Five years ago Sam Allardyce made a joke.
Then in charge at Blackburn Rovers, he said: “I would be more suited to Inter Milan or Real Madrid.
“It wouldn’t be a problem for me to manage those clubs because I would win the double or the league every time.”
Not everyone understood that he was speaking in jest; so many a sneering word was written about Real Madrid abandoning the intricate linkup play of Ronaldo, Alonso and Kaká, in favour of wellying the ball up to a latter-day Billy Whitehurst.
On more than one front, the sneerers had missed the point.
Allardyce was having a laugh about the unlikelihood of him being offered a job at a top European club; when all he had known was doing as well as anyone could could with the likes of Bolton, Notts County, Newcastle and Blackburn.
But within the joke he was making the point that he reckoned he would know what to do with whichever players were at his disposal; be it Ronaldo or Steven Reid, Kaká or Jason Roberts.
He certainly knew what to do with his squad at West Ham.
I alluded last week to Allardyce’s team playing football against Sunderland in September 2012 that was “the ugliest I have ever seen in the Premier League” – and it was.
But more important than anyone’s opinion on the pulchritude or otherwise of West Ham’s style of play that day, is the fact that they managed to come from behind to squeeze a point out of the game. They proceeded to finish 10th in the league, with “better on paper” Sunderland fourth bottom.
Of the 14 players that the Hammers used that day, only three are West Ham regulars today with a fourth languishing in the reserves. Another is in League One, two are in the Championship, three have no club, three are in Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey respectively and one is on loan at Norwich.
It truly was a ragbag outfit, but Allardyce got them to play to whatever strengths they had, which meant duffing up goalkeepers and hoping that Carlton Cole or Kevin Nolan would “get on the end of something.” Crude but effective. How else could anyone get such a squad to finish mid-table?
The reason Allardyce has at various times in his managerial career played what is more politely called “pragmatic” football, is that he had to.
That West Ham squad would in all probability have been relegated had they attempted to emulate the style of Arsenal. But for him to get the maximum from the players at his disposal does not necessarily mean high balls into the penalty area. What would be the benefit of such a ploy with Fabio Borini or Jermain Defoe up front?
It would be a foolish manager who instructed “Inter Milan or Real Madrid” with all their concomitant sublime skill to use up-and-under tactics.
While Sunderland are sadly not in the same bracket as those clubs, they do have a number of naturally gifted players at their disposal.
I do not anticipate a feast of entertainment under Allardyce, but neither do I think he will instruct M’Vila, Lens, Borini, Johnson, Toivonen, Defoe or others to simply abandon their natural talents in favour of keeping the ball in permanent ascendency.
The requirement of points is considerably more urgent than a requirement of style just now and some less than gorgeous football may await. But If Sunderland’s latest manager thinks that high-ball footy is the answer to everything, then that would make him a simpleton.
Only simpletons think that Sam Allardyce is a simpleton.