Sam Allardyce is a man with a certain set of skills, skills he has acquired over a long career. Skills that make him a nightmare for ... well, pretty much everybody. Arsenal, while at Bolton. Tottenham, while at West Ham. Other clubs that have to get relegated instead of whoever he happens to be managing. Neutrals. And, judging by the waves of ill-feeling pouring out of Upton Park this season, his own fans.
Things reached a dispiriting nadir when his side were booed off the field at the end of a 2-1 victory over Hull City. Audible dissatisfaction in the wake of defeat is pretty much a given in the Premier League these days, what with the times we live in and the youth of today and their electronic rock music and lack of respect for their elders. But when booing follows a win, something's broken. And that something was West Ham, for they were awful; Hull. despite playing most of the game with ten men, were the significantly better team.
Indeed, those boos neatly encapsulate one of the central paradoxes at the heart of Allardyce's football (at least, post-Jay Jay Okocha); winning both is and isn't everything. It is utterly crucial, because losing is always rubbish. And yet winning can -- depending on any number of imponderables -- fail to satisfy. Because football, for those watching, isn't just about the winning. As Daniel Harris noted in yesterday's Guardian, "broadly speaking, boredom is why sport was invented". So it shouldn't itself be boring.
So what does one do to stave off the boredom? You order the manager to bring the fun, that's what, and then you tell everybody all about it. West Ham's owners, David Gold and David Sullivan, have taken the slightly unusual step of not just ordering an improvement but publishing the steps they have prescribed for "a way forward with him that will ensure our much-deserving fans have more to cheer about next season". Allardyce will be expected to improve on last season's results — "at least a top-ten finish" — but will also be required to succeed in a more abstract sense:
Although not everybody understands the West Ham Way, we do and we respect it as we have been supporters all our lives. We believe this is about a philosophy that is not just about the style of play, but the whole ethos that surrounds the Club.
As a general rule, any side that claims to have a "Way" — be that Barcelona, Manchester United, Liverpool, whoever — can expect to be mocked for their self-importance and their delusional grandiosity. That said, all clubs have identities and for some, that identity extends onto the pitch. This doesn't necessarily imbue that identity with any superiority — choosing between them is a question of taste — but nor should it lead to its dismissal. Working on the basis a club's identity is worth respecting because virtually nothing matters more, then while the expression of this identity may grate, it is crucial that it be respected. Maybe the West Ham Way is just a nice story that fans tell one another, but then, so is everything else. After all, everything that makes any club special is made up at some level or other. That doesn't make it any the less important.
So how is this Way to be achieved (or navigated, or resurrected, or constructed, or whatever)? In Gold and Sullivan's brave new world, it will be a question of control; taken from Allardyce, given to other people. The actual football will be prettified by the introduction of "a new attacking coach to complement the existing coaching set-up." The implication is that Allardyce is either not capable or not inclined to introduce more subtlety onto what is, by and large, and well set-up defensive side. It's an innovative idea — specialist attacking coaches are a common appointment in rugby union but less so in football, and you can supply your own punchline there — but one ripe with potential for disaster. Who, we don't know yet. Whether this leads to a footballing remake of the Odd Couple, we can but hope.
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This is to be reinforced off the pitch, as Allardyce will also have to share the responsibilities for identifying and purchasing players. There will be "an overhaul of the Club's scouting and recruitment operation that will see the Board have a greater involvement in the players who are signed, as the Board will once again be investing considerable funds into the Club this summer." Again, it's hard not to see this as anything other than a demotion, or at least a wing-clipping. Sorry, Sam, but the system we have at the moment -- the one with you at the centre -- isn't working. So we're going to start doing it ourselves.
In essence, and for perhaps the first time, Allardyce is going to be operating with players he doesn't necessarily want, will be assisted by a coach he hasn't personally seen any need for, and will be attempting to play a style of football he doesn't necessarily care for. Unless he was the inspiration for these changes — and that's nearly unimaginable — then these are impositions, despite his reported agreement. Very public impositions, at that.
All of which is supposed to make West Ham better in the sense of more points scored, more pleasingly to the eye. The forthcoming move to the Olympic Stadium is at the heart of everything: "While we have a duty to make sure we stay in the Premier League, we also want to make sure the performances on the pitch will befit a team playing in such a world-renowned stadium." This might be a sudden flowering of architectural patriotism; it might be the realisation that miserable pragmatism isn't going to shift 54,000 tickets.
The more cynical might suspect that Gold and Sullivan -- by piling stylistic and philosophical concerns onto the traditional target of a minimum league placing -- are just trying to persuade fans to renew their season tickets. They are also giving themselves room to maneuver. After all, if they simply set a target of tenth, and Allardyce achieved in his own inimitable way, then swinging the axe would look a little despotic. But philosophies are helpfully nebulous; how does one measure entertainment? Do Opta record chant intensity? Is there such a thing as applause completion percentage? Subjective performance criteria are wonderful things for an employer, but they make an employee all the more disposable.
Still, even if that's at least partly true, there is a sunnier side to all this. Life in the Premier League mezzanine can look, at times, like a strangely pointless existence; clubs are there to be beaten up by those above, with no hope of joining them, while beating up those below, in the terror that they might be dragged down. In such a competitive limbo, it is encouraging to see a club recognise, or at least pretend to recognise, that the people buying the tickets should be able to do so in the knowledge that, if things go well, they might just end up enjoying themselves. Fun is fun, whatever the motive.