You might not think it from their current league standing of eighth in the Premier League, but West Ham and Sam Allardyce have always been somewhat of an unholy partnership. The former, a once-hotbed of technical, attacking home-grown talents, to such an extent their youth set-up is known as simply ‘The Academy of Football’, the latter, an inextinguishable beacon of attritional, pragmatic play, always acknowledging results over performance.
To give credit where it’s due, there’s been significant compromise on the manager’s part this season. A £28million summer spend has completely transformed the quality and nature of the Hammers squad and, implicitly accepting the complaints of the Boleyn boo-boys, Allardyce has accordingly set up his side in a more progressive and ambitious manner. They’ve started most games this season with two strikers, compared to the none at times last year, averaged more possession and shots per match and increased their short passes by 20 per game.
If the Irons consequentially claw their way up the table by one place come May-time, Allardyce will have equalled the club’s second-highest finish of the Premier League era. But his contract is set to expire at the end of the season and even if Big Sam does guide the Hammers to Europa League qualification, in my opinion, it’s time both parties parted company on amiable terms – because the anti-Allardyce sentiment subtly persisting around Upton Park will never go away.
Despite their improved form this year, there remains only one target of criticism when anything goes wrong for the Hammers – Allardyce. Admittedly, sometimes it’s impossible to ignore his role in certain results, such as a 2-0 defeat to Liverpool in January that included a performance and a matchday squad – returns for Kevin Nolan, Joey O’Brien, Carlton Cole and Guy Demel – that felt frighteningly familiar to the West Ham of last season, visiting Premier League grounds with seemingly little interest in playing actual football.
Just as the display paid homage to less unified times at Upton Park, so did the reaction, and as long as Allardyce has those battle-hardened bruisers at his disposal, he’ll always be tempted to call upon them in the hope of doggedly-fought scoreless draws – especially away to the Premier League’s top sides. The 2-2 draw to Tottenham at the weekend is another example; West Ham were in control and playing the better football, but eventually got punished for batting down the hatches and reverting back to type in the last twenty minutes.
To some, it will seem a logical strategy for arguably a lesser side, but the fact of the matter is that a significant portion of West Ham fans don’t like that mentality – it’s not what they were brought upon. Likewise, with the East London outfit moving to the Olympic Stadium in 2016, the club needs a brand of football that attracts the bigger names and subsequently, enough fans to fill what will be the fourth-largest capacity in the top flight. There’s certainly some weight to the argument that whilst Allardyce is an expert in top flight survival, he’s not the cailbre of manager who can ensure European qualification year upon year.
Big Sam has broad shoulders and an arrogant mindset, which I do not use in derogatory terms, and proved last season that he’s more capable than most of achieving results whilst under immense pressure from the fan base. I’m sure we all remember his ear-cupping reaction to the chorus of boos around Upton Park as the Hammers limped their way past a ten-man Hull City.
Yet, such fractures between board, manager and supporter can eat away at a club. Alan Pardew became somewhat a character of jest during his time with Newcastle, but it’s indisputable that the turbulent nature of their support, further amplified by their wholesale hatred of the now-Crystal Palace boss, contributed to countless poor results under his leadership. I’m not suggesting dissonant feeling towards Allardyce has reached the same degree in East London, but if his contract is extended and the Hammers struggle to perform next season, we could see widespread protests re-emerge.
Pardew made the wise choice on leaving on his own terms, and although Allardyce’s fate will be at the discretion of the West Ham board, he has the opportunity to leave the club with his head held high. As Alan Curblishey once said as he announced his resignation after 15 years at Charlton Athletic; “I’d rather be clapped out the front door than booed out the back.”
Should Allardyce leave this summer, it will be with his reputation enhanced from four years at West Ham, leaving an exceptionally solid platform for the next manager to work from. Should he stay on however, in my opinion, it can only end in tears for both the club and the manager.