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Friday, June 17, 2011

Everything Must Go

Nobes on West Ham United's attempts to gain an instant return to the Premier League under the controversial guidance of Sam Allardyce.

Sam Allardyce advocates an "Up and at 'em" approach to the game

The theory goes that a side relegated from the Premier League is likely to lose many of its top players. Some leave of their own accord - wishing to remain in the top flight and unwilling to slum it in the Championship.

Others are let go, high wage earners who present a luxury no longer affordable when you've lost your seat on English's football gravy train.

For relegated West Ham it's not a new scenario. Back in 2003, the last time they found themselves back in the Championship, they lost the services of many of the young players that had promised a bright future in London's East End.

The likes of Joe Cole, Jermain Defoe, and Glen Johnson all upped sticks from Upton Park. Michael Carrick hung around for another year, but wasn't willing to spend two seasons outside the elite.

This time, it's names such as Scott Parker, Robert Green, and Matthew Upson - all England internationals - who could well flee United's sinking ship. The great sale is on. Everything must go.

By appointing Sam Allardyce as the club's new manager though, the question has to be asked whether West Ham have sold something even more valuable than their star players - their principles.

The club of Billy Bonds, John Lyall, and Ron Greenwood have opted for a man whose approach to playing football has been described most kindly as "ugly."

This is the Academy of Football, the team for whom the likes of Bobby Moore, Trevor Brooking, Martin Peters, and Geoff Hurst donned the famous claret and blue shirt.

A club with a proud history, fanatical support, and a philosophy of playing the game the right way - win, lose, or draw.

A club which, upon relegation in 2003, turned to Alan Pardew, a young manager with the same belief in playing good football, to restore their top flight status. He did so at the second time of asking as play off winners in 2005.

Why then have they seemingly thrown away years of commitment to the beautiful game, of an approach admired and respected among English fans, and teamed with up Allardyce?

On the face of it, owners David Gold and David Sullivan have turned to a man with vast experience and Premier League pedigree.

At Bolton he cemented the Lancashire side in the top flight, turning them into a top half team who regularly upset richer and more illustrious opponents.

He went into Blackburn with the club struggling against relegation and saved them from the drop before stabilising them in mid table. His sacking in December last year by Rovers's new Indian owners appeared harsh.

The 56-year-old can also point to promotion experience out of the Championship with Bolton in 2001. However, that was the last time he managed outside the Premier League.

England's second tier is a much-changed division since then and, while Allardyce's more agricultural methods may have been the norm a decade ago, successful sides in the Championship of late have tended to be more cultured.

Even an old warhorse in Neil Warnock, who lead QPR to the Championship title last season, recognised that changing his ways to build a side not only high in steel but also in style was the way forward.

It's been the trend in recent years for footballing sides to be able to thrive in the Championship, which makes West Ham's decision to appoint a manager with a reputation for the long ball game all the more perplexing.

Alan Pardew took West Ham back into the Premier League in 2005

Their experience under Pardew alone should have taught them that they could play their way out of the division. Swansea's success last season, too, was evidence enough of how you can play the game the right way and still thrive.

Allardyce insists he's aware of West Ham's traditions and has promised to play a "passing game" at home while being "tough and utterly resilient" on the road.

It's the kind of positive spin Alastair Campbell - a fan of the other half of Championship's claret and blue contingent in Burnley - would be proud of.

Fans of Allardyce - once considered a contender for the England manager's job - point to his use of sports science and the latest technology as reasons against his "dinosaur" tag.

The truth remains though that his football at heart is direct, physical, and relies heavily on brute force and an expertise from dead ball situations.

It is the road that the club's owners have chosen to go down - as they proudly seek to maintain their record of recovering immediately from relegation to the Championship, as they twice managed while owners at Birmingham.

The fact that in both instances they decided to retain the services of the manager who'd failed to keep them in the Premier League somewhat makes a mockery of their suggestion that they know what it takes to bounce back instantly.

In hiring Allardyce though, Messrs Gold and Sullivan have made a pact of almost Faustian quality. Just as Allardyce's football targets the quickest route to goal, the swiftest return to the riches of the Premier League is West Ham's sole intention.

It begs the question that if Premier League status at all costs was their philosophy, why Allardyce wasn't appointed in January when rumours abounded about the future of then United boss Avram Grant?

The beleaguered Israeli was supposed to have been replaced by Martin O'Neill, only for the former Celtic boss to decide against returning to the game at Upton Park. Grant remained in post until his inevitable firing after relegation was confirmed.

Had they hired Allardyce though, his brand of football so effective in a relegation scrap may have been enough to prevent Championship football for 2011/12.

Now West Ham must hope it will be the catalyst for promotion. Whether the kind of tactics employed to rough-up the Premier League big boys will prove as effective in the Championship is another matter though.

The East Londoners will find themselves one of the most attractive scalps for second tier opponents relishing taking them on. It will pose Allardyce with an unfamiliar challenge when sides come to Upton Park to park the proverbial bus.

As Chris Coleman discovered, there's a distinct difference between survival football and promotion football. While he was able to sustain top flight at Fulham he struggled to mount any kind of promotion charge at Coventry.

Keeping a side in the Premier League is an altogether different task to getting a side into it in the first place. Stating he'll try to play the 'West Ham way' has also seen Allardyce put himself in a corner all of his own making.

Repeating his unsuccessful short reign at Newcastle - another club with passionate and demanding followers - where he never managed to win round a sceptical Geordie audience will undoubtedly be a fear.

He must hope that the club that will soon call the Olympic Stadium their home will remember the season is a marathon and not a sprint.

Not that frequent chopping and changing managers is something the Hammers have participated in over the years. Allardyce must rely on that being one thing which will remain the 'West Ham way.'

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