When Sam Allardyce took over at Everton, it looked like he was finally being given the ‘big job’ he’s always talked about deserving.
The former England boss was never seen as sophisticated enough for a top four club back in the day, and over the last few years none of the new ‘big six’ would have dreamed of coming to call on him. But Everton, a team with aspirations to break into that cabal at the top of the table did.
In some ways it was a panic appointment: without a manager and seemingly in freefall, the Toffees looked to a ship steadier rather than a system builder. But in other ways it looked like it could have been inspired. Allardyce is known as one of the most meticulous and detailed managers in the league, and whilst that might be something of an outdated viewpoint (the likes of Pep Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino and Antonio Conte are no stranger to the finer points of micromanaging) it’s certainly true that the man who kept Crystal Palace in the top flight last season is more than just a get-out-of-jail-free card.
For Everton, a club with some fabulous players, but some serious squad limitations, I thought Allardyce was somehow the perfect man: the man who would find the strengths and play to them whilst also turning a flaky defence into one that stopped shipping goals.
It occurred to me that the former England boss had a point to prove and that for the first time in his career, he had the players at his disposal to do it. Whatever you think about Everton’s summer recruitment, there are some good players in the team who wouldn’t look out of place in a top six side.
Indeed last season the Toffees were threatening the Champions League places before a Merseyside derby effectively ended their hopes for a top four spot, and with nothing else to play for, the season fizzled out.
But instead of taking the technical side Ronald Koeman was trying to build and running with it to prove he can manage a top team, Allardyce seems to have out-Allardyced himself. He has taken a struggling team and positioned them squarely in the upper mid-table, which was his remit, but he’s done it in a way that’s proven the point of those who said that steering the liner away from the iceberg is about the height of his managerial abilities.
I don’t like reactionary football, but I also don’t like snobbery in football. If Allardyce had to play long balls in order to take unfancied Bolton into the UEFA Cup, then so be it: that’s simply playing to your strengths. And in fact, he did it in a particularly modern way at the time, becoming one of the first managers to really use statistics and player monitoring to their fullest.
But we have to accept that there’s one rule for a plucky underdog and another when you’re in charge of a team who can spend £45m on one player: Everton and its fans don’t just want more, they demand it and so they should.
Everton will be safe, and they may even finish seventh. If they do, Allardyce should be lauded because in order to finish as the best of the rest from this position they’ll have had to win more games than an in-form Leicester who already have an extra point and a much better goal difference. If Allardyce manages that, he’ll have won plenty of games and you have to play well in order to do that.
The worry, though, isn’t that the evidence doesn’t point to this being the case.
Allardyce had a huge chance with this job. He took over a team who were capable of so much attractive football and all he had to do was let them play it whilst shoring up the defence – something he’s an expert at already. He could have proved to the world that he’s not a reactionary coach or a dinosaur, and should have been given more of a chance years ago.
Instead, his Everton side is now just what most people think of when they think of the phrase ‘Big Sam’. He has time to fix that, but for this season it’s starting to run out.