More than anything, the tale of Sam Allardyce’s downfall is a profoundly sad one. Sad because once again, England find themselves rudderless. Sad because of all that it tells us about modern football and those who operate within its murky waters. But sad, too, on a human level.
Whatever you may think of him, Allardyce has waited all of his life for this opportunity, and now, after 67 days, one game and a very serious lapse in judgment, it is all over. He left his position as England manager on Tuesday.
Allardyce signed up wanting to prove once and for all that he was a fine football manager and not a figure of fun, but now his reputation is in tatters. And he has brought this on himself.
From the material published by the Daily Telegraph on Monday, there is little that would constitute a sackable offence in any other industry. When baited on “bungs” (an unauthorised and undisclosed payment to a manager), Allardyce refused to bite. When probed on “third party” deals, he spoke carelessly but said only what anyone else in football would say. When he was offered his mythical “speaking” role, he stressed that he would have to speak to The Football Association first. If people must now be sacked for bad-mouthing their colleagues or rivals in private, then we’re all in a lot of trouble.
But none of that matters. What matters is the glee with which he discussed his “keynote speaker” role, his eagerness to land that £400,000 fee, his very presence at the talks in the first place. It was greedy, it was grasping, but most damaging of all, it eradicated the goodwill that so many had shown him when he took on the role. Despite his reputation, people wanted him to succeed.
Allardyce spent years lobbying for the England job. He complained bitterly about the perception people had of him, once suggesting (only half-joking) that he’d get better postings if his name was “Allardici.” In a game beguiled by exotic new ideas, he remained stoutly and fervently English, giving the impression that all of the country’s problems could be fixed with a bit of tough love, some hard work on the training field and a good ball to the big lad up front. And while he continued to push for the top job, it always went to someone else.
It was not, with the greatest of respect, his CV that eventually forced the hand of the FA. Over the years, Allardyce has proved himself a resilient, inventive and redoubtable manager but without ever winning a major trophy. Then last season, with a time-honoured combination of astute signings and renewed defensive discipline, he saved Sunderland from the drop. When Roy Hodgson’s tenure ended so horribly at Euro 2016, it made Allardyce the strongest, albeit the only, realistic candidate for England. There was opposition, there was dissent, but for many there was a feeling of: “You know what? Let him have a crack at it. If nothing else, he’s going to give it everything he has.”
But that wasn’t the case. Even though you would expect Allardyce, presented with the job of his dreams, to drop everything, he was open to offers of more. He should have run a mile. He should have dumped every outside interest, every distraction, every activity that wasn’t managing the England team.
Instead, he courted cash. And it’s not about the numbers. Whether £3m was ample reward for his services or not (and good luck to whoever makes the argument that it was not), the impression Allardyce had given in the past was that this job wasn’t about the money. It was about the pride. It was about the culmination of a career and the chance to work with the best, against the best. It was about England. But now it seems that his motivations were rather more base than that.
If that’s not galling enough, what can you say about the way that he allowed himself to be caught like this? As a man who has been targeted by media investigations in the past, it’s hard to comprehend how he didn’t expect to be targeted again after his sudden elevation.
If this had occurred several years into his reign, when complacency might have set in, it would be more understandable. But at the time of the meetings, he hadn’t even overseen a single game. He should have been on full alert, prepared for everything from money traps to honey traps. Tactics are supposed to be his strong point.
Allardyce wanted to be remembered as a football legend, the man who restored the Three Lions’ pride. Instead, the lasting memory will be that grainy picture of him, flushed at the restaurant table, shirt buttons straining at his midriff and what looks suspiciously like a pint of white wine in front of him. Once again, for all of his efforts to prove otherwise, he is a figure of fun.