Chewed up and spat out: How Big Sam’s style of football won me over

Sam Allardyce
Sam Allardyce
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As much as I’ve tried over the years, I just can’t get into American sports. Especially ice hockey, a sport I can honestly say I’ve never given a puck about.

Although I have actually played it once. During my first year in Denmark, our captain thought it was a good idea to hire a rink for us to play a game amongst ourselves, fully padded up, for our Christmas party.

Now, as anyone who frequented the Crowtree Leisure Centre between 1987 and 1992 will testify, I can barely stand up on a pair ice skates, never mind move as gracefully as Wayne Gretzky, so the sight of me on ice was made all the more funnier by this event being organized as a surprise and we were already half a dozen beers into what was the annual jolly-up before the winter break.

To all intents and purposes, this made me a veritable ice hockey invalid. I’d have made a much better draught excluder than a goal tender and only by the grace of God did I live to tell the tale and keep all my fingers.

A few years earlier I tried to get into basketball. I even went as far as going to watch the New York Knicks at Madison Square Gardens but all I came away from that was the knowledge that only the last three minutes of a basketball game is really worth watching, and with a handshake from Ice T and his wife, Coco, who I met at the bar during a break in play.

Of all of their national sports, American football always seemed my type of game; full of set-piece plays diligently revised by the defensive and offensive units, knowing each others roles inside out, but still, the bug just never bit me, no matter how long I’ve forced myself to sit through numerous Super Bowls.

Too much is made of the perception of football played by Sam’s teams but if there’s one thing Sunderland need right now, it’s solidity and discipline.

The funny thing is, I’m obsessed with set-pieces and penalties, and American football is essentially a game based on those two things.

From the humble near post corner, to intricately worked free-kicks using decoy runs with a bit of acting thrown in, I love them. The satisfaction I get from a well-rehearsed corner routine or a penalty save due to researching the taker is boundless

My favourite ever set-piece, funnily enough, was one that involved Brian Atkinson, Marco Gabbiadini and Gary Bennett when we were all at Darlington. Gabbers pretended to go for a short corner and then quickly back-pedalled unmarked to the near post where Brian chipped it to him to flick on to the onrushing Benno to go 1-0 up against Manchester City in the FA Cup. We’d practiced it religiously for a week prior to the tie and it gave us the chance to steal a march in unexpected circumstances.

What you often find though, is a real snobbery towards set-pieces because of the link between them and the direct approach of the many teams in the 1980s. They’re seen as the domain of the teams who aren’t good enough to score through open play, but I fail to see why any team would shun the opportunity to put the opposition under pressure, because apart from the obvious goalscoring opportunity they give you, they also give you the chance put teams under the hammer, giving you an advantage psychologically.

As a keeper, there’s nothing worse than a packed six-yard box with bodies all around you and an inswinging corner whipped right on top of you. Conversely, whenever I see a team take a short free-kick or corner, I know it comes as a relief to the defence because it eases the pressure rather than ask questions about their ability to defend.

The problem is it’s too rudimentary for some, too simple.

People can argue about the virtues of man marking v zonal (I’d favour a mix of the two) but whatever tactic teams use to defend set-pieces, they just aren’t as competent anymore, which is more of a reason to utilise them and take advantage of the modern weakness.

This all brings me to another gripe of mine. When did being “well organised” become a derogatory term used to describe a team’s structure? It’s almost always used by managers as a patronisingly backhanded compliment to supposedly inferior opponents who didn’t just roll over and have their bellies tickled by his side.

I just don’t get it. If a team isn’t seen as well organised, shouldn’t that be seen more of a slight on the coaching staff than as an insult to those who are? The inference, of course, is that a well organised side is so because they aren’t as proficient with the ball as the opposition so they have to rely on a solid shape and well disciplined tactical structure to combat the “superior” attacking play of their adversaries.

That may be the case but I can’t see what’s wrong with teams concentrating on what essentially makes up 50 per cent of the game. Although today’s game would never allow it, I’d prefer Gentile over genteel playing in front of me any day. You can see where I’m going with this, can’t you?

Eyeballed with the intensely stern gaze of Jason Roberts from my TV, I watched an interview with him describing Sam Allardyce’s meticulous approach to team organisation and set-pieces – and frankly, it was music to my ears.

Too much is made of the perception of football played by Sam’s teams but if there’s one thing Sunderland need right now, it’s solidity and discipline. Clearly, that alone won’t be enough to keep the club in the Premier League but it’s a foundation to build a survival plan on.

After my Barnsley side had been chewed up and spat out by his West Ham side despite having the lion’s share of possession, I wrote an article for Sabotage Times saying Sam should have been given the England job, post-Capello, and I still wish we’d got the chance to find out how it might have gone. It certainly couldn’t have gone any worse, that’s for sure. At the time I questioned the worth in the moral victory we’d won that day by playing a more attractive game and came to the conclusion there wasn’t any.

You can talk tactics and styles of play until you’re blue in the face face but if the worst was to eventually happen and the team were to go down, I know I’d want to go down fighting.

I can’t see that happening now and I feel as positive about this appointment as I have of any.

We’ve been led up the garden path too often in recent years but now we have the type of manager in charge who will carry us there himself, if that’s what it takes.