LONDON – Four years ago this month, Blackburn Rovers’ new owners sacked Sam Allardyce, who had led the club to a 10th-place finish the previous season and were 13th in the Premier League when the axe fell.
Anuradha Desai, chairman of Venky’s Group which had taken over the club a few weeks earlier, said: “We have taken this decision as part of our wider plans and ambitions. We want good football and Blackburn to be fourth or fifth in the league or even better. The fans should trust us because this is in the best interests of the club.”
Allardyce’s replacement was first-team coach Steve Kean, followed by Henning Berg (for 57 days), Michael Appleton (for 67 days), and for the last 19 months, Gary Bowyer. In four years, Venky’s has sacked four managers and overseen one relegation, which is why the fans have never trusted the owners.
West Ham, which Allardyce joined in June 2011, had just been relegated to the Championship. He led the Hammers back to the Premier League at the first attempt and went into Christmas in fourth place — a position that would qualify them for the Champions League.
In contrast, Blackburn was eighth in the Championship, seven points off an automatic promotion place. There have been some poor owners of English football clubs in recent years who have made madcap decisions, and Venky’s is up there with the worst. Its wider plans and ambitions for Rovers are obviously a slow burner.
It has been a bumpy ride for Allardyce, called Big Sam when things are going well and Fat Sam when they are not, at West Ham, but as he has shown at Blackpool, Notts County and Bolton, he is among the safest of managerial appointments.
Earlier this year, West Ham fans sang: “You don’t know what you’re doing,” but Allardyce did, as usual, know what he was doing though time is a commodity sadly lacking in football. Summer signings Enner Valencia, Diafra Sakho, Cheikhou Kouyate, Alex Song and Aaron Cresswell have transformed the Hammers, while goalkeeper Adrian, who joined the club in 2013, is now established in the side.
Valencia, Sakho and fit-again Andy Carroll give the team power and pace in attack — in the Hammers’ 17 matches before Friday’s game against Chelsea, only Aston Villa had prevented them from scoring.
Stewart Downing has been moved from the wing to a deep-lying midfield role with devastating effect. Despite playing less further forward, Downing has scored as many goals this season — four — as he did in his previous three Premier League seasons combined.
At Arsenal, Song was perceived as a defensive midfielder of limited ability, but two seasons with Barcelona have honed his skills. The Cameroon international, on loan from the Catalan club, is now a playmaker, combining ball-winning with creativity.
Kouyate provides speed and mobility on the right flank and for the first time since 1985, West Ham went into Christmas in the top four. From “Fat Sam out” to “can Big Sam lead West Ham to a top four finish?” in four months.
In five of the last 10 years, the top four on Christmas Day have finished in the top four at the end of the season. They are dreaming of Europe around the East End though the festive fixtures will go a long way to testing West Ham’s Champions League credentials.
On Sunday, Arsenal visits Upton Park and Allardyce is relishing the festive challenge. He said: “We’re a completely different unit and we’re enjoying our Christmas more this year. We do have the hardest games over 48 hours, though. I’m looking forward to them on the basis of where we are in the league and what the team has done so far. It’s great to pit your wits against the best.”
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KARL OYSTON, the Blackpool chairman, is a member of the Football League board which decides whether new owners pass the fit and proper person test.
Many would feel Oyston’s qualifications to judge others are seriously flawed after a series of text exchanges with a Blackpool fan.
Oyston called Stephen Smith “a retard,” and told him to “enjoy the rest of your special needs day out,” calling him “educationally subnormal” and a “sad act.”
While we have all had heated exchanges with people and said things we regret, to use the words Oyston did is not a natural reaction.
Such vile comments have to be thought out and while he has since apologized, the hope is the Football Association throws the book at Oyston and the Football League asks him to stand down as a director.
Breath should not be held, though.
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LEE MANSELL took the season of goodwill a little too far, but it saved him from receiving an unwanted Christmas red card. The Bristol Rovers midfielder went head-to-head with Gateshead’s JJ O’Donnell and took immediate evasive action to avoid being sent off.
Mansell kissed O’Donnell.
The referee decided only to caution Mansell, who said: “We either clash heads and he goes down or I end up doing something silly. I did it to defuse the situation. It’s the first time I’ve been booked for kissing someone.”
The person Mansell usually kisses was unimpressed. He explained: “My missus said: ‘what the hell were you thinking?’ “
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.
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