Sam Allardyce: West Brom wasted money on Ismael but Bruce will get Baggies into play-offs
Sam Allardyce had never been relegated from the Premier League until last season when he could not prevent West Brom from making an immediate return to the Championship.
In an exclusive interview with Ladbrokes, the former England manager looks back at what went wrong and explains why he turned down the chance to get the Baggies back into the top flight.
Why I didn’t take the Albion job this season
When I met up with [West Brom’s sporting and technical director] Luke Dowling and Ken [CEO Xu Ke], I told them I needed their help in January – that was the first thing I needed. They told me they’d find as much money as they could and they did. From then, we spoke on a regular basis on the difficulties we faced, and what we might do with some players that were giving off the wrong vibes at the club, as well as the ones who were making the right vibes, and how we dealt with them accordingly.
It really did surprise me – and I don’t want to criticise anyone in particular – that the club paid £2m in compensation for Barnsley’s manager when there were a whole host of top managers out of work at the time, just queuing up around the block for an opportunity like West Brom. It’s easy to say in hindsight because it hasn’t worked out for Valerien Ismael at the club, but I think that there are so many names that were better qualified to do the job.
I had plenty of chats with the club about the financial situation, so to see them pay £2m for that manager really was bizarre. I mean, if they’d have said to me ‘we’ll give you £2m to spend on players’, it might have been an opportunity for me to stay. It wouldn’t have gone a long way in terms of bringing in players on fees, but that £2m would have gone a long way towards getting a couple of top, top players in on loan. That sort of budget should have been spent on players. There were so many good managers out there at the time capable of getting West Brom back to the Premier League, so, so many. They’re just waiting for the call, with no compensation fee attached at all.
I had to understand the financial position of the club before I made any long-term commitments. That was always going to be a telling part of what chance we had of bouncing back at the first time of asking, and of course every club has been hit by the pandemic. The club was facing a loss financially and a relegation, and I just felt that based on the chats I’d had around budgets, I would have found it extremely difficult to have given everything I had to securing promotion if I was frustrated by the squad I had.
That’s selfish, I know it is. But I had to look at it from a selfish point of view. But I said to the board ‘I need you to give me a really good chance of getting us back up there at the first time of asking’, and I had to take into consideration how fantastic the club were with me. They gave me the best opportunity they possibly could in that January transfer window. I’m not criticising them whatsoever on that front. They told me there and then, ‘this is our situation, this is what we can offer you’.
I felt that it would be better for somebody else to come in and take over from myself. I recommended Chris Wilder. He was hurt, because of what had happened at Sheffield United. Go and get him; he’s going to come back with a point to prove and he’s going to take you back to the Premier League. Could I have done the same? Yes, possibly. I just felt that it would have been better for somebody else to come in. That disappointed Sammy Lee and Robbie Stockdale, who were fantastic allies for me.
There’s also less protection of players in the Championship than you get in the Premier League, especially in a world where Covid is still playing a huge part, and that’s simply down to the amount of games you play in that division throughout the season. It would have only taken a couple of injuries and a couple of Covid cases for matches to be lost. And then that pressure would have come back to me that I wasn’t doing the job well enough. The last thing I’d have wanted to have done would have been to see through 10 or 15 games only to get the sack.
I think that in the future, sadly because of the pandemic, the owner is probably better selling the club now. Sell it to someone who can come and invest in it. It was a great tragedy for West Brom that he came and spent a huge amount of money on the club, but was then unable to invest in it due to the pandemic and the loss of revenue. Get someone to invest in the structure of the club and the training ground – those are the two key areas that need to be put right. In the short-term, it’s about getting back in the Premier League. The long-term goal should be to build a Premier League football club behind the scenes.
We gave it everything last season, but it just wasn’t enough
Quite simply, I was sold on the West Brom project because of lockdown. I wanted a challenge, I needed to be involved in football again, and the opportunity at West Brom came along. As difficult as I knew it was going to be, I wanted to take the chance. People started telling me I’d be ruining my reputation if I couldn’t save them, and maybe it was the hardest challenge, but I was always going to take it on the chin, whatever the outcome.
I tried my best for that team and the supporters, and in all fairness, the whole of the club tried its best. Ken and Luke Dowling, all of us, we worked extremely hard to get those players through the door in January. I was very grateful to the players that came in, and to the board for allowing me to bring them in.
We were so close, but yet so far, last season. We couldn’t quite crack that winning formula. Not necessarily turning draws into wins, but also turning losses into draws. Every point is important when you’re in the position we found ourselves in, and we couldn’t figure out how to turn results in our favour. It just happened too many times where we should have finished games with at least a point and ended up leaving with none. The Liverpool game at home is a perfect example. We took the lead in that game and we were robbed of a perfectly good goal. I know we were playing against a top side in Liverpool, but all of a sudden we’ve lost the game.
It’s easy to say in hindsight, but you’d expect one of your players, someone like Kyle Bartley, to just spot the goalkeeper coming up and think ‘he’s a big lad, I’ll have to go and mark him just in case’. But that’s pressure for you; that’s what pressure does. Nobody marked him, nobody took responsibility and all of a sudden he’s scored the winner and he makes history. That was the sort of pressure I found the players were under from day one until the day I left.
Some of the results were bizarre, really. Some of the big boys, Manchester United, Chelsea, Wolves away, we got some big results in the second half of that season, and were unlucky not to take more when you look at the Liverpool game, for example. It was when we came up against teams we needed to beat, the lads just couldn’t lift their performances, as hard as I tried to help them.
I told them regularly, there’s one thing you have to be at this level, in this position, and that’s proactive, not reactive. Unfortunately that was their problem. They were proactive when they were playing Chelsea, Man United and Liverpool, we got top performances out of the team. But Fulham at home, Sheffield United, Newcastle, you know, we never got to anything like the performances we put in against the bigger teams, and that’s obviously what killed us. It was a great shame.
We played away at Burnley with 10 men for the best part of 60 minutes and we absolutely battered them. We missed two of the simplest chances you could ask for, and we ended up drawing the game 0-0. That was the ultimate difference last season, turning those draws into wins, or rather our inability to do so.
I spent so much time with Luke and Ken, working behind the scenes, trying to get players in right up until the last minute. ‘What about this player?’ ‘What about that player?’ ‘Ring up and find out about him’. It was constant work around the clock. Who thought that Ainsley Maitland-Niles would join us? Luke got a call to say he was interested, and that was it – we got the deal done.
A centre-forward coming in from Galatasaray was no mean feat. He was their leading goalscorer, but unfortunately it just didn’t quite work out. Had Myabe Diagne scored the goals we needed, we might not have stayed up, but we’d have gone very close.
The biggest loss for Albion last season was Jesse Lingard – David Moyes ruined that one!
The biggest loss for me at West Brom was Jesse Lingard – we should have got him in that January window. It was [David] Moyesy’s fault that we didn’t get him. He was coming to The Hawthorns and then Moyesy popped up at the last minute and nabbed him. We’d had a long conversation with Jesse and his dad, as well as Manchester United, and we’d as good as come to an agreement. He definitely thought about it. That would have been really good for us, it would have given us an even bigger chance of staying up.
Christian Benteke was another one, because he was running out of time on his Crystal Palace deal. The only reason that one didn’t work out was because we couldn’t commit enough for him. I felt that what he’d done for me at Crystal Palace, when he scored something like 17 goals for us, I thought I could reinvigorate Christian to be the goalscorer that we needed.
We got what we thought was a really good goalscorer from Galatasaray, but he couldn’t cope with the Premier League and the pace of the division. The goals Myabe Diagne scored which got disallowed were unbelievable! He flew out of the traps at Tottenham, should have scored in the first half and then had two goals disallowed in the second. Then he got a couple of goals disallowed which shouldn’t have been later on in the season. They could have gone a long way towards securing our place in the division, but you know how it is in this game; when you’re fighting relegation, you know you’re going to fail more than you’re going to succeed – but you never give up.
Players lost the will to put themselves on the line
I think some of the players found it hugely difficult last season, because they were playing in the Premier League. I think the fear took over their confidence and shattered it. That is a huge challenge, for a manager to come in and rebuild that confidence, especially when the club was in the position they were in. The only way you do that is to put together a run of results, but the best we could manage was a couple of draws here and there. We couldn’t get enough wins on the board to lift that spirit and belief. As hard as we tried on the training pitch, as hard as we tried in the transfer window, that initial lift only lasted for so long, and when results aren’t going your way, it disappears quickly.
Some players lost the will to put themselves on the line. I don’t think it was intentional for a second, I think it was just a fear… it can overtake a player. When you’re in that position, it looks – to the general public, to fans and to the media – like they’re not trying. But really, deep down, they’re so full of fear. They think they’re trying the best they can and they’re giving everything they can. That’s where you have to try and stick up for your players, because of the criticism that comes their way. I felt that some of my players let themselves down. I just wanted more consistency.
I always thought they tried their best for me, but those consistency levels were the problem we had right from day one. I think of a graph, and I put my players’ performances on it, and want you to see is a high starting point, and a steady incline. That tells me a player is at a certain level and if he’s not sustaining it, he’s improving. But with the Baggies, if I were to map out the players’ performances, they’d be from one extreme to the other. At their highest, it’s Chelsea away, winning 5-2, but then you’ve got Fulham at home, and Sheffield United away, where performances were just so low – and that’s never a good sign for me as a manager. All you can ask for is consistency from your players, and we just never seemed to find it.
One thing which I think is totally inexcusable is some of the racial abuse our players suffered on social media. That was extremely sad to see, that these players were getting the abuse they were getting, just because of the colour of their skin. As long as those sort of incidents are happening, for me, social media will always do much more harm than it does good. People can hide behind a computer screen and hurl racist abuse at footballers – that’s just not on. I know I’m going off track here, but parents have to do more to restrict their children’s access to social media for as long as they possibly can. I know you can’t do it forever, but try and educate your children, please, so that this sort of thing stops.
I’ll go on holiday now and I’ll see 12 and 13-year-olds pouting and taking selfies – and their parents are doing nothing about it! You might think I’m an old man having a rant, but bringing it back to football and the abuse I’ve seen my players get, how can you go online and read some of the horrendous and racist things that are being written about you, and then go out and enjoy your football?
You’re never going to want to go out, either. It can become a very lonely place as a footballer. Look, I know we get paid very well to do the job we love, but players nowadays avoid going out with their partners and their friends, they’re in fear of enjoying themselves, because there’s always someone waiting to take a picture of them and put it on social media. What sort of a life is that? Back in my day, when I was a player at Bolton, you’d go out and about and fans would be offering to buy you a pint. Nowadays, if you’re a footballer seen having a pint, people can’t wait to post a picture on the internet and criticise you.
There’s still reason to be positive if you’re an Albion fan
The positives now, moving forward if you’re an Albion fan, come from your new manager, Steve Bruce. He’s been there, seen it, done it, knows what to do. And he’s done it with lesser clubs than West Brom, as well. He got Hull City up into the Premier League, he did it with Sunderland, Birmingham… he’s got the experience and the know-how to lift this team.
At the very, very least, Steve will get you into the play-offs this season. Once he’s got his feet under the table, he will lift that team and get them into the play-offs.