By Tom Simmonds
The confirmation of Sam Allardyce’s appointment as Sunderland’s new manager last week was met with general purrs of approval from Black Cats fans and the football punditry illuminati. Nobody that was asked for an opinion about Big Sam’s coronation seemed in any doubt that this would be Chairman Ellis Short’s golden ticket to the obscene financial bounty of staying in the Premier League this season. All concerned on Wearside will be grateful to Allardyce should he be able to deliver this. Should Sunderland benefit from his wiles, those connected to the club would do well to heed the lessons of those who thought stability was no longer enough.
If we look at Allardyce’s record, it is clear that appointing him as your club’s manager is a sound investment. His eight years in charge at Bolton – during which he brought promotion, continued Premier League football, a League Cup final, a sixth-place finish in 2004-05, and two UEFA Cup campaigns – have proven to be his career zenith.
He has subsequently proved that his methods have longevity. His sacking in December 2010 by the Venky’s poultry and pharma company which bought the Blackburn Rovers club he was managing at the time was not something you could make a case for on footballing grounds. He held firm at West Ham from 2011-15 too, delivering immediate promotion in his first season in charge, followed by three solid Premier League seasons, against a backdrop of entitled grizzling from fans obsessed with his non-adherence to a nebulous concept they called “The West Ham way”.
While things may now be rosy in E13 (soon to be E20) in the Irons’ post-Allardyce afterglow, Sunderland fans, particularly those who might be tempted to cast covetous glances at “the next level” should their short-term objectives of survival and consolidation be met, would do well to look south of the Thames for an example of being careful what they wish for.
Alan Curbishley and Steve Gritt took charge of Charlton Athletic in 1991 when they were in a financial mess and playing at the soon-to-be-levelled Boleyn Ground, having been locked out of The Valley since 1985. Despite their homelessness, Charlton performed well under the stewardship of their novice managers. When Curbishley took sole charge in 1995, Charlton, now firmly ensconced back at The Valley, reached the Division One (now Championship) play-offs, and went one better two seasons later, beating, ironically, Sunderland on penalties after a barely credible 4-4 draw in the final.
For Addicks fans, what followed was the ride of their lives. After being unluckily relegated on the last day of the 1998/99 season, Curbishley steered them straight back to the Premier League as champions in 1999/2000, and kept them there until his departure at the end of the 2005/06 season. However, with a seventh-place finish becoming increasingly significant in 2003/04, the muttering of that dreaded phrase “the next level” was growing ever louder in SE7, amid observations that Curbishley had become stale after so long in his job.
Unfortunately for Charlton, the “next level” they found themselves at was back in the Championship the season after Curbishley left, with Iain Dowie, Les Reed, and Alan Pardew unable to replicate his alchemy. A season of underachievement in 2007/08 was followed by their discovery of yet another level at the end of 2008/09 – League One.
While Charlton have managed to return to, and find some stability in, the Championship since, they have seen nothing like the success delivered to them by Curbishley, and this should serve as a salutary warning to any fans of clubs who comprise the Premier League peloton. In positive signs, the slow-build approaches taken by Stoke and West Brom suggest that clubs and their fans are becoming less seduced by gung-ho “we’re going for it now” narratives once stability has been achieved.
Allardyce has always said he wants to win trophies, and Sunderland are a big enough club to aspire to that once they are streamlined and given new foundations. Should Allardyce do this for them, Mackems would be well advised to not forget the architects of any successful groundwork too quickly.
Sunderland fans: what are your hopes, both in the short and long term, for Big Sam’s reign?
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