Big Sam – English football’s unlikely Revolutionary?

In the embryonic days of the Premier League, little in the way of sophisticated statistics, Sports Science or even nutritional knowledge was to be found. A pervasive drinking culture – including Arsenal’s infamous Tuesday Club, simplistic football styles and ancient training methods dogged the English game. The continent, in football terms, began to feel as distant as it ever had. Two decades on, the landscape is much changed. Clubs today utilize advanced statistical data to look for any advantage, nutritional regimes are tailed to individual players, while English football’s drinking culture remains a relic of a bygone era.

Many revolutionaries and footballing pioneers would reshape the game in the intervening years, helping to carve out the Premier League as we know it today. Most of these pioneers would come from abroad, bringing entirely foreign concepts with them. Most infamous of all was Arsene Wenger, a manager street ahead of his time. Not only did he revolutionise sport nutrition profoundly at the club, he was also the man who finally ushered out the Tuesday Club for good. Few would question his positive impact on the English game. Likewise, Jose Mourinho, the manager who essentially introduced Tactical Periodisation to the English game. But amongst the Wenger’s and Mourinho’s, one name hardly ever gets a mention when discussing true Premier League revolutionaries – Sam Allardyce.

 

Allardyce’s Premier League adventure began at Bolton Wanderers, the club where he would first introduce his new found footballing philosophy. He arrived in 1999, following Colin Todd’s abrupt dismissal. His previous managerial foray, at Notts County, was a resounding success, as he achieved an historic promotion with the East Midland side to take them back into the second tier of English football, becoming the first English side to win promotion in March. This, unsurprisingly alerted manageress Bolton, at the time treading water in the second division.

 

Slowly but surely, he began to draw on some key life experiences to try and help his side push on to new levels. A key event in Allardyce’s playing years came during a spell in America with the Tampa Bay Rowies. In the early 80s, Allardyce went to play in The States following two seasons at Millwall, but what he saw in Tampa would come to define his time at Bolton. With the Rowdies sharing facilities with NFL side the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Allardyce was exposed to a whole new world of Sports Science.

“The way they prepared during the week opened my eyes and was one of those life changing experiences”[1], Allardyce later admitted. “I learned there was so much more to conditioning than what we did in England, their attention to detail for every player was staggering”[2].

He was amazed by the mobile scanner’s used to check for injuries, by the presence of masseurs, nutritionists and psychiatrists. But most eye opening of all, was their emphasis upon statistics and analysis, something commonplace in the NFL at the time, but an altogether more alien concept in the European game. In later years, Allardyce would pay a visit to Billy Beane[3], and pay homage to the man who popularised Sport analytics in another American pastime – Baseball. His keen understanding of the usefulness of analytics would, in time, become a key factor in his early managerial success, but what he witnessed as a young player in America, left a lasting impression. It was almost two decades before Allardyce had a proper chance to put his knowledge into action, however. Only at Bolton, where he had the luxury of a 10-year contact (in order to encourage him to think long term) did Allardyce truly feel able to introduce his radical vision. One of the first steps, was to bring in a number of first team staff to shoulder the burden of what was to come. Such was the extent of the growth, that at times, more staff were present at Bolton’s training complex than first team players[4].

 

The emphasis placed upon having a hard-working ‘team behind the team’ did not go unnoticed in the footballing world. After Manchester United visited the Reebok, Sir Alex Ferguson was taken aback by the number of “boffins”[5] sitting at computers while him and Allardyce shared a bottle of wine. Few things surprised Ferguson after so many years in the game, but it was a sign that Allardyce was truly breaking the mould. After-all, numbers were central to all that Bolton did under Allardyce. As the side first stepped into the Premier League, preparation and professionalism stepped up a level. In came pre-season targets for players, with clean sheets and goals now measured against what was to be expected. One of the most significant innovations Allardyce used to measure such targets, was Prozone. A relatively unknown concept at the turn of the new millennia, Allardyce was one of the first adopters of the analytical software, following on from another unlikely innovator, Steve McClaren – who took prozone with him to Old Trafford when he was appointed Assistant Manager in 1999[6]. The software allowed both young coaches to analyse matches in much greater depth, with Allardyce introducing video clips at half time to show his players where they had gone wrong in the first period.

 

In order to accommodate the numerous new members of staff, Allardyce notoriously created the “War Room” at Bolton’s training ground. Within the four walls, plasma screens were inescapable, documenting everything from Fitness levels, to pass completion, number of spirts, tackles, interceptions and many more crucial pieces of data. Big Sam’s attention to detail was, to quote journalist Blair Newman, “almost comically precise”[7]. At a time when the Premier League began to catch up and implement their own version of Bolton’s War Room, Allardyce maintained that his was the most advanced set up of its kind in Europe. One lasting legacy, which is in many ways an endorsement of the work conducted at Bolton, can be found in the number of former staff members who have got on to bigger and better things since. Bolton’s performance director at the time, Mike Forde, was poached by Chelsea, before making his way to the NFL as a performance analyst. Further, Gavin Fleig started as Performance Analyst for Allardyce at Bolton, but is now Man City’s Global Lead for Talent Management. There are a host of other analysts scattered through the game that can trace their routes to Bolton.

 

Fleig later explain in ‘Soccernomics’ the beautiful simplicity of Bolton’s strategy, particularly in regard to analytics and their role in setting targets. With Set Pieces a particular area of strength for Bolton, it was exploited to the maximum by the “Boffins”, with Fleig noting that 45-50 percent of goals scored came directly from dead ball situations. He states “we would say, if a defender clears the ball from a long throw, where will the ball land? Well, this is the area it most commonly lands. Right, well that’s where we’ll put a man”[8]. Later, Allardyce would coin these areas of the pitch as ‘POMO’ or ‘Position(s) of Maximum Opportunity’[9]. Once again, simple, yet incredibly effective, with Bolton finishing in the top 7 in the Premier League on two occasions during Allardyce’s reign. He also took them into Europe, famously earning a 2-2 draw at the Allianz in 2007 against the might of Bayern Munich. A League Cup final would also serve as a momentous achievement for Bolton, where they would unfortunately lose out to Prozone ambassador Steve McLaren and his Middlesbrough side. Its strange to observe today how both 2004 League Cup final coaches are viewed, given their status’ as two of the most visionary English coaches of the era, just over a decade ago. But football evolves, and once others start to replicate what gave you an initial an advantage, it’s a case of evolve, or get left behind.

 

Sadly for McClaren and Allardyce, the latter seems closer to the truth, but as Jose Mourinho has shown it recent times, it can happen to the very best of them. It’s a long way from the revolution Allardyce ushered in however. As Michael Ricketts described in 2004, Big Sam’s methods were ahead of the curve: “He opened my eyes to a whole different side of football – The nutrition, the analysis, the way he monitored players…we’d have seminars on nutrition. Sam was streets ahead of his time”[10]. It was off-field modernisation, scarcely witnessed at any other Premier League side, and despite limited resources, the methodology saw Bolton reach new heights. Arsenal were perpetually put to the sword by Bolton at this time, unable to deal with the Lancashire’s sides sheer physicality. Wenger even applauded Allardyce’s ability to exploit his sides weakness after a 2005 FA Cup clash[11] – although kinship between the two diametrically opposed managers wouldn’t last very long.

 

Far from relying on statistics alone, his eye for a transfer was also crucial to sustained success at Bolton Wanderers. His Billy Beane-esque strategy was simple: Buy players who were undervalued for a variety of reasons. In the case of Ivan Campo and Fernando Hierro, they were both considered too old to succeed in Spain. While Youri Djorkaeff and El Hajj Diouf were instead thought of as being ‘problematic’ in the dressing room, after bust ups at Kaiserslautern and Liverpool respectively. All would be crucial players for Bolton in the years to come, with Diouf arguably playing his best football under Allardyce. Value was essential for transfers, with Stelios and Kevin Davies also shining examples of Bolton’s successful transfer strategy. Both arrived on free transfers, Davies after two baron seasons in front of goal for Blackburn Rovers. But under Allardyce, yet again both were transformed, with Davies becoming a focal point target man, capable of drawing fouls and bringing his teammates into play. Once more, it was a case of Allardyce’s backroom staff altering a player’s role in the team, with resounding success.

 

Wenger radically improved player nutrition, Mourinho modernised training methods, but Sam Allardyce was similarly crucial in bringing Sport Analytics to these shores. It may be hard to believe today, particularly when witnessing his teams long ball tactics, or even his abrasive, brash handling of the media. Simply, he doesn’t fit the mould of a footballing pioneer. But make no mistake about it, he has every right to go down in the history books as a true revolutionary of the English game. In an age where the beautiful football of Klopp and Guardiola reigns supreme, it feels somehow appropriate to hark back to a time where Big Sam’s Bolton were the tactical benchmark. How times change…

Tom Fenton is a Freelance Sports Writer and can be found on Twitter @tomfenton11

Bibliography
[1] P.147 Cox, M. (2017) The Mixer – The story of Premier League tactics, from route one to false nines. Harper Collins.

[2] P.147 Cox, M. (2017) The Mixer – The story of Premier League tactics, from route one to false nines. Harper Collins.

[3] P.147 Cox, M. (2017) The Mixer – The story of Premier League tactics, from route one to false nines. Harper Collins.

[4] P.147 Cox, M. (2017) The Mixer – The story of Premier League tactics, from route one to false nines. Harper Collins.

[5] P.148 Cox, M. (2017) The Mixer – The story of Premier League tactics, from route one to false nines. Harper Collins.

[6] Newman, B. (2015) The Guardian – In praise of Sam Allardyce, the manager who gave Bolton the time of their lives. https://www.theguardian.com/football/these-football-times/2015/mar/04/praise-sam-allardyce-manager-bolton-wanderers-premier-league

[7] Newman, B. (2015) The Guardian – In praise of Sam Allardyce, the manager who gave Bolton the time of their lives. https://www.theguardian.com/football/these-football-times/2015/mar/04/praise-sam-allardyce-manager-bolton-wanderers-premier-league

[8] Bate, A. (2016) Sky Sports News – Sam Allardyce’s passion for sport science, statistics and psychology. https://www.skysports.com/football/news/12016/10508478/sam-allardyce8217s-passion-for-sports-science-statistics-and-psychology

[9] Newman, B. (2015) The Guardian – In praise of Sam Allardyce, the manager who gave Bolton the time of their lives. https://www.theguardian.com/football/these-football-times/2015/mar/04/praise-sam-allardyce-manager-bolton-wanderers-premier-league

[10] Newman, B. (2015) The Guardian – In praise of Sam Allardyce, the manager who gave Bolton the time of their lives. https://www.theguardian.com/football/these-football-times/2015/mar/04/praise-sam-allardyce-manager-bolton-wanderers-premier-league

[11] P.156-7 Cox, M. (2017) The Mixer – The story of Premier League tactics, from route one to false nines. Harper Collins.

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