Director of Football - gone; Big Sam the big gaffer - gone. Is there a happy-hybrid to offset all this chaos? Is handing the new man a four year deal sufficient to mitigate the risk of having to start all over again, again?
Now that the dust has settled from Allardyce and the FA’s chaos, is it time to accept that sometimes, there is little option but to accept the absurdity of the situation and surrender to fate? That’s somewhere close to where Sunderland landed this summer. It’s hardly the first time this football club has ended up in a crisis not entirely of its own making; but lurching from one event to another, re-engineering yourself in a bid to thwart fate’s next turn is costly, exhausting and futile.
Fate doesn’t half deal an absurd hand to Sunderland. For every miraculous escape from the consequence of relegation, in return the fickle father of fate fingers the club right where it hurts. It’s almost amusing to ponder that we’ve had three different managers in the past ten months.
I’m not one for rolling my eyes and giggling that life is never easy as a Sunderland fan; because it simply shouldn’t be like this. I’m also not one to sit back with my arms folded, and orate that we’ve never had it so good; that ten seasons in the Premier League is as good as it is ever likely to get in our lifetimes. Because, that’s not how football works. It’s all relative and a perpetual strive for better is how it ought to be.
Now, I’m a fan of Sam Allardyce, or I was. He achieved what he was brought in to do after Dick Advocaat shrugged his shoulders and walked away from the calamity he was in part responsible for. But with Allardyce, for all that he might bring that’s good, he also appears to surround the place in ego, favouritism, bluster and the most astonishing sense of self-worth.
Ellis Short entered negotiations with Big Sam from a position of weakness last Autumn. Sunderland needed a manager who could save them from a season of obliteration and apart from Nigel Pearson, who had engineered one survival miracle with Leicester, there wasn’t really anyone else who could do it.
So, Sam got what he wanted; a substantial salary, full control over playing staff and recruitment and a creeping influence over everything he was interested in. It was necessary – then; and it worked. Big Sam got his preferred head of player recruitment, and team of analysts-cum technical coaches, and full control over the training ground and dressing room.
Allardyce is a manager who loves nothing better than to lean back in his chair and regale how his abundant genius has just secured whatever it was that had just been secured that day. Make no mistake – it was Sam Allardyce who converted Jermain Defoe into a lone striker despite the cries of horror from a startled world who said it simply couldn’t be done; and it was delivered with no hint of self-deprecation, humility or acknowledgement that Sunderland had precious little other option at that time. I honestly would bet on the fact he used that example in his England interview.
His dominance was well felt at West Ham and fans had begun to question the all-pervading influence of Big Sam. There was certainly no love lost between Allardyce and the West Ham board. It was akin to a marriage of convenience, with a lack of loving that ended in an early annulment. There had been a growing unease about the influence of apparent favoured agents. Allardyce’s ‘own’ agent Mark Curtis represented a good chunk of the first team and Willie MacKay was prominent in Hammers’ transfer activity.
None of which has tremendous relevance to Sunderland of course; other than being an indication of the empire which was under construction. Allardyce originally penned a two year contract, apparently with no break clause this close season. Two years is not unusual for a manager, but it is at the lower end of deals signed, especially for those managers identified as the ‘best man for the job’. Benitez at Newcastle was initially hired on a three year deal, as was Slaven Bilic. Roberto Martinez penned an astonishing five year extension after his first twelve months at Everton. Likewise, Mauricio Pochettino is on a five year stint at Spurs.
So, one of the parties, Sunderland or Allardyce, were not desperately keen to tie themselves in for too long. Certainly, there have been some whispers that Big Sam had tried to position himself for other jobs when all was starting to look lost in Sunderland’s relegation battle. The man himself suggested he would be off if he oversaw the dreaded drop. This was not a long term project; it was a ‘play it by ear’ arrangement from a man looking to rehabilitate himself after his West Ham project ended in moderate embarrassment.
A new era has dawned then at Sunderland, but it is clear that all is not so well this summer; and is that because of, or in spite of England? A bit of both, surely. If any transfer targets had been identified during the first six weeks of the close season, they clearly never progressed. Did we have no one watching Euro2016? The bi-annual showcase of European talent is a traditional shop window – for big money deals and lesser amounts, but it appeared to pass Sunderland by. Other matters just seem to have slipped a little, and not all of it can be attributed to the two weeks that England came knocking for Sam.
Vague hints at pre-season fitness levels not being quite what David Moyes had hoped to inherit; knocks and niggles to key players – Defoe and Kirchoff, a situation not uncommon under recent regimes at Sunderland, but not seen since Advocaat’s time because of Allardyce’s massive improvement in this area during the season. What has happened since, only the first few weeks of the upcoming frenetic Premier League kick off will tell us.
That’s the problem, Allardyce was given the keys to the castle and swiftly crowned himself king thereof. This quickly exposed the club to an intolerable level of risk as soon as something upskittled the balance of power which relied so heavily on the king. While the king foraged to take over an empire, his small homeland began to crumble.
The solution has been to identify a man with a track record of building at clubs – David Moyes; or more accurately of building at one club – Everton; and handing him a long term contract, the longest for a Sunderland manager for quite some time. Is that enough to mitigate against future risk? For a club like Sunderland, possibly; but remember the fickle father of fate fingers us regularly. Or is there a hybrid model of stability which on the one hand doesn't involve an actual Director of Football as such, and on the other doesn't rely so heavily on a big-coated, big-ego gaffer, which would better suit us? Perhaps, but those are thoughts for another day….