An interview with Sam Allardyce, by Callum McFadden for WFi.
Your first job in management was at Limerick in 1991 when you led the club to the League of Ireland First Division title as player manager. How do you reflect on that experience?
“Being a player-manager was the best thing for me in hindsight as I could manage on the pitch as well as at training.
“We only trained twice a week which was a challenge but it was also a rewarding experience because everyone came together in the short time that we had to train or on a match day.
“You naturally want to work at the highest level and I had experience playing at the top level but you need to start somewhere on your journey as a player or manager and Limerick was that for me in a managerial sense.
“We won promotion in my season in charge to the League of Ireland which was a good achievement before I returned to England to work as a youth coach at Preston.
“From there, I became caretaker manager at Preston then moved on to manage Blackpool and Notts County before taking over at Bolton in 1999 where I was able to establish myself as a manager by being at the club for 8 years.”
When you arrive at Bolton, the club are in the Championship which is a notoriously difficult league to get out of. What were your first couple of years at Bolton like given the circumstances?
“I was very fortunate that my dream to manage Bolton came true. The club means so much to me because it is where I started my playing career and the club where I played the most games of my career.
“The club had also just moved into a brand new stadium which was called the Reebok stadium at the time.
“That investment in infrastructure showcased that the club wanted to move forward and it was then down to me and my staff to get the best out of the players at our disposal and recruit new players to complement what we already had.
“The fans at the club backed us from the start and with them behind the team and an iconic stadium being built, it helped us recruit players that ordinarily a club such as Bolton Wanderers would not be able to target in years gone by.
“I will always be grateful to the Bolton fans for their support of me and the players.
“They helped drive us to go from fourth bottom in the Championship to the Premier League within eighteen months of my arrival as manager via the playoffs.
“It was a united effort across the club that enabled us to take that step and the fans were a massive part of that.
“Those first eighteen months were massive for me too because I had the confidence in myself as a manager to know that I was good enough to work at that level which gave me the desire to try and progress the club as far as possible.”
You attracted many top stars to Bolton but before we talk about them, I want to ask you about two homegrown players on Kevin Nolan and Kevin Davies. Just how crucial were they to the success of your Bolton sides?
“They were indeed crucial as you say, Callum. Kevin Nolan was an aspiring central defender when I arrived who had been released by Liverpool as a teenager. I saw anything but a centre half when I worked with Kevin.
“My instinct was that he could play further forward as a midfield player. I worked with him to give him the opportunity to play in midfield for us when I arrived as we did not have a lot of money as a Championship club looking to reach the top flight.
“I knew that he was talented and needed time to develop on the team and he was such an effective player for Bolton. He saved us a lot of money because we developed him and he became a top midfielder in the Premier League in the years ahead.
“If you were good enough then age did not matter to me. Dean Holden, Nicky Hunt, Joey O’Brien, and Ricardo Vaz Te are other examples of the younger players who we gave opportunities to. That was an important part of our work there.
“Kevin was also an inspiring leader and stepped up as our captain in his early twenties when Jay-Jay Okocha left the club having been captain for three seasons.
“However, Kevin Davies was different to Kevin Nolan in the sense that he was a lost soul within the game in a sense. He had moved clubs a few times in quick succession from Chesterfield to Southampton then to Blackburn before we took him to Bolton.
“He needed to settle at a club and be given the trust from a manager to play regularly and develop into a regular starter.
“Our backroom staff worked hard with Kevin when he arrived at the club on his fitness and we were able to guide him into being the player of promise that he showcased in his younger years in the game which earned him those moves.
“He was a loyal servant to the club once he settled in as was shown by him remaining at the club for over a decade.
“Homegrown players like Nolan, Davies, Hunt and the late Gary Speed were the backbone of our team which enabled me to recruit some exciting players from abroad to add another dimension to the team.”
You signed flair players such as Nicolas Anelka, Jay-Jay Okocha and Youri Djorkaeff during your time at Bolton. What were those players like to work with on a daily basis?
“Those players were a joy to work with and they fully bought into the team element of the game too.
“They worked hard every day and their quality was often on show on a match day when it mattered as well as on the training ground.
“You don’t attract players like those if you are just a so-called long ball manager.
“In all honesty, I am frustrated that I did not challenge that tag early on because it halted the development of my career and it was not fair on the players either.
“That question has never gone away when it comes to my teams and I should have nipped it in the bud at the start rather than ignore it for so long because it was not the case.
“My Bolton team played a high standard of football and we never got the credit that we deserved for that.
“We were in the top six of the Premier League and had more European Cup winners in our team than some of the top teams in England at that time. You do not achieve that by being one-dimensional.
“We could play quality football but we could also mix it up and have a physical battle too. That is a quality that all of the top sides at that time had whether it was the Invincibles at Arsenal or Manchester United under Sir Alex.”
You left Bolton in 5th place in the Premier League which is remarkable when you consider where the club are today and how the Premier League has evolved. Does that give you even greater satisfaction when you look back on your time at the club today?
“Of course, because for three or four years, we competed at the top end of the Premier League and qualified for Europe too which is a phenomenal achievement when you look back on it now.
“However, I did not want it to end there. I never wanted to leave Bolton because of my affinity and love for the club but the board were not able to invest in the team as I would have liked to ensure that we could continue to progress rather than risk regressing.
“In any industry, a lack of investment and growth leads to failure. I felt that the board had become a little complacent and expected us to be able to continue competing at the top of the table without investing like a team at that end of the table should.
“That left me with the feeling that I had no choice but to leave because I did not want the quality of player and football that we played to diminish.
“I did not want to slide down the table and hide behind excuses because, ultimately, results fall on the manager whether there are decisions at board level which change how you have operated previously.
“My heart told me to stay but my head told me to leave and ultimately my head ruled my heart on that occasion.”
Your next job after Bolton was at Newcastle United who either had a change of ownership while you were at the club. How did that job compare with your time at Bolton?
“I would say that Newcastle was the right job at the wrong time. Freddy Shepherd was the majority shareholder when I arrived at Newcastle and he had wanted me to join the club on a couple of occasions while I was at Bolton but I had said no.
“With Freddy’s commitment when I met with him, it felt like an exciting time to join Newcastle.
“However, Mike Ashley took over at the club soon after I had joined and the disruption of the takeover impacted on the players that I wanted to move on and who I wanted to recruit such was the uncertainty around the club at that time.
“I do not blame Mike Ashley for that because as a new owner, it was his prerogative to manage the club in the manner that he choose and in the end, we parted company in January of my first season in charge.
“The club wanted to muddle through until the summer without a revamp of the squad but the quality of the team was not to the standard of what a Newcastle team should be and it was an uphill task.
“The right place at the wrong time, for sure, because no one thought that Freddy Shepherd would move on from the club but ultimately, that is the way things worked out. “
Seven years on from your time at Newcastle, you become manager of their arch-rivals Sunderland where you are highly regarded by the fans after saving them from Premier League relegation. How special was that season on Wearside?
“It was a nice place to go back to having played at the club and having worked at the club under Peter Reid as a youth coach.
“The Sunderland fans are incredibly passionate and what they desperately wanted to see was a good, honest, hard-working team who would play for them each and every week.
“The results needed to improve at the club as they were in a precarious position but with the backing of the owner, Ellis Short, I was able to recruit players in the January window such as Lamine Kone, Jan Kirchhoff and Wahbi Khazri who were instrumental in our success in the second half of the season.
“You need backing in a relegation battle because you have such a short time to get it right and you need the full support of the owner, recruitment staff, your backroom staff and the players to pull together as one.
“Thankfully, we were able to do that quite quickly but it was not always easy. I remember putting Jan Kirchhoff on as a substitute at Tottenham and he had a tough game which led to him being slaughtered and me being slaughtered in the press.
“However, I knew the quality of Jan and I backed him to find his feet and he certainly did that. Lamine Kone became a dominant centre-half who regularly won his battles in the Premier League.
“My job at Sunderland was similar to that at Blackburn in terms of how we had to recruit and improve what we already had to survive.
“The only difference at Blackburn was that they were taken over by new owners who did not want me. That was a great decision considering where they ended up, wasn’t it…
“Sunderland was a fabulous journey and anytime that I go back, the fans are great with me. The fans sold the ground out even when we were in a relegation battle and up against it.
“They are unbelievably committed and they helped us get over the line without doubt.
“The last few weeks of the season emphasised that as we played Chelsea and took the lead then lost it on a couple of occasions but they drove us over the line in the end. We then followed that up by beating Everton convincing then Watford.
“We only lost one out of the last 11 games which is remarkable given where we came in. It was a great journey and staying up in those circumstances is a real success.
“You do not have the best team in the league and you only have a short period of time to get them safe. Every game is pressurised and it is tough each and every week.
“It was a great feeling at the end of the season because everyone contributed to that success.
“Of course, as a manager, you get the credit just as you get the criticism when it doesn’t go well but it is important that you recognise everyone who contributed to the success and we did that.”
You left Sunderland to become the England national team manager. Your reign only lasted one game as has been well documented. How do you reflect back on your short spell as manager and is there part of you that watches the team now and thinks that could have been you in the dugout and what if things were different?
“How things worked out with England will never leave me, particularly due to how it happened because it should not have happened.
“I did not break any rules that the Telegraph suggested as has been proven. However, in the current world of social media, you almost feel guilty until proven innocent.
“It was a massive overreaction by everyone concerned particularly the FA who did not give me the opportunity to defend myself.
“I still find that very bitter to take because it was a knee-jerk reaction.
“If I had done that much wrong then why did they pay me to leave and why did they want me to leave? Only they can answer that however at least I have a 100% win record as England manager.”
Last but not least, given your wealth of experience within the game, how would you score your managerial career out of ten?
“There was a bit of a knockback from my time at West Brom but ultimately, the task was too great for us to stay up.
“The players were in a low ebb when we took over and the pandemic naturally had such an impact on everyone too that it was a far from ideal situation.
“Even in hindsight, I would still have taken the job because I always back myself to succeed but it was not meant to be.
“I improved the team from where it was before I arrived but not to the extent that would keep us in the league so I could knock a point or two off there.
“Overall, I would say my managerial career has been an 8 out of 10 because I’ve ended up being a saviour rather than a developer as a manager.
“However, I was able to be a developer at Bolton and West Ham by taking both clubs to the Premier League and enabling them to establish themselves in the league for a number of years.
“I could build a side as well as save a side yet most people think of me as a manager as ‘Go and get Sam, he’ll save you.’
“I understand that and I am fine with that but I can also build a side too as I showed at Bolton Wanderers and West Ham United.”