• Lun. Jul 15th, 2024

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Sam Allardyce’s England tenure remembered: A lucky coin, ‘pint of wine’ myth – and beating Slovakia

Sam Allardyce’s England tenure remembered: A lucky coin, ‘pint of wine’ myth – and beating Slovakia


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Sam Allardyce had never looked happier. He had landed his dream job as England manager and, on a balmy Sunday evening in Slovakia, a stoppage-time goal had given him a winning start.

This was it. This was the big time. This, after years of bemoaning the “snobbery” that saw him overlooked for one big job after another while performing beyond expectations at less fashionable Premier League clubs, was everything he had dreamed of.

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“And we won, so it will stay with me,” he said on the evening of September 4, 2016, holding up the coin to show his audience. “I’m not really superstitious, but I’m going to keep it. It’s got us a last-minute winner. I wonder how far it will take us.”


It didn’t even take Allardyce as far as the next game. Instead, it took him — or fate, or his friend Scott McGarvey or the Daily Telegraph’s investigations team took him — a couple of weeks later to a restaurant meeting in Manchester where he swaggered in and walked straight into a trap.


Allardyce managing England against Slovakia in 2016 (Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

He was on a Footballer Writers’ Association golf day at Stoke Park, Buckinghamshire, when he got an anxious call from his employers. The Telegraph had sent the Football Association (FA) a list of 18 questions relating to comments the England manager had made during two “business meetings” with what were, in fact, undercover reporters from the newspaper.

Undercover reporters? Allardyce had a sinking feeling. He cast his mind back to what he had said during two meetings, in London and Manchester, to the men posing as representatives of a Far East investor hoping to capitalise on English football’s transfer market. He had been indiscreet and, given the profile of his new job, he knew there would be some ugly headlines on the way. This was the last thing he needed barely two months into his dream job.

But he underestimated the gravity of the situation. Initially, he continued his round. It was only when the calls became more urgent and the conversations more panicked — from the FA and his agent Mark Curtis — that he decided to skip the last few holes. “Sam,” Curtis told him. “We’ve got a big problem here.”

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Late that evening, the Daily Telegraph released their front-page story online: “England manager for sale,” it read, adding: “Sam Allardyce negotiates £400,000 fee then gives advice on avoiding FA transfer payment rules to ‘businessmen’ he had just met.”

The FA was in crisis mode. Greg Clarke, the organisation’s new chairman, expressed concern but told reporters, “With things like this, you have to take a deep breath and have all the facts and hear everything from everyone.”

Early the following morning, Allardyce set off from his home near Bolton, in north-west England, to meet Clarke and chief executive Martin Glenn at FA headquarters in London with the intention of apologising, explaining himself and doing whatever he had to do to keep his job.

But by the time he got to Wembley, it was over. After all that talk of waiting to get all the facts, Clarke and Glenn had already concluded his position was untenable. “The things he said were inconsistent with his post as the most senior manager in England,” Clarke told the BBC. Rather than discuss damage-limitation strategies, Allardyce found himself negotiating the terms of his severance. “We didn’t sack him,” Clarke added, “We agreed his position was untenable and he has left by mutual consent. We didn’t have to sack him.”

It had taken until the age of 61 to get the job he had dreamed of. He had lasted just 67 days.


It was in the aftermath of this faintly absurd episode that the FA turned to former England defender Gareth Southgate, who was managing the national under-21 team. He initially took charge on an interim basis, insisting that he was not ready for a job of that magnitude.

But Southgate grew into the role. Within two years he had led England to a World Cup semi-final. Then he led them to a European Championship final against Italy at Wembley, which came down to a penalty shootout … and we all remember what happened next.

It has all worked out quite nicely for England. Euro 2024? Not so far, with progression to the knockout stage achieved in a stodgy, apprehensive manner that recalled dysfunctional campaigns of the pre-Southgate era, cranking up the pressure ahead of Sunday’s meeting with Slovakia.


Southgate replaced Allardyce (Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images)

But even his fiercest detractors might concede that this has been a period of relative achievement — and certainly relative stability — in the national team’s inglorious and frequently turbulent history.

Whatever Southgate does or doesn’t achieve in what is likely to be his final tournament as England manager, his tenure has at least brought a degree of normality back to a role that had previously seemed … well, cursed.


“It is a law of sport,” the revered British sportswriter Simon Barnes once wrote. “Every person who takes on the job of England coach or manager ends up standing before the world exactly as he is.”

Barnes was pointing to the way the job — and, at times, a hugely destructive media spotlight — has exposed managers’ limitations and often shone an unflattering, unsympathetic light on their perceived character or values.

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One of Southgate’s predecessors (Don Revie) left for a hugely lucrative job in charge of the United Arab Emirates national team; one (Terry Venables) was told his contract would not be renewed because the FA were concerned about his various business and legal entanglements; one (Glenn Hoddle) talked his way out of the job by explaining his belief in reincarnation in a way that caused grave offence; one (Sven-Goran Eriksson) fell victim to a tabloid newspaper sting by a “fake sheikh”; others were simply found wanting and left the job feeling bruised, battered and beleaguered.

Allardyce has the distinction of a 100 per cent record as England manager (played one, won one) but he too lost the job in almost precisely the way some might have guessed beforehand: by being too gregarious, too careless, too blasé, too cocksure, too willing to live up to the “Big Sam” image.

It all came about as a result of a 10-month Telegraph investigation into possible corruption in football. Their undercover reporters, masquerading as representatives of “Meiran Sports Management”, tried to set up meetings and conversations with several agents and high-profile figures, hoping they would involuntarily share some of the game’s dirty secrets.

One of those they approached was McGarvey, an agent who had played for Manchester United in the early 1980s. McGarvey was vulnerable, in need of a break, and they strung him along for two months with bogus offers of a salaried job, big bonuses and a new car. They wanted him to shed light on the way the football industry worked, but also to open his contacts book and share his connections.

McGarvey, thinking he won the lottery, said he could introduce them to Allardyce, whom he had known since their playing days. That excited the Telegraph reporters when he was manager of Sunderland, never mind when he landed the England job in July 2016.

Allardyce happily went along to a couple of meetings, at which he was filmed talking about potential loopholes in the FA’s rules on third-party ownership of players and then discussing their bogus offer of a £400,000 annual payment in exchange for speaking at four events in Asia. He was receptive to that idea, but his agent made clear they would have to “run it past the powers that be”.

It all ended up with that dramatic “England manager for sale” headline and the type of adverse publicity that brought opprobrium and instantly sent the FA into crisis.

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There was more. Allardyce spoke about unnamed agents breaching regulations “all the time” and how “you can still get around” certain rules. He also made a few indiscreet comments about others, including his predecessor as England manager, Roy Hodgson, and, strangely, Prince Harry.

As an aside, the video footage and still photographs even led to much online speculation that Allardyce had been drinking white wine by the pint. It has been suggested by one of those present that this is a myth that has gone out of control: he was drinking lager.


Allardyce speaking to reporters outside his house (Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

When the conversation turned to “bungs” paid to managers in transfer deals — one of the things the Telegraph’s investigative team was keen to expose — Allardyce called McGarvey a “stupid man”, adding, “You can’t go there anymore. It used to happen 20-odd years ago, 30 years ago. You can’t do it now. Don’t ever go there.”

It was unedifying to see the England manager speaking so candidly about corrupt practices, even if he was saying they were in the past.

Allardyce has freely admitted that he was an “idiot” for going along to the meeting and saying what he did. But he didn’t believe he had said anything that would cost him his job.

Clarke and Glenn took a different view, saying his position had become “untenable”. Allardyce drove back home to his wife in Bolton in a state of devastation. They took the first flight out to Spain, where he found himself licking his wounds and grieving for the job he had craved for so long and then lost so soon.

Two weeks later Southgate was taking charge of England against Malta at Wembley. “I couldn’t watch,” Allardyce told the Daily Mail in 2017. “It was a gut-wrencher, that. That would have been a big moment for me. I wasn’t just proud to be England manager. I was also ready.”


The FA never had Allardyce in mind for the long term. England had just suffered the ignominy of defeat by Iceland at Euro 2016, so the plan was to make a quick appointment before the World Cup qualifying campaign began.

Dan Ashworth, the FA’s director of football at the time, pushed for Ralf Rangnick, who is now in charge of Austria. Rangnick was interviewed, as was Steve Bruce (then in charge of Hull City), but Allardyce made the biggest impression on the panel. Part of what the FA found so persuasive was his commitment to working at St George’s Park to help transform the culture around the England team and coaching in general.

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There had been some reservations about his playing style, which had often been direct in some of his jobs at club level and seemed to be at odds with the FA’s stated commitment to a more technical, possession-based approach. It was a pragmatic appointment on a two-year contract in the hope that Allardyce would lead them to the World Cup in Russia, at which point they might take a rain-check.

Allardyce has since wondered if he put a few noses out of joint at the FA with some of the changes he recommended during his short time in charge — and by demanding they scrap plans for a friendly against Croatia at Wembley in order to have more time on the training pitch with his players before the game in Slovakia. “The things he said about other people and things in football were inappropriate for a manager to say,” Clarke said when he was sacked. “He’s accepted that and admitted he was foolish.”

One of his planned innovations was to invite comedians Bradley Walsh and Paddy McGuinness to St George’s Park to put on a quiz night for the players during an England get-together. It was consistent with the FA’s determination to change the mood and the culture around the England team, but the choice of comedians seemed amusingly on-brand for the new manager.

More unexpected was Allardyce’s decision to announce his line-up two days before the game in Slovakia. One notable selection was that of John Stones, whom Hodgson had kept on the bench throughout Euro 2016. Another was his deployment of Wayne Rooney in midfield and the selection of Adam Lallana, another creative player, who scored the winning goal in the fifth minute of stoppage time.


Lallana and England celebrate the winning goal against Slovakia (Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

They dominated the game in Trnava, chalking up 20 goal attempts to Slovakia’s one. It was a more possession-based approach than many were expecting. Allardyce was always a more sophisticated manager than he was given credit for, but there was still the nagging feeling that a) the job came several years too late for him, when he was no longer the enterprising disruptor of his Bolton Wanderers days and b) he might feasibly talk his way out of the England job as other managers had done before.

There has never been any danger of that with Southgate. “Gareth has got the perfect personality for the FA,” Allardyce told Simon Jordan’s Up Front podcast last year — and it didn’t really sound like he meant it as a compliment.


Allardyce always insisted the FA should have taken the time to get to the bottom of what was said in those two restaurants. If they had, he said, the storm would have blown over.

He complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) about the Telegraph, claiming the newspaper’s “subterfuge” had not been justifiable on the basis of public interest. He also complained the story had been covered in an “inaccurate and misleading way” and that he had lost his £3million-a-year job as a result.

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IPSO ruled that the Telegraph’s investigation had been in the public interest and that it had been entitled to use undercover reporters, a fictitious company and hidden cameras for these purposes. But it also ruled that there had been “significant inaccuracies” in some of the newspaper’s coverage of what Allardyce had told the reporters about third-party ownership rules — and, specifically, that he had not advised them how to circumvent those regulations, which Clarke had suggested was the most damaging of the allegations.

But by the time of that IPSO ruling, in August 2018, Allardyce had taken and left short-term management roles at Crystal Palace and Everton, while Southgate had led England to a World Cup semi-final. Nobody but Allardyce, who would go on to manage West Bromwich Albion and Leeds United, was contemplating what might have been.

To the surprise of some, given he has admitted to feeling “jealous” of his successor, Allardyce praised Southgate on radio station Talksport the day after their World Cup semi-final defeat by Croatia in 2018. He felt Southgate was blameless: “I wouldn’t put it down to wrong tactics by Gareth, or Gareth not being reactive quick enough.”

But Allardyce did point the finger over the way England lost control of the Euro 2020 final. “What comes with inexperience, we may have seen in terms of decision-making in the dugout,” he said of that final, adding that Southgate should have made changes to his line-up before Italy began to turn the tide, or very soon afterwards.

Back on Talksport this week, Allardyce had an opportunity to stick the boot in after England’s 0-0 draw with Slovenia, but he spoke in general terms about underperformance — “slow, predictable play”, “can’t seem to create any flow in the game” — rather than blame the manager. He suggested Southgate might need to “kick the players up the backside” and leave them in no doubt about the need for improvement against Slovakia.

(Top photo: Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)