LONDON – Sam Allardyce makes his first return to Upton Park on Saturday since his controversial departure from West Ham at the end of last season. It is hoped that the Sunderland manager will receive the warm welcome his record with the Hammers deserves. The likelihood is that his reception will be mixed, at best, from supporters who never appear to be happy with whoever is in charge.
Big Sam was the manager of West Ham for four years and delivered everything the owners had asked. Despite this, there was still a reluctance from above or for the fans to praise Allardyce. He was told to get West Ham, which had been relegated to the Championship, back to the Premier League in two years; he did it first time around. In the subsequent three seasons the team finished 10th, 13th and 12th. By no stretch of the imagination could this be called failure given the size of the club.
Yet the West Ham fans never took to Allardyce. “Fat Sam Out, Killing WHU” said one banner towards the end of last season. The reason for the supporters’ displeasure was that Allardyce’s team did not play the mythological West Ham “way” whatever that is.
Fat Sam was, indeed, soon on his way out and Slaven Bilic, a hero with the crowd as a West Ham player, was appointed as his successor. The supporters love the Croatian (for now, anyway), a man who always seems to look like he has just had a good night out (which is not a criticism, by the way).
Let the record show that this time last year under Allardyce, West Ham was eighth — P26 W10 D9 L7 GF38 GA 30 Pts 39.
Under Bilic, West Ham is seventh — P26 W10 D10 L6 GF40 GA 31 Pts 40.
Only a super-pedant or a one-eyed West Ham fan could argue that there is any significant difference a year on from Allardyce. The problem is, West Ham supporters considered Allardyce’s football boring, defensive and relying on the long-ball game. In football, the perception is the reality.
West Ham supporters have this dream of their side playing some revolutionary type of total football which makes the world gasp. Allardyce is more pragmatic, a manager who gets the job done without frills, but in the eyes of West Ham followers without thrills, too.
From the day Allardyce was confirmed as West Ham’s manager some fans never gave him a chance. He arrived with a reputation as a route one manager and it was seen as some kind of arranged marriage … a marriage of convenience … a loveless relationship. A divorce was on the cards from the moment Allardyce signed his contract.
The anti-Sam brigade only remember the bad runs and forget the victories over English football’s big guns. Whatever West Ham did under Allardyce was never going to be good enough for some supporters — hey, promotion to the Premier League was via the playoffs, not automatic — though this has been the case for his predecessors, too.
Next season West Ham moves into the 54,000-capacity Olympic Stadium, 20,000 more than Upton Park and Allardyce left the club in a healthy state ahead of its last season at what had been its home since 1904. Yet few tears were shed when joint-owners David Gold and David Sullivan decided it was time for Big Sam to move on though he, too, had come to the conclusion he was not going to sign another contract. Unusually, his departure really was by mutual consent.
“They said the fans weren’t happy,” said Allardyce. “That wasn’t just about me, it had been the same for previous managers. It’s how West Ham is. They (the supporters) aren’t happy, no matter who the manager is. The players used to sit in the dressing room at halftime and say ‘listen to them … slaughtering us all the time.’
“It’s not a Sam Allardyce thing. It’s a West Ham thing, so it’s not really me because all the others have had the same amount of stick I had over the years anyway. If I was the manager at the time and they didn’t think I was doing well, it would be me, but before that it would be Harry Redknapp, before that it would be Alan Curbishley, before that it would be Alan Pardew, before that it would be Avram Grant, before that it would be…
“Whoever has been the West Ham manager has had a bit of stick no matter who they are. It’s part of the job.
“I felt the West Ham way ought to be about wearing your heart on your sleeve, showing passion for the club and winning. But the fans were being brainwashed into thinking that, historically, the club had a particular style of play akin to Barcelona, which was potty.”
Even Sir Alex Ferguson is puzzled by the so-called West Ham way. He said: “I hope that before I die, someone can explain the ‘West Ham way’. What is it? They last won a trophy in 1980, the F.A. Cup.
“I never played against any West Ham team that played football I was afraid of. They were always surviving, or lucky as hell against us. I had to sympathize with Sam. He couldn’t win. There is this preconception with West Ham fans that Big Sam is a survivalist who tells teams to boot the ball up the pitch. The truth is that he stayed up with a team of very average players. That’s management. He drew the best from them.”
And so to Saturday. Bilic believes “everyone connected with the club” should appreciate Allardyce and said: “He took over West Ham in a moment when they were in the Championship and got them back straight away. He stabilized them in the Premier League and did an amazing job. Do I think he will get a warm reception? I think so, and I hope so.”
Breath should not be held.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.
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