at Palace in recent weeks it is tempting to wonder how he would have fared with the national team.
A personal view is that he might not have had enough time with the players to drill them in the defensive disciplines that form the basis of most of his success. Allardyce probably needs week-in, week-out contact with his teams. Most likely he would have managed the qualification cycle easily enough, as Gareth Southgate seems to be doing, but might not have been able to react quickly enough against quality opponents in tournament situations.
Then again, since the turn of the century England have usually found themselves in trouble in tournaments and, as the Palace fan in the bar said, if you are in trouble then Allardyce is your man.
Or, if we are talking about Palace, maybe Tony Pulis is your man too. It seems like only yesterday that the present West Bromwich manager was performing one of the most remarkable rescues in Premier League history at Selhurst Park, not only saving the Eagles from what looked certain relegation but turning them into a fighting force along the way.
What Palace and their supporters should really be asking themselves is why they keep reprising the great escape. After Pulis and Allardyce, who is going to haul them out of the mire next time? Only one thing seems certain: should Palace be so unwise as to start looking round for a new manager if safety is achieved. Recent history suggests they will be in trouble again before Pulis or Allardyce.