BY MARK GODFREY
The season’s least unexpected managerial appointment was made last Friday when Sam Allardyce took up the offer to succeed Dick Advocaat at the Stadium of Light. The Dutchman, who managed to jemmy Sunderland out of a tight relegation spot at the back end of last season, couldn’t repeat the feat this season having ignored his wife’s pleas over the summer to get the hell out of Dodge and leave someone else to it.
There was an inevitability about the Black Cats’ terrible start to the season – after all it’s a scenario that’s been played out time and time again in recent campaigns under various managers from Roy Keane and Steve Bruce to Paolo Di Canio and Gus Poyet. The only surprise is that Advocaat let his emotions get the better of him and opt to give it a shot at trying to reverse the trend. That he escaped the shambles they find themselves in with his reputation and respect from the fans largely intact is testament to the man’s honesty and integrity, and a recognition that he was grossly unsupported in the transfer market by his own chairman during the summer when a substantial squad overhaul was so obviously necessary.
So, with little shock or fanfare, ex-Sunderland player Allardyce has arrived on Wearside – the Premier League’s equivalent of Red Adair; the man you call to put out fires and save the day. His renown is well founded; he’s done ‘a job’ virtually everywhere he’s been, usually meeting the brief given to him – the only real exception, ironically, being his rather spiky and turbulent spell up the road at Newcastle United. Coincidentally, his first real test will come in the home derby against the Magpies in just his second fixture in charge on October 25th.
As fans of Blackburn Rovers and West Ham United will testify, his teams will not be serving up champagne football. The taste will be far less sweet and intoxicating; think more along the lines of Happy Shopper lemonade – it quenches your thirst but ultimately leaves you wanting something more refined. However, to contradict this pragmatic modus operandi, his time at Bolton Wanderers was punctuated with moments – and players – of star quality to go with the grit and determination that he has become synonymous with. You only have to remember the panache of Youri Djorkaeff and Jay-Jay Okocha to see that even he recognises that every ‘successful’ team has to have extra dimensions to it.
Yet now is not the time for such frivolity. Sunderland’s defensive profligacy needs to be tackled first without adding the extra risk of attacking expansionism to their current vulnerability. The prospect of a long, hard slog over the winter months and beyond can hardly be igniting the fires of the Mackems either, but those who have been suffering the torment of watching their side’s woefully inept performances this season (and most seasons over the last four or five years) will scarcely care. Many of them have jumped ship at home games before the players have even retreated to the dressing rooms for their half time oranges, such has been the dross on offer; and although crowds are still tipping over the 40,000 mark on a regular basis, it is unlikely Allardyce’s attritional relegation dogfight style will put any more bums on those faded red plastic seats.
You suspect – now Allardyce is in situ – that Sunderland can and will extricate themselves from the predicament they’re in. He may even haul them to the giddy heights of lower mid-table with his stodgy brand of anti-football. Remaining in the Premier League is paramount to the fans and the owner, Ellis Short. However, just like at West Ham, there will come a time when the fans will want more if Big Sam can turn them into anything other than perennial relegation scrappers, and just like his 2-year contract, this appointment is nothing more than rank short-termism; a sticking plaster to stop the bleeding without addressing the issues as to why they keep cutting themselves in the first place. In their next boss after Allardyce, Sunderland should be bold, for once, and find someone young and progressive and actually stick with them within the confines of who they are and where they realistically expect to be. Otherwise, they will continue to go around and around this depressingly vicious circle.