Quick! Name the first two things you think of when I mention Sam Allardyce!
I’d hazard a guess that you said long ball football and Bluetooth headsets. Which would’ve been entirely fair, except Big Sam has been building something a little different to his usual formula at West Ham this season.
West Ham find themselves very much in the thick of it, they’re in touch with the European qualifying places, scoring goals and winning games.
The end of last season was a period of noisy discontent at the Boleyn Ground – and also briefly outside joint-chairman David Sullivan’s home as well, as an anti-Allardyce banner was draped artfully across the flower bed by his front gate.
But Sullivan and co-owner David Gold kept the faith in Allardyce, Teddy Sheringham arrived as attacking coach in May and they backed the manager and promised attractive, attacking football. Now, the pieces seem to be falling into place.
In Diafra Sakho they have a goalscorer. One who, having missed the start of January with a back injury, was withdrawn from Senegal’s African Cup of Nations squad and will stay with West Ham during this crucial phase of the season.
They also have a resurgent Andy Carroll, who since returning from injury in November has been playing like a man who is well aware of the point he has to prove. After two broken and bitty years at West Ham, the first on loan, the second as the subject of yet another big transfer fee, Carroll has finally found his fitness and found his rhythm. West Ham’s ten goals from set pieces are surely not coincidental considering the chaos that someone like Carroll can bring to a crowded penalty area – not a single one of those ten goals came direct from a free kick or from a penalty, they are all balls into the box. (West Ham players can take penalties mind you, including their gloveless goalkeeper, just ask Everton.)
Allardyce has been deploying two strikers for much of the season, and has not succumbed to the temptation of Carroll’s return by dusting off the ‘route one’ tactics charts. And why should he? West Ham have created more chances than Manchester United or high-flying Southampton this season. Stewart Downing is thriving in a central midfield role, with a clutch of assists to match Alexis Sanchez and Downing’s five league goals match Carroll’s much-lauded contribution.
So, the engine is whirring.
With Alan Pardew’s migration south from Newcastle to Palace, Allardyce became the second longest serving manager of a Premier League club. Joining on 1 June 2011, Big Sam is just three and a half years into the job, but he sits second on the list behind statistical outlier Arsene Wenger. There’s little by way of close competition, Brendan Rodgers is third, taking the Liverpool job exactly a year to the day after Allardyce joined West Ham.
West Ham have been a team in transition. A team finding its feet back in the Premier League after a breathless year in the Championship. Kevin Nolan was the heartbeat of that promotion-winning team, joining from Newcastle in the off-season and playing a similar advanced midfield role to Downing. Nolan still plays an important role, is still club captain and has had a run in the team since December, after making his way back following a shoulder injury. But the team around him is much changed, not the functional team that strong-armed its way to the 2012 Championship play-off final, but the product of a two season evolution into a competitive Premier League outfit.
There’s a lesson here. If Sullivan and Gold hadn’t kept their nerve in the summer, if they’d gone the way of so many other owners and pulled the cord early, we’d be watching a different story unfold. If the reward is success and stability, three and a half years really isn’t that long a time to wait.