The final whistle was still ringing in Big Sam’s ears, gravy still coursing through his veins and his mouth still enveloped with chewing gum as the West Ham board buried the axe deep into the back of his neck. Barely two minutes after the game had finished, it was over. The game had ended and so had Allardyce’s career in East London.
In his post-match comments, he laughed. He said there had been no contract to discuss and that there was a decision mutually agreed by him and the board to part ways. The time was right for both parties to move on. He spoke of his pride at what he had accomplished in his four year tenure; he had taken the club from a Championship side though the play-offs and had turned West Ham into an established Premier League team. Few could deny him his achievements. There is room to inspect them, however.
While the timing of the press release seemed a touch callous, burying the former manager while his body was still warm and twitching, it is not a decision that is likely to be unpopular. It is fair to say that Allardyce’s relationship with the Upton Park has been more of a marriage of convenience rather than of any great affection. The gripes against his perceived negative brand of football were briefly put on ice for the first half of the season, as the club enjoyed a dizzying few months where they scaled the heights of the league table, only to be taken down with the Christmas decorations. Since the turn of the year, the side have been poor and familiar grumblings about Allardyce had begun to emerge once more. Painting over the cracks is only a temporary measure, after all.
Despite this, there’s perhaps a slight sense of apprehension surrounding the decision as the significance of the next appointment begins to settle in amongst supporters. Needless to say, it has not taken long for the doomsayers to scuttle out of the woodwork. Last night, on Match of the Day, Danny Murphy, with an eerie air of foreboding, warned West Ham fans to ‘be careful what they wish for’, whilst Shearer said that they need only look at the fortunes of other clubs post-Allardyce to get a glimpse of what they might be letting themselves in for.
Reluctance to pay credence to anything that leaves Murphy’s or Shearer’s mouth notwithstanding, there is some merit in what MOTD’s ersatz Mitchell brothers have to say. Bolton, Blackburn and Newcastle have all suffered relegation shortly after giving Big Sam’s considerable arse the boot. Does the same fate lie in store for West Ham United? Do they now risk relegation? Have they made a foolhardy decision in letting him go [and risking their top flight status] the season before they move into the Olympic Stadium?
Conventional wisdom would suggest that they have. Allardyce is a steady hand who brings stability to sides and ultimately ensures safety from relegation, or so we’re told. His record would seems to back this up. However, there’s something about his claim to have turned West Ham into an established Premier League club that doesn’t quite ring true. So let’s have a look at his performance since West Ham’s return to the top flight…
Let’s be frank – last season was abysmal. Barring an exceptional February, we deserved to go down. Big Sam’s brand of pragmatic football can be tolerated when it produces the results he claims it does. This simply wasn’t the case for large portions of the previous campaign though. Poor results and overtly negative football are not good bedfellows and many fans turned on the manager; the nadir for him was being booed off the pitch as the team laboured to a 1- 0 victory against a 10 man Hull. It seemed like his job was dangling by a thread, but he managed to cling to it like it was the last Greggs pasty in existence.
At the end of the season there were still question marks over his position. After long talks with Gold and Sullivan it emerged that he was to stay on; with a few caveats. The most prominent of which was to play a more attacking, entertaining style of football. And, for a while at least, he did.
A summer of strong recruitment meant that fresh faces were seamlessly integrated into the first team and shiny new shape drew the side, and the gaffer, accolades for their flexibility and versatility, with a new look strike partnership of Valencia and Sakho [accompanied by a newly unshackled Downing] causing problems for defences up and down the country. But the wheels soon came off. Many pundits have suggested that Andy Carroll succumbing to injury [once again] heralded this downturn in form but it was his introduction into the team, alongside longtime fellow co-defendant Kevin Nolan, that marked the beginning of the end for West Ham.
The success of the early part of the season was founded on the aforementioned shiny new shape – the 4-4-2 diamond was predicated on Alex Song quickly transitioning the ball to a pacey, strong strike force who would stretch defences, which in turn created space in front of the back four for Downing to operate. Clearly Carroll, a player with the turning circle of a blue whale, isn’t mobile enough to play in this system, so when he returned from injury the formation had to change as Sam felt obliged to play his record signing. In order to accommodate Carroll, Downing and either Sakho or Valencia were then shunted into wide roles which greatly diminished their impact. This was coupled with the inclusion of human Trilobite Kevin Nolan playing in an advanced midfield role, just behind the striker. Suddenly the dynamic, attacking playing style had been swapped for essentially the cumbersome system that had been unsuccessful the season before.
It appeared that the success of the diamond hadn’t been a great tactical innovation by Allardyce, but rather something he stumbled into as his hand was forced by the limitations on the personnel available to him.
West Ham managed to pick up a few wins playing this way, with Carroll even chipping in with a few goals, but the quality of football was much poorer than earlier in the season. Once Carroll picked up his annual season-ending injury, it looked like the door way have opened for the side to revert to the more free-flowing action of the first half of the season. Sadly, Sakho picked up an injury whilst on international duty for Senegal at the same time and never truly recovered. This left West Ham bereft of potent attacking options and subsequently led to a toothless end to the season.
The club’s form since the start of 2015 has been beyond shocking – they won only 3 games since the beginning of January. They’ve found themselves rooted near the bottom of the form table. This is relegation form, and were it not for a picking up a number of ‘bonus’ points at the start of the season [wins against City and Liverpool, draws against Spurs and United], then the club would once again have found themselves mired in the relegation dogfighti.
All of which is to say, that Allardyce’s claims to have turned the club into an established Premier League team during his tenure don’t seem to hold water. Obviously this is reliant on what your definition of ‘established’ is, but it is apparent that one season of barely escaping a relegation battle and another that failed to capitalise in a positive start and resulted in 3 wins from half a season’s worth of games doesn’t fit with the definitions of Davids Gold and Sullivan.
The club clearly aspires to more than that, to being more than a perennial candidate for the drop. And who can blame them? They see the move to the Olympic stadium as an opportunity to catapult the club to the next level, in both footballing and financial terms. However, they appreciate that in order for this to be the case they need to be filling their stadium which involves practically doubling their current attendance figures. They’re simply not going to achieve that by being a club embroiled in a relegation battle every season. Furthermore, if West Ham find themselves grinding out 1-0 wins and generally playing a style of football that focuses on negating the opposition, they are going to have a hard time attracting the sorts of casual fans that are necessary to boost attendances and revenues. Tickets for the inaugural season are selling well but if the standard of football doesn’t match the standard of the facilities, those numbers could soon dwindle.
So, yes, letting Allardyce go could yet prove to be a mistake. It could result in the club’s relegation and his parting gift of Europa League qualification could yet be a poisoned apple. But the board have decided that the failure to capitalise on the potential benefits of the Olympic stadium is a greater risk than the risk of losing Premier League status. Parting ways with Big Sam is an ambitious move – West Ham are trading security for aspiraton. It is no doubt a gamble and that gamble paying off is largely dependent on who the club name as his successor. It is a bold move. It would be nice if, in this case, fortune favoured the bold, rather than always hiding.