Aidan Magee, a Reporter for Sky Sports News, ghostwrote a newspaper column for Sam Allardyce between 2010 and 2011. Here he reflects on his time with the former England manager, what went wrong for ‘Big Sam’ and why, despite the recent scandal, he will be back
Heralded as a possible saviour of the England football team on his appointment a few months earlier to the job he’d waited his entire professional life for, England manager Sam Allardyce is still coming to terms with being forced out of it for non-football reasons.
Abrasive, opinionated, brash, pragmatic – a blend of old school football values, yet hungry to embrace the technological and scientific advances that he believed defined the Premier League era- there was hope that Allardyce would finally be the man to remedy the psychological shortcomings of the national team. He wanted this one so badly. He once told me he “regretted” not getting the nod in 2006, but now the gig was his.
Then after one game and one win, he attended two meetings with an agent and friend Scott McGarvey, with a group of men purporting to be Far East businessmen, where he was secretly filmed pontificating on the thorny issue of third-party ownership of players, negotiating overseas speaking engagements worth £400,000, while also finding time to criticise Prince William, HMRC, his predecessor Roy Hodgson and the psychological fragility of the England team.
It was too much for his new employers. The Football Association claim to be “guardians of the game” and the conduct of their main man fell below their expectations.
So he went, less than 24 hours after the publication of the video, to be replaced by FA loyalist Gareth Southgate, at least for the next four games and perhaps beyond that.
Allardyce might have hoped for a little more courage from the FA, but the spectre of their flag bearer – in whom they’d placed £3million-a-year worth of faith just weeks earlier – advising reporters from the Daily Telegraph how to circumvent their own rules on third-party ownership of players proved a step too far.
As well, there was the use of the word “Woy” when referring to Hodgson. The job of England manager is a position of high office, and he can’t be seen to be poking fun at someone with a speech impediment. The FA really went for The Sun when they used the word on a front page after Hodgson’s appointment four years ago. They had to apply the same standards to Allardyce.
The author with Sam Allardyce celebrating a birthday
I’ve known Sam since the summer of 2010. As the ghostwriter for his weekly column in the now-defunct News of the World, my brief was to interview him in person where possible.
I flew to his apartment in the Spanish resort of Moraira while he was still managing Blackburn Rovers. After picking me up at my hotel, we instantly hit it off on the 20 minute drive to his villa.
At first we talked players, teams, coaches, managers, tactics, media, agents, owners, scouting, youth development and sports science, the usual fare between managers and journalists.
As the months wore on, the conversation broadened out to religion, politics, TV, finance, travel; even family and relationships. He spoke with fondness of his childhood holidays in Lockerbie, Scotland, as well as how marrying his wife Lynn at a young age had shaped his life.
He often questioned why I wasn’t married and suggested he thought it would do me a bit of good. In addition to the things I listed at the top of the piece, Sam was a fair man, likeable, gregarious, good humoured and insightful.
He wasn’t a dictator but the sort of bloke who’d give you a second chance if you made an honest mistake. I realised pretty quickly how he’d managed to galvanise team spirit and togetherness wherever he worked.
If he didn’t like something I’d written, or how I’d represented him in the paper, he’d carefully explain why and we’d be back on track in no time. The column was only meant to have covered the duration of the 2010 World Cup finals but my boss liked it so much that he agreed a deal for the coming season.
At the end of that first year, the News of the World was closed down. We stayed in regular contact, though. He rang me to discuss my future career opportunities and options. When my mother died weeks later, he was on the phone again – this time recounting the experience of his father-in-law’s untimely death many years before, and how it had been one of the worst days of his life.
He helped me by providing a sparkling reference, which he’d had printed out on West Ham United-headed notepaper just days after stepping into one of the most challenging roles of his career.
Our relationship flourished further after I joined Sky Sports News HQ in October 2011. He invited me to his house on the outskirts of Bolton – a modest red brick property which he’d called home since the early 1990s when he was playing for Preston. Yes, he’d expanded and upgraded it beyond recognition, but he felt no pull towards the more fashionable, salubrious and insular football villages in nearby Cheshire.
I remember asking him if he’d do a live interview with me at West Ham’s training ground in 2012. Many football personnel don’t enjoy live interviews as they’re more time-consuming than a pre-record and they dislike having to think on their feet but Sam said, “I’ll do whatever helps you out.”
It was give and take. I looked after him when I needed to and in return, he trusted me and treated me very well.
He’s a man who has worked hard for respect and recognition. He grew up on a council estate in Dudley, in the West Midlands and spent his playing career mainly outside the top division with the likes of Bolton, Preston, Millwall, Coventry, as well as a spell in the United States with the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
He didn’t earn a fortune from playing and set up a building business with a friend to prepare himself for life after football.
Having gained a taste for management at Coventry in the 1980s when frequently asked to fill in for manager Bobby Gould at the post-match press conference, he achieved his first meaningful success at Blackpool, despite their failure in the Play-Offs in 1996 landing him the sack from the club’s owner Owen Oyston, who was in prison at the time.
He brushed with the elite in 1999 when as Notts County manager, he sold teenage prodigy Jermaine Pennant to Arsenal for £2million. He told me it was the first time he’d met Arsene Wenger, and I suspect he expected more from the Frenchman. The pair’s relationship has been uneasy ever since, as has his relationship with many foreign managers such as Rafa Benitez.
Sam believes in shaking hands at the end of the game, no matter what. He also expects his opposite number to join him for a glass of something in his office when all the post-match media duties are complete. Some do, some don‘t.
Then there were the critics of his teams’ playing-style. He was open about his sides playing aggressively but within the rules. They were organised, rugged, determined and capable of bloodying the noses of the bigger clubs. He made no apologies.
His adeptness at keeping clubs in the Premier League – he has never been relegated – keeps him relevant. It makes him a valuable human commodity in an era when an owner’s over-riding priority is to stay up and claim a share of the now multi-billion pound prize money from lucrative TV rights.
Sam knows his value, too. He’s part of a dwindling band of British managers and has flourished while so many of his home-grown contemporaries have been written out of the soap opera.
He told me that a good manager is “worth every penny” of his sometimes exorbitant salary. Maybe that’s why money seems important to him. Why wouldn’t it when you’ve grown up with very little? Most in the game think exactly the way he does.
Yet while many of Britain’s chattering classes take an intrinsically dim view of working class people making money, greed is not an offence. And what’s more, on close examination, a £400,000 fee for a globally recognisable figure like Allardyce to make four trips to Singapore to deliver some keynote speeches is actually quite cheap.
The problem is that most outside the game don’t know the going rate of pay for this type of engagement. Having made clear on the video that he’d need to run the proposal past the FA, his paymasters won’t have deemed this a sacking offence.
When I met him in Qatar in the early weeks of ghosting the column, he was earning money as a TV analyst on what was then known as Al-Jazeera, outside of his job managing Blackburn Rovers. Nobody batted an eyelid.
Many in the business world will have agreed with his assessment of what he sees as the “corrupt” HMRC. Others may also feel he has a point about FA president Prince William’s lack of enthusiasm for football as well as his views on Gary Neville’s influence over the England squad at last summer’s Euros.
No, it was the other stuff that did for him. Did the FA act in haste? Probably.
Yet the unquenchable appetite for blood in the social media age is difficult to quell and Sam knows he messed up. He’s taken his share of knocks in the past. Leaving Newcastle and Blackburn hurt, but this one more so.
He’ll be back, though. Of that, you can be sure. Football is his drug – as is proving himself.
And he’s addicted.