Most people don't seem to understand the melancholy and despair that has swept Sunderland's fanbase since the FA’s overtures became clear. This is the Sam Allardyce who West Ham fans could not wait to jettison and who is derided as a proprietor of dull and uninspiring football by fans the country over. Allardyce guarantees survival, but wouldn’t we rather go for a manager who would give us enjoyable football?
I’m not the most patient or understanding Sunderland fan when it comes to managers. I don't think I’ve ever been truly sorry to see a manager go. I was still fairly young when Peter Reid left, and while I felt sorry for both Reid and Mick McCarthy when they were sacked, both oversaw a terrible sequence of results that saw us hurtling towards relegation and made their departures inevitable. This, therefore, is the first time I have experienced the feeling of dread when contemplating the departure and replacement of a manager.
For those of us mired in relegation trouble every season, it is a statement of fact that not all escapes are created equal. Some become folklore, others are forgotten. I barely remember Ricky Sbragia dragging our corpse of a squad to survival in 08/09. However, we’ve had some epic escapes in recent years that will live long in the memory. Di Canio rescued us with sheer determination, fitness and organisation, but very little quality. Poyet rescued us by finding a fortuitous balance at the last minute, thanks in no small part to Connor Wickham - who Poyet had no interest in playing until he was forced to recall him from a loan spell due to injuries.
But last season was a different kind of escape. It was the culmination of a managerial masterclass that saw us identify and address weaknesses, buy the right players, settle on the right system and introduce a carefully constructed and modern fitness plan which allowed us to play consistent and at times excellent football. Since January, we steadily distinguished ourselves from relegation rivals through our performances, team spirit, defensive solidity and having a reliable goalscorer to call upon. This was no fluke, no last-minute gamble that amazed everyone. I saw a team and a plan develop month by month - one that had every chance of continuing into next season. Now, thanks to the FA, that momentum has been stalled and we are almost certain to be left to replace not only a manager, but a viable plan for the future.
I'm ashamed to say that, before he joined us last year, I was of the opinion that Allardyce’s reputation as a no-nonsense, gruff and uncompromising old fashioned English manager was justified. I viewed him as an effective - if uninspired - operator, who relied on long ball tactics to earn results and survival, but whose approach would achieve little more than that. If that were true, his departure would still be significant for a club with our recent history, but it would not be as depressing.
The reality is that Allardyce is a manager with extremely modern techniques, who embraces all the developments of sports science available to keep the squad fit, but also manage players individually who had, until his arrival, been constantly injured. While other teams lost key players to injury and fatigue towards the end of last season, players like Kaboul, Kirchhoff and Defoe made light of their respective injury histories or age to feature prominently in a congested and exhausting schedule of games.
As for the expansiveness or attacking nature of his football, we adopted a 4-3-3 formation last season and while we were linked with the likes of Kevin Nolan or Joey O’Brien as January loomed, Sam swooped for the left field options of Jan Kirchhoff and Wahbi Khazri. A classy German midfielder who is excellent and composed in possession and a diminutive, mercurial attacker. Not the stereotypical Allardyce signings we hear so much about. But what does that even mean?
This is a man who signed Alex Song, Enner Valencia, Diafra Sakho, Ivan Campo, Youri Djorkaeff, Obafemi Martins, Fernando Hierro and Nicolas Anelka, among many others. These players are not the first names that come to mind if you were to employ long ball football, nor do they betray an indifference to individual class or skill. Despite signing big striker Dame N’Doye, Sam chose to play Jermain Defoe up front on his own for the majority of last season, while skilful attacking players like Borini and Khazri became the preferred wide options. It is simply not true to accuse Allardyce of approaching football in a boring, predictable or primitive way.
We are therefore not only losing a survival expert - we are losing a manager who surprised Sunderland fans with a modern approach. Allardyce produced a balanced and composed side that embraced continental flair and quality, but also emphasised work ethic, togetherness and organisation. This was a team that was built with the future in mind, not merely reaching the end of the season with Premier League status in tact. It was a plan that was working, with the team showing the fitness, consistency and quality to compete and succeed throughout a long and tough Premier League season to come.
The despair is not just for the loss of a manager, though this is of course a devastating blow. We are losing a plan for this club. We are losing a future that we saw developing in front of our eyes last season. And that’s what really hurts.
If he does become England manager - which it now looks beyond doubt that he will - I will put money on England getting to the semi finals of the World Cup. Having witnessed first hand what he can do, I am in no doubt that he is the best man for the job. As much as it pains me to say it, I like to think I'm a realist and an honest observer. The England job is clearly one he’s always wanted and is too big an opportunity for him to regret not taking.
I don't begrudge him it and I genuinely hope he is left alone by the smug business types within the FA to make the England team honest, successful and representative of the entire country once again. I have witnessed and suffered an England setup that has for decades insulted, ignored and derided the efforts and suitability of Sunderland AFC to contribute to the national set-up. I hope Allardyce ushers in an era when I can be a Sunderland fan who feels connected to the national team once again.
Replacing Big Sam will be a unique challenge that we have not faced in the Premier League era. It is not impossible and we might even be able to save or replace the positive future we all saw developing under his stewardship. It will require care and - like any decision - we could get it horribly wrong.
It’s not the end of the world. But it sure as hell feels like it.