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When Sam Allardyce took over at Sunderland last October they were rooted in the relegation zone and they were back there at the beginning of May. Between the 1-0 defeat to West Bromwich Albion which marked Allardyce’s first game in charge and the 3-2 win over Chelsea, a gap of 28 games, Sunderland had spent just 26 days outside of the bottom three.
The 3-0 win over Everton on Wednesday meant they can’t fall back into the drop-zone again this season and the fourth successive season the great escape act had been pulled off. Allardyce follows Paolo Di Canio, Gus Poyet and Dick Advocaat in the list of recent managers who have either flown Sunderland close to the trapdoor before guiding them away or been parachuted in on a rescue mission.
The 61 year old called it “probably one of my greatest achievements in management” and as he danced around the Stadium of Light pitch on Wednesday the relief and joy was palpable. Advocaat had used his parting to warn Sunderland weren’t good enough to beat the drop and it was those words that so strongly motivated Allardyce to prove him wrong.
“I have come and done the job” he said and it was resoundingly true; there was no relegation on his C.V before he took up chairman Ellis Short’s invitation to manage the north east club and there is still no relegation on it now.
It seemed unlikely given the disorganised chaos Allardyce inherited from Advocaat, the 6-2 reversal at Everton to Wednesday night’s powerful and clinical display is a marker of how far they have travelled under his leadership while the manager has also had to deal with the loss of Adam Johnson to jail, played out to the inexplicable boardroom decision to let him play until his case reached court which eventually led to the departure of chief executive Margaret Byrne.
Johnson remained integral to Sunderland until his contract couldn’t be continued and that his exit has, if anything, had a positive effect on results is testament to Allardyce’s man-management skills.
Furthermore, whereas his uncompromising pragmatism may have been out of synch with West Ham’s current gentrification, there is no doubting it is still extremely effective when it comes to scraping desperate points. Stuck on 12 points after 19 games following a 0-1 home loss to Liverpool on December 30th, Sunderland have taken 26 points from the following 18 games to survive at the expense of Newcastle and Norwich.
Norwich’s future may be brighter after Alex Neil’s educational first year in the top-flight while Newcastle finally may have a popular manager capable of gaining autonomy from a cancerous board in Rafael Benitez but neither were going to be a match for the know-how and experience of Big Sam when it came to this relegation scrap.
He quickly acknowledged the need for Sunderland to tighten up at the back and they responded, shipping only 23 goals in the second half of the season compared to the 37 in the first half, while he has also simply made them painfully hard to beat; only Manchester City, Tottenham, West Ham and Leicester have been victorious over them since the turn of the year and though Newcastle and Norwich had their opportunities in crucial home games, Allardyce took away four vital points from those two matches.
Having been controversially sacked from St James’s Park back in 2008, it is hard not to imagine Allardyce, though he says otherwise, cracking a wry smile of satisfaction at Newcastle’s Mike Ashley-led demise. Up on Tyneside Ashley left it too late to dismiss Steve McClaren and even sanctioned a £25 million January spending spree for the doomed coach.
Allardyce meanwhile got months to instil his methods and demands and, with his mantra of “recruitment is king”, oversaw the shrewd mid-season acquisitions of Wahbi Khazri, Lamine Kone and Jan Kirchoff- dubbed the Special Ks– for a combined £15 million.
Compare the impact of Kirchoff, the commanding midfielder Sunderland somehow manage to lure away from Bayern Munich for £750,000, to that of Shelvey, the £12 million signing who was removed of the captaincy and placed on the bench by Benitez, at Newcastle and it is difficult to avoid the sense that had it been Newcastle appointing Allardyce, it may have been Ashley and not Short readying himself for access to the Premier League’s £5.1 billion television coffers.
It is Short and Sunderland that will reap the huge increase in revenues however and with Allardyce at the helm, a manager not a head coach and insistent that he would work without the influence of Lee Congerton, the ex-sporting director who departed when it became clear Allardyce wanted full control, they well positioned to make good use of it.
Better recruitment is a must
A new chief executive is on the priority list but it is vitally important that there is no repeat of the shambolic recruitment that hindered Advocaat, Poyet and Di Canio when it came to looking upwards.
Congerton undid some of those mistakes, for instance bringing in Patrick Van Aaholt, now blossoming under Allardyce’s leadership, and trading in the bumbling Jozy Altidore for Jermain Defoe, whose 15 goals this season have fired Sunderland to safety. Defoe is 33 and while another potent centre-forward may be sought out to ease the burden on his ageing legs, the England striker still has another 2-3 years of goals left in him.
Duncan Watmore provides hope for the future in attack while Fabio Borini has transformed from striker to an efficient winger who provides balance with the left-sided Khazri either side of the hard-working and solid midfield trio of Kirchoff, Yann M’Vila and Lee Cattermole.
Allardyce will be well guided to set about turning M’Vila’s loan spell from Rubin Kazan into a permanent one and at the back Kone will have to be found a partner resembling an upgrade on Younes Kaboul.
Jermain Lens and Sebastian Larsson have both received limited game time under Allardyce and their futures remain uncertain while Wes Brown, who has seemingly stuck around for his post-Old Trafford wind-down on the banks of the River Wear for what seems like an age, is unlikely to be offered a new deal on the one that expires this summer.
Otherwise Sunderland have the basis of a promising squad and can set about looking forward optimistically if, as Allardyce is all too aware, recruitment is done correctly.
“I think there’ll be a massive turnover if we do the job right,” he said, and given his past seven months work, few can imagine him doing it wrongly.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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