English Premiership

Allardyce on his way out?

2015-05-21 09:23
Sam Allardyce (AFP)

London - West Ham manager Sam Allardyce shifts his bulk uneasily, watching from the bench as his team loses its grip on the last home match of the season.

After Saturday's 2-1 defeat to Everton a 'Big Sam Out' banner is unraveled in the stands, and a fate is potentially sealed.

West Ham was on the crest of a wave mid-season, standing fourth in the Premier League table at Christmas and anticipating European football during their final year at Upton Park before a move to the 54,000-seat Olympic stadium.

But a dismal second half of the campaign, with just three wins in the last 20 matches, has seen the Claret and Blues drop to 11th. The fans are well-versed in disappointments. The club's anthem, 'I'm forever blowing bubbles', has the refrain "just like my dreams they fade and die."

The once-buoyant mood at the jellied eel, pie and mash shops sitting in the shadow of Upton Park has given way to frustration as mid-table mediocrity beckons. The target of fans' anger is 60-year-old Allardyce who, at the helm for four seasons, is about to see his contract expire.

Owners David Gold and David Sullivan are two East Enders come good, having made a fortune in soft porn. They face a tough choice: Stick, and renew the contract of a manager who has never been relegated and will virtually guarantee Premier League football for the inaugural season at the Olympic Stadium in 2016, or twist.

Early in the season, fans witnessed the most scintillating football West Ham has played in recent years, totting up wins against Manchester City, Liverpool, Swansea, Crystal Palace, Queens Park Rangers, Burnley, Newcastle, West Bromwich Albion and Leicester.

Signing Alex Song from Barcelona was a huge coup for the club, as the player dominated the midfield, game after game. Senegal's Diafro Sakho burst onto the scene after arriving from French side FC Metz in the summer, becoming the first West Ham striker to score six goals in six consecutive Premier League matches.

A tactical switch from the previous year saw midfielder Stuart Downing regain his England form and place as he split defenses with pinpoint passes from the tip of a midfield diamond. Pacey Ecuadorian forward Enner Valencia arrived after a successful World Cup to run rings around full backs, and striker Andy Carroll regained fitness after an early season setback to bludgeon his way past central defenders.

Young English full backs Aaron Cresswell and Carl Jenkinson were excelling in attack and defense and, with a solid partnership of Winston Reid and James Tomkins in the center of defense blossoming, West Ham was on course for a record haul of points in the Premier League.

But the bubble burst. Injuries to Sakho, Carroll, Reid and Tomkins played their part as did the loss of form of Song and Downing. In the eyes of the fans and owners just one man was to blame — Allardyce. He oversaw a shift in tactics that robbed the fans of a swashbuckling style that had served the team so well early in the season.

Out went the fast, incisive football, known as 'the West Ham way' and, not for the first time under Allardyce, in came a dreary, long-ball style focused on percentages and defensive discipline.

"The clearest divide came (last season) in March 2014, when supporters actively booed the team off the pitch despite beating Hull City 2-1 in a crucial relegation battle," said Liam Spence of fan website Iron Views. "Three points had been gained, but they had come at the cost of ultimately turgid football."

Allardyce has long had a fractious relationship with one of the most forthright, unyielding and traditional fan bases in England. It's a club with an illustrious past. Team captain Bobby Moore, striker Martin Peters and Geoff Hurst, who scored the World Cup's only ever hat trick in a final, are all England greats for their part in the 4-2 victory over West Germany in the 1966 final.

"We're West Ham united, we play on the floor," fans chanted during Allardyce's tough first season when players were trying to battle it out of the competitive Championship, England's second footballing tier. "West Ham way? Sounds like not winning," was the manager's retort at the time. After yo-yoing between the Premier League and the Championship for several years, the no-nonsense, belligerent, north-Englander had a point.

Allardyce, who took West Ham back into the Premier League at the first time of asking, has finished every season since between 10th and 12th, with a top 11 position guaranteed as they head into the final round of matches next weekend.

To fill the Olympic stadium to capacity, West Ham's owners need to find an extra 16 000 fans per match. To have that kind of pull they need to remain firmly in the Premier League and begin challenging for European places.

As even die-hard fans struggle to get excited about West Ham's style as authored by Allardyce, his days may be numbered.

"There's no one point where he lost the fans, it's been a cumulative process," said radio broadcaster and West Ham blogger Iain Dale of the West Ham Till I die website. "On balance, he will have to go."

Former Manchester United manager David Moyes, currently at Real Sociedad, Napoli's former Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez and ex-West Ham defender Slavan Bilic, currently coaching Beskitas in Turkey, are the bookmakers' favorites to take over.

"It doesn't take too much working out," mused Allardyce, who once jokingly said that if his surname was Allardici he'd be running a top-four club. "When I see name after name being mentioned as my possible successor, I think perhaps there's no smoke without fire."

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