Sam Allardyce has returned to club management after a short sabbatical by accepting an offer to manage Sunderland. Ellis Short, the reclusive American-based billionaire who owns the club stated the obvious when he said “Sam was the obvious best choice for the job.”
Clearly Allardyce, whose record speaks for itself, was the best choice for Sunderland. That is beyond any reasonable debate. But is Sunderland the best choice for Allardyce? It depends entirely on your level of expectation.
For three years running, Sunderland has relied on great escapes to remain in the Premier League. In each of the last four seasons (including this one), Sunderland will end a Premier League campaign with a different manager than they had at the start of the season. Each of these managers — Martin O’Neill, Paulo DiCanio, Gus Poyet and Dick Advocaat — have been high-profile figures who have demanded Short spend money and buy players that suited their specific tastes.
Short always came through and monetarily backed his managers in the transfer market. What has resulted is a bloated wage bill that has consistently been among the top half in a league on to see the team’s results fail to approach that stature. Additionally, all the chopping and changing has led to a squad list that resembles a hodgepodge of repetitive players, differing styles and levels of player.
Into this walks Sam Allardyce, a manager renowned for creating strong tactical structures and getting results even, if the play is far from easy on the eye. “Big Sam” will inherit a team not without major talent but with little consistency and a woeful lack of fight, except when it comes to playing rival Newcastle or needing a critical win in May to avoid relegation.
Sunderland are a massive club with support levels that rival those of English sides that routinely compete for trophies. But the Black Cats last won a trophy in 1973 – when the club recorded one of the historic upsets of the era, defeating Leeds United at Wembley in a famous FA Cup final. Since then, Sunderland has bounced between divisions but always maintained strong loyalty and support.
But the commitment level of fans has been tested during the Short regime, which began in 2009. The ambitions of the American owner were to maintain a high-level Premier League club, thus he has sacked managers and spent money to maintain a spot in the richest division of world soccer. But by doing so, Sunderland has yet to have a normal season of routine consolidation, and, quite frankly, the club needed to be relegated one of these past few campaigns so that they could get the house in order. Sunderland’s continued spending of good money after bad has left the club in a precarious financial state should they go down now, whereas had the club been relegated in 2013 or 2014, things would not be quite as gloomy.
Instead, Sunderland continues to tug along, spending money and achieving minimal results. Allardyce is a manager that gets optimum results and will likely keep the Black Cats in the division. But what this means is that the much needed clear out from the club will be postponed by a year, if not longer. If the clear out does not occur before eventual relegation from the division, it could be quite ugly, even if the new Premier League television deals might offset some of that financial pain.
Given what Sunderland does to managers and how toxic the atmosphere around the club has become, why Allardyce would take a job like this? My only guess is that Big Sam having “failed” at neighboring Newcastle United would like another shot at managing a well-supported northern club. Allardyce has managed brilliantly at Bolton and Blackburn, two Lancashire clubs that have historic lineage but minimal support when compared to Sunderland. He also managed a London club, West Ham United, where despite achieving good results he was never really welcome because of the attitude of many fans and his northern pedigree.
Make no mistake about it, Allardyce is a good enough manager to keep this Sunderland team in the Premier League. But why he would want the challenge is questionable, and his reputation could take a hit if somehow the Black Cats do get relegated.
So while this appointment was a no-brainer for Sunderland, did it make sense for Allardyce himself? I really don’t think it does, but he certainly will make the best of the situation. That’s what good, resourceful and pragmatic managers do, and Big Sam is certainly all of those things.
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