The Four Days that defined Sam Allardyce at West Ham
In an article about Dennis Bergkamp’s career-defining goal against Argentina in 1998, Rob Smyth summarised that ‘adulthood is what happens when you’re busy making compromises on your youthful ideals’.
This is essentially correct; we are all familiar with taking jobs you hate to pay the bills, sacrificing your body at the altar of cheap and convenient foods and silently loathing yourself in the process. Quite frankly, it’s a truth most of us would rather not ponder on.
Smyth’s theory can also be applied to watching Sam Allardyce manage your football club. The game essentially exists as escapism for the masses, no matter how much the latest bombastic Sky Sports advert tries to convince you it’s a matter of life and death.
Turning up on a Saturday to see Allardyce prowling the touchline is the equivalent of hearing your joyless supervisor chunter on about hitting targets at the expense of enjoyment. This feeling was amplified at West Ham, a club more protective over their ideology of skilful football than most.
It can be argued this is slightly harsh on Dudley’s answer to Rinus Michels. Having inherited a fractious and demoralised squad in 2011, Allardyce got West Ham promoted from the Championship and ensured three mid-table finishes afterwards.
There’s also the consensus that the memorable final season at Upton Park could not have happened without the defensive discipline installed under Allardyce. Once this started to unravel during the run-in, his replacement Slaven Bilic was effectively doomed.
Yet this ignores the numerous flashpoints that marked Allardyce’s spell in east London such as dismissing the ‘West Ham way’ in his very first interview, the fan’s revolt at Peterborough and cupping his ear to the dissatisfied home crowd after a mind-numbing win over Hull.
Like most relationships, there is often a point of no return – where the benefits of the union are significantly outweighed by the cost to your self-esteem. For many this occurred during when West Ham shipped 11 unanswered goals to Nottingham Forest and Manchester City over four bleak January days in 2014.
Most Hammers fans, realising their chances of winning the league title are slimmer than the chance of dating Maya Jama, cling to the cup competitions as a beacon of hope. Allardyce not only mangled these dreams, he drove over them in a jeep and reversed over the twitching carcass to make sure any sign of ambition was extinguished.
Such miserable pragmatism was rendered necessary due to a disappointing start to the 2013-14 season. Having finished 10th the year before, most supporters expected another year of no-thrills consolidation.
Things would quickly deteriorate. Having spent the majority of that summer’s transfer budget on Andy Carroll, with the spare change used to buy Stewart Downing to supply him, there was precisely zero amazement when the Geordie artillery gun was decommissioned until the new year. Carlton Cole, having been released in the summer, was hastily re-signed.
West Ham toiled without him. By December, the team were floundering around the relegation zone having been involved in more goalless draws than the entire Bundesliga.
Having secured an impressive victory at Tottenham with a strikerless formation, Allardyce persisted with the experiment for another six matches with diminishing returns. Rumours have circulated that clips of November’s stalemate against Aston Villa are still used as insomnia medication in some countries.
Amid this gloom, the League Cup was providing some unexpected relief – the crowning point being Modibo Maiga securing cult hero status with his winner at White Hart Lane in the quarter-final. The semi-final draw was unkind – their opponents would be the prolific Manchester City rather than David Moyes’ Manchester United or Sunderland, but it was still an occasion worth awaiting.
Before then, West Ham faced a tricky FA Cup tie at Championship side Nottingham Forest. ITV, licking their lips in expectation of an upset, decided to make the match the centrepiece of their Sunday afternoon output.
In the event, West Ham negotiated the game with all the finesse of an alcoholic tackling a garlic naan in Wetherspoons. Allardyce chose to rest most of his first-team regulars for the challenges ahead, giving debuts to youngsters Danny Whitehead, Callum Driver and Sebastian Lletget, as well as handing George Moncur his first start.
As a statement of intent, the team sheet may as well have come in the form of a hand-delivered white flag. Forest attacked with relish and were quickly ahead – Moncur, proving he was a chip off the old block, tripped Jamie Paterson in the area and Djamel Abdoun nonchalantly chipped home the penalty.
The afternoon passed in a blizzard of apathy and resignation. Paterson helped himself to a hat-trick, while 2004’s Andy Reid capped West Ham’s misery with the fifth and final goal. The camera operators frequently cut away from the action to show visiting fans yawning and one young fan crying in the stands. Allardyce was unrepentant about sacrificing both the club’s chances of Cup success and the well-being of his academy players.
Therefore, the away support travelled to Manchester for the first leg of their League Cup semi a few days later with the confidence of Mark Corrigan taking on Busta Rhymes in a rap battle; City were destined to win the Premier League title that season, scoring over 100 goals in the process. West Ham lined-up with George McCartney at centre-back and Mohamed Diame up front.
If it were a boxing bout, the two opponents would never have been allowed in the same ring. Given the pantomime they would serve up, it was fitting West Ham were wearing their snow-white away kit.
The demolition job started early, with Alvaro Negredo scoring twice in the game’s first quarter. Yaya Toure, in the form of his career, lofted a perfect long pass over Negredo’s shoulder for the Spaniard to lash home the first, while his second was a fine angled finish that exploited the absence of any defensive nous from his opponents.
The game was already a write-off for the thousands that had trekked across the country to watch this midweek massacre. Having already celebrated winning an early corner with the enthusiasm of a goal, City’s next strike would prove to be night’s defining moment.
In a desperate attempt to reinforce his injury-hit squad, Allardyce had bought in Wolves defender Roger Johnson on a short-term loan deal. Johnson had been relegated in the previous three seasons, once with Birmingham and twice at Molineux. Having turned up to training drunk during his time as club captain, it doesn’t take Captain Hindsight to tell you that Wolves wanted rid.
In time-honoured fashion, West Ham took the bait. With the appearance of a snooker player and carrying the nickname ‘The Relegator’, Johnson was precisely the last person to inspire confidence in a team already full of jobbing triers.
So when Toure advanced down the centre of the pitch, the new centre-back panicked. Inching backwards, like a crab doing the moonwalk, Johnson failed to close the marauding midfielder down. Barely having to break into third gear, Toure progressed to the edge of the penalty area before tucking home City’s third goal.
As a sign of sheer ineptitude, Johnson’s backward shuffle was impossible to beat and a strong contender for the worst piece of defending of all-time. Supporters of Sam Allardyce point to his ability to install defensive resolve in his teams, yet the sight of one of his backline making a wretched attempt at stopping the opposition was enough to dispel the myth entirely.
Johnson became the subject of countless internet memes and suffered the ignominy of having his shirt thrown back to him at the end of the match. His spell at Upton Park was understandably short-lived.
By now the patience of the away support had snapped. As the match continued, with City settling for only three more goals, the words ‘F*** off Sam Allardyce’ echoed around the Etihad Stadium. Standing on the rain-swept touchline, the manager could be forgiven for reaching for his bottle of brandy and a revolver.
The press reports were damning. Phil McNulty, writing for the BBC, described the performance as a betrayal to the club’s supporters and said: ‘the lack of resistance or passion on show was nothing short of pathetic.’
The Guardian’s Daniel Taylor went further by saying: ‘the most alarming part for West Ham was that their opponents were still a good notch or two below their optimum. The bottom line is that City did not have to be at their best when the gulf was so considerable.’
To illustrate the chasm between the teams, Edin Dzeko thought City had only scored five and had to be corrected in his post-match interview.
With the club in turmoil, owners David Gold and David Sullivan reasoned that the best man to help West Ham avoid relegation was still Sam Allardyce. This assumption would be proven right; with Carroll returning to fitness, the team scrapped 40 points and a 13th place finish. Within the year, Allardyce would be gone.
While Big Sam did a solid enough job for West Ham, memories of those four days in January 2014 ensure he’s never been missed by the club’s supporters.