Does a season of redemption await for Big Sam?
For a man who once said he’d be good enough to manage Real Madrid, he didn’t half make hard work out of getting West Ham back into the Premier League. The Championship is of course, a formidable beast and all that matters now is that Sam Allardyce has got the Hammers back into the promised land of English football.
But West Ham United aren’t like your usual promoted team. Where as for most, Premier League teams survival represents the Holy Grail, for some Hammers fans, it’s a basic expectation. Allardyce felt the heat of supporters on more than one occasion last season and he doesn’t just face the task of keeping the East Londoners up- he’ll have to do it in style.
There was a wonderful paradox of emotion at Upton Park last season. For large parts of the season, West Ham always seemed destined to be promoted, but overwhelming support was not forthcoming. The supporters’ demands for a certain brand of football, a ‘West Ham’ way, were echoed out in force; demands that for the most part, fell on deaf ears.
And it’s been difficult for Allardyce. His brand of football has always carried a certain stigma of pragmatism and some fans had already made their minds up about ‘Big Sam’ before David Gold and David Sullivan had even appointed him. The chairman appointed Allardyce for his resume, not his style of football. He had the experience, the expertise and the mindset to get West Ham promoted and the ultimate vindication came as West Ham made an instant return to the top flight.
For outsiders looking in, it seemed very much as if West Ham fans wanted to have their cake and eat it. But it’s easy for sneering Premier League supporters to make massive generalizations about a league they’ve never played in. The Championship is an incredibly competitive and ultimately very physical league. Although the notion that it can’t breed decent football, is fatally flawed.
As the Hammers went down in 2011, Brendan Rodgers commandeered Swansea City up into the Premier League on the same footballing philosophy that drew such plaudits last season. And for a more recent example, fans need to look no further than the team who achieved what Allardyce failed to do. Nigel Adkins’ Southampton won promotion on a backdrop of bright, attacking football played mostly on the deck. It’s far from impossible.
Although Allardyce stood strong to his principals and he was eventually redeemed by achieving promotion – albeit via the play offs. Ultimately, the attitudes of last season are now rendered academic but it feels as if something has to give next season. Eventually, either Allardyce is going to have to adopt an altered style of football or the Hammers’ support is going to have to heed to his pragmatism. It’s difficult to predict if either are likely to budge.
Because even when the prospects looked good for West Ham last season, it wasn’t enough. Towards the end of February, a resolute Crystal Palace frustrated Allardyce’s team, to earn a point in a 0-0 draw at Upton Park. But even though the Hammers were still in an automatic promotion spot, it still wasn’t enough for some- sections of the crowd booed the team off at the end of each half. This by no means represented the majority of fans, but it was a sizeable enough minority to be prominently heard. However disappointing the result may have been, the reaction was surely unmerited.
The awkward feeling seemed to linger throughout the duration of the season and although West Ham eventually got promoted, it wasn’t without due concern. Results spiraled off and there was a feeling that Allardyce’s style wasn’t particularly conducive with winning football matches. But they got there in the end and a 2-1 victory in an enthralling play-off final victory against Blackpool, sealed a return to the Premier League.
Next season, you feel, could potentially be one of the most defining of Sam Allardyce’s career. The success and legacy of his time at Bolton Wanderers feels like a lifetime ago and however bitter he may feel about how things ended at both Newcastle United and Blackburn Rovers, his stock has undeniably lowered since his time at the Reebok Stadium. The parallels with his time at Newcastle in particular, feel like an unnerving ghost of Christmas past for the 57-year-old. The fans never brought into his ideology at St. James’ Park and he was never given the time he needed to build his project. The situation he faces at Upton Park isn’t a new one.
In his one season at Newcastle, a good start seemed to appease the boo boys and he will have to ensure that this time round, he maintains momentum. West Ham fans aren’t naïve to the situation and however a certain minority may feel, Premier League survival has to be the most important aim. Anything else they may achieve should be held as a bonus.
But as in all relationships in life, compromise is often key. If Allardyce is to smooth his issues over with some of the Hammers’ support, then he is going to have to alter a brand of football that doesn’t particularly set the heart on fire. When fans pay money for season tickets, they’re entitled to an opinion and however Allardyce frames it, spectators at Upton Park were treated to some pretty dire exhibitions. He keeps claiming he is capable of playing entertaining football. Next season wouldn’t be a bad place to start.
Promoted teams have done extremely well in their first season back in the Premier League in recent years and West Ham will expect to finish clear of relegation. Although how they go about could ultimately define the fate of both club and more prominently, their manager.
How do you feel about Allardyce’s and West Ham’s chances next season? Is survival enough or must it be done with a bit of panache? Let me know how you see it on Twitter: follow @samuel_antrobus and bat me your views.