LONDON – The after-dinner drinks and conversation were in full flow. Sam Allardyce, then manager of Sunderland, was holding court and half a dozen football correspondents hung on his every word.
Whatever your perception is of him as manager, Allardyce is great company, especially after-dinner company. A man’s man. Someone with a treasure chest of stories and anecdotes about his career. His humor is infectious.
The chat drifted to Malky Mackay who had lost his job as Cardiff manager after inappropriate texts between himself and Iain Moody, head of recruitment, were found on his company phone. A rookie error. Mackay had left himself open to investigation by having a phone supplied by his club, which had every right to examine its contents. Mackay was fired.
Allardyce said he has always had his own personal phone and laptop. On the money top managers are paid they can afford to buy their own. Private phone. No club checks, not that he had anything to hide, but . . . you know. We nodded in collective agreement. Big Sam talked sense. Always cover your tracks . . . just in case. Be alert at all times. One step ahead.
Which made it all the more surprising that Allardyce was naive enough to be caught out by the Daily Telegraph’s sting in which undercover reporters posing as Far East businessmen recorded the England manager over two meetings. Big Sam became Big Sham. Sam won’t be playing it again.
Allardyce, of course, believed what he was saying was in private, not for public consumption. Rather like Mackay with his texts to Moody, in fact. The now-former England manager had no idea that what he was discussing was being recorded for publication on Tuesday.
The Football Association acted with uncharacteristic speed. Later that day Allardyce was history. Gone in 67 days.
One game, a 1-0 win over Slovakia when England led for the final 10 seconds. Adam Lalana, the goal-scorer, became a football quiz answer.
The F.A. believed it had no option because Allardyce’s conduct was “inappropriate.” Planet Twitter burst into action. Few disagreed that Sam had at best been silly, at worst telling “businessmen” how to get around certain rules.
Even Allardyce agreed. Big Sam admitted he had made a big mistake with some careless comments. The guardians of the game had to make a stance against Allardyce, whose departure was by mutual consent.
This is, however, the same F.A. that said that it could not bring a disciplinary case against Mackay and Moody on the basis that the sexist, homophobic and racist messages obtained by Cardiff’s lawyers through a search order had a “legitimate expectation of privacy.”
It was the same F.A. that examined emails of a sexist nature sent by Richard Scudamore, the Premier League chief executive, last year which a “disgusted” temporary secretary had made public. Their contents, said the Premier League, were not intended for a wider audience and again the F.A. took no action, hiding behind its distinction between public and private comments, although its official handbook makes no specific differentiation between public and private discriminatory behavior.
So the F.A. will not act on private texts and emails that are sexist, homophobic and racist, but a covert operation which recorded what Allardyce believed was a private, off-the- record conversation saw the curtain brought down on his international career.
Allardyce was not crude or offensive. There was nothing that would demand instant dismissal in just about any other industry, even if his comments on how best to circumnavigate third-party ownership regulations strayed close to the line. Mocking Roy Hodgson’s speech impediment, criticizing Prince William and Prince Harry — he called the latter a naughty boy — were just tittle-tattle.
What cost Allardyce his job was negotiating a £400,000 public-speaking contract in Singapore and Hong Kong. While he thought the businessmen were real, it was, in effect, a non-existent contract with a non-existent company which he stressed he would have to run by the F.A.
He was hardly going behind its back as he would have told his employers. The F.A. would have refused permission — end of non-story.
But the accusations of greed were damning. When you earn £3 million to manage England, why do you want or need more money?
The answer is that it is what people do, if they can — maximize their earnings. Footballers and club managers have extra income from sponsorships and commercial deals, but the high moral ground decided the England manager must be above this. Well-paid journalists, who supplement their newspaper salaries by writing books and appearing on TV, were outraged.
A personal view is that if, by going underground, the press can unfold drug smugglers or anything illegal, that is entirely justified. It’s what a free press must be able to do. There is something uncomfortable about a football manager being lied to, set up and secretly filmed and what he reasonably believes is a private conversation is read by the world.
Exposing a pedophile ring is one thing, but a loose-tongued Big Sam of Dudley?
UK police cannot use entrapment — inducing a person to commit an offense that otherwise they would have had no intention to commit — but the Daily Telegraph can.
This is not to say Allardyce is an angel. Far from it. And the F.A. is far from blameless. Due diligence by the F.A. before his appointment would surely have rung a few alarm bells and for many in the anti-Sam brigade he has turned out to be the person they thought he was. The F.A. seemed in such a rush to appoint Hodgson’s successor their main background search was whether Allardyce was English.
Mark Curtis, Allardyce’s agent, who helped negotiate his England contract, is also known to the F.A. It has fined him for making an illicit payment and he was warned as to his future conduct after another incident. There have been reports — denied — that as a manager Allardyce has encouraged players to sign with Curtis.
Allardyce’s spell at Bolton was marred by the BBC’s “Panorama” investigation, which alleged his son, Craig, had taken illicit payments for transfer deals while employed by Curtis. A Premier League inquiry concluded “three transfers in which Craig Allardyce was involved remain uncleared.”
The F.A. investigated and the case has never been closed, yet they still appointed as manager a man who effectively had those outstanding questions against him. Nothing was ever proven, but the warning signs were there.
For his part, Allardyce could have expected and should have insisted that Curtis did a thorough check on the “Far East businessmen.” I am told the DT underground team contacted other managers who found their approach an offer they could refuse, while one who did turn up left before the main course.
What Allardyce said was ill-advised, but the DT set him up and it is reveling in the glory of possibly ending Allardyce’s career.
A victory for investigative journalism or a victory for entrapment?
Take your pick.
England is not rushing to replace Allardyce. Gareth Southgate, manager of England’s Under-21 side, will take charge of the senior team’s next four matches against Malta, Slovenia, Scotland and Spain across October and November.
This gives the F.A. the entire winter to find another new manager with the next England game not until March against Lithuania.
Who’s next for the impossible job?
In their ideal world the F.A. would love to persuade Arsene Wenger, whose contract with Arsenal runs out next summer, to lead his adopted country, but the Gunners are likely to offer him a new deal.
Southgate is the man in possession and it’s his job to lose, but if he has an interview he may check the F.A. officials for a wire.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.
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