On this day in 2015, Big Sam Allardyce was appointed as our new manager, replacing Dick Advocaat, who’d retired for the second time in five months to work in his wife’s floristry.
Big Sam, a former Sunderland captain in the early ‘80s, had carved out a reputation as one of the country’s best ‘second tier’ managers. He’d been part of Reidy’s coaching staff during the 1996-97 First Division season, and had regularly been linked with the Sunderland hot seat – most notably when Niall Quinn arrived (allegedly the deal was all but agreed before Allardyce had second thoughts) and again when Roy Keane departed. Allardyce, at that point between positions, pretty much begged for the job on Sky Sports, being turned down in favour of Ricky Sbragia.
Yes, Ricky Sbragia.
Allardyce joined our relegation rivals Blackburn, whom he kept up comfortably while Sbragia’s Sunderland crawled over the line on the last day of the season, courtesy of other teams’ results.
Still, better late than never, and Allardyce – again between gigs after he left West Ham – eventually sat down in the Sunderland hot seat.
It was, yet again, a period of serious unrest under Ellis Short.
Advocaat had replaced Poyet the previous March and guided us to yet another odds-defying survival. He’d left the club at the end of the season, as per the agreement he had in place, but was tempted back weeks later, thanks to a ferry full of flowers.
This time-consuming U-turn, and the fact Advocaat was clearly unconvinced about staying on, not only disrupted transfer business it also adversely affected pre-season. And it was evident from the opening moments of the season’s first fixture that we were seriously undercooked.
An incredibly open style of play may have threatened goals at one end, but leaked them at the other. In the first 10 games of the season we’d let in 25 goals, scoring 15 – albeit 6 of them coming in a League Cup game at home to Exeter in which, incidentally, Lynden Gooch made his first appearance for the club.
A 2-2 draw with West Ham brought about Jeremain Lens’ finest – only – moment for the club, and tears from Advocaat as he bade farewell and – allegedly – headed off into retirement.
And so it was, on 9th October, less than a week after the clash with West Ham, Allardyce – finally – arrived at the club; signing a two-year deal.
“Sam was the obvious best choice for the job,” said chairman Ellis Short.
Sunderland is a club he knows well. He has vast experience of managing in the Premier League and an understanding, first-hand, of the north-east and the passion of our fans, which will stand him in great stead. The recruitment process was made easier by the fact that Sam was such an obvious choice.
Big Sam, for his part, had been ‘on a break’ – waiting for the right job to come along following his departure from West Ham.
“I’ve enjoyed my break from football and now I’m raring to get back,” he said;
I met with Ellis and we spoke at length about the club and his ambitions and I knew I wanted to be part of that. I hope to be able to help to bring the stability and success that everyone wants.
Of course it’s a challenging job, but it’s something I have experience of in the past. I’m looking forward to working with the players and of course I’ll be relying on the help of the Sunderland supporters, whose tremendous passion I have experienced first-hand. I can’t wait to get started.
The Allardyce era – a brief one, as it turned out – is fondly remembered by supporters.
However, the early days saw us struggle for points. The 11 fixtures to the end of the calendar year saw us lose 8 and win 3, one of those victories, of course, coming in Allardyce’s first home game, our customary league win over Newcastle.
Allardyce had focused on defence, making us more difficult to beat and encouraging a defined and structured style of play that had been missing under Advocaat. He put Jermain Defoe back up front; a decision that hardly required a PhD in football knowledge. However, his predecessor had either played Defoe out wide or left him on the bench - astonishing given Defoe’s record.
January started positively, with a couple of league wins, at home to Aston Villa and away at Swansea – including a Defoe hattrick – however the team were unable to get themselves above 19th place.
Things started to change in early February.
Entering the closing stages of the month-long transfer window, our business had been confined to the signing of Bayern Munich’s Jan Kirchhoff – a central defender with a dubious injury record.
His debut performance at Tottenham was one to forget, and didn’t exactly scream ‘there’s better things to come.’
Replacing Danny Graham with the score 1-1, Kirchhoff had barely the time to adjust his lime green shorts when we’d conceded a second. Jan then deflected an Eriksen shot past Pickford, who was also making his league debut, and to top things off he conceded a penalty that Harry Kane converted for a 4-1 Spurs victory.
Something needed to change and, over the following couple of weeks, Dame N’Doye, Wahbi Khazri and Lamine Kone arrived at the club; all three making their debuts at home to Manchester City – although N’Doye had been an unused sub the week before.
Allardyce’s selection of Kirchhoff in the centre of midfield raised eyebrows after his White Hart Lane horror show, but the German excelled. Kone looked like he meant business – Yaya Toure certainly thought so – and, despite losing 1-0 to an early Auguero goal, it seemed like the new signings, combined with the discipline Allardyce had installed and his attention to detail in the sports science department – might just give us a fighting chance.
And indeed it did.
After a late Defoe goal secured a point at Anfield, we beat a Manchester United team featuring Donald Love at the Stadium of Light, with Khazri and Kone notching their first goals for the club.
Those two games prompted a run of 2 defeats in 14 games, during which we accumulated 20 points; six of those coming in the final two home games of the season, those wonderful games against Chelsea and Everton.
That form wasn’t a fluke, it wasn’t luck, it was well deserved; the result of a proper manager doing his job well. Astute signings, attention to detail off the field, a plan and some good old motivation. If we’d carried that form on for a whole season we’d have recorded 54 points. All ifs and buts, of course, but out of interest, 54 points would have had us 9th in the 2015-16 table, and 8th – by 8 points – the season after.
Of course, it’s all theoretical – another sliding doors moment in our history.
What if Roy Hodgson hadn’t put Harry Kane on corners? What if England hadn’t have come calling. We’ll never know.
What we do know is that we appointed a dour defeatist in his place. A person lacking any desire to make any form of connection with the club. A person who, after inheriting a team who’d been on such a good run of form, conceded relegation after two games. Two games!
We can all pinpoint moments where our fortunes turned, and there are many factors that led to our demise.
Regardless of anything off the field, the departure of Allardyce, and the appointment of you know who, is more directly to blame than anything else.
Of course, you couldn’t hold it against Allardyce – no one begrudged him taking the job. Begrudged him being offered it in the first place, absolutely. However the sight of him throwing the role as England head coach away after just one game, while throwing pints of wine down his neck, was galling.
Right man, right club. It lasted less than eight months.
What a waste.