The latest round of Premier League fixtures will include West Ham United’s visit to Stoke City, the prospect of which won’t have many footballing purists rushing to catch up with the highlights reel.
While many fans of the Potteries club revel in their team’s reputation as unattractive spoilers who are capable of denting the most eminent of reputations with their direct style, Hammers’ devotees bristle at the idea that the self-proclaimed ‘Academy of Football’ are bracketed with their Stoke counterparts due to similar perceived route-one tactics employed by current boss Sam Allardyce.
Allardyce’s depiction as a man who instructs his sides to follow a long ball approach to winning matches has followed him throughout a seven club managerial career, notably so since he achieved the remarkable feat of establishing Bolton Wanderers in the Premier League’s top-10 – predominantly Allardyce feels because of the outspoken attitudes of fellow managers who didn’t take kindly to being ‘embarrassed’ by an outfit which ‘shouldn’t be around the top six’.
After a bleak 2010/2011 campaign which culminated in West Ham – then led by the hapless/hopeless Avram Grant – finishing 6 points adrift at the foot of the top-flight table, Hammers’ supporters were underwhelmed by the appointment of Allardyce to replace the Israeli. The lack of warmth towards the Dudley man was in large part due to the widespread supposition that those in the Upton Park stands would be consigned to watching unattractive football, rather than any concerns at Allardyce’s previous record elsewhere.
Despite a season spent firmly in the mix for an automatic promotion spot, feelings towards the man in the dug-out rarely softened. Indeed, 17 minutes into a game at Peterborough United on March 27th last year, with the team fighting to simultaneously draw themselves to within a point of the top two and extend to 11 their unbeaten run of matches, a number of the 6,000 travelling contingent gave voice to their simmering discontent.
Chants for Paolo Di Canio, a hero of the Boleyn Ground, were closely followed by the now well-documented verse;
‘We’re West Ham United, we play on the floor’.
That Allardyce achieved his and West Ham’s sole aim for last season, returning the club back to the Premier League by virtue of beating Blackpool in May’s play-off final at Wembley – having lost only eight of 46 regular season fixtures and seen his side accumulate 86 points – won the 58 year-old some respite from his East End critics. A relatively breakneck start to life back in the elite, during which the Hammers won 4 of their first 8 fixtures, resulted in more optimistic Hammers looking at maps for Liege and Lisbon as opposed to Leeds and Leicester in readiness for a 2013 march into Europe.
Reality has hit with the next four league victories being spread across 17 games – the subsequent two matches have ended in defeat. Still, West Ham lie 14th, and a creditable haul of 30 points to date leaves the Hammers out-performing fellow newly promoted clubs, Southampton and Reading, and 6 points clear of the feared perforated line in the table.
Nonetheless, a predicament many level-headed denizens of the Boleyn would surely have accepted if offered to them ahead of the campaign, particularly in light of the club’s recent predilection for yo-yoing between the top two divisions, has not been enough to prevent the groans about ‘Big Sam’ from becoming noticeably audible once more.
Accentuating the agitation is the recent resignation of Di Canio at Swindon Town. The Italian’s work in Wiltshire was categorically outstanding. Few could have predicted that the feisty and unpredictable 44 year-old, who spent three-and-a-half years as a player cementing his legendary status in East London, would prove such a success in what was his first experience of management.
Parachuted into the unfamiliar environment of League Two, Di Canio led the Robins up a division in his first year, and was well placed to secure back to back promotions when he resigned on a matter of principle last month.
Watching on as the ex-Celtic player attempted to replicate those fortunes in the Premier League would undoubtedly provide compelling viewing for the neutral. It would be fully understandable however, were Allardyce to feel distinctly slighted at the suggestion that Di Canio’s presence in the Upton Park hot-seat would be an upgrade on his own.
Looking beyond his supervision of a mini-revival at West Ham, Allardyce’s work previous to his present assignment deserves great respect.
Bolton are currently languishing in 10th place in the second-tier. Allardyce took the same club into the top-flight and, after spending two years ensuring that they didn’t surrender that status, led the Trotters through 4 remarkable campaigns. Finishes of 8th, 6th, 8th, and 7th, were augmented with a League Cup final appearance and the opportunity to twice compete on the continent.
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