They think they’ve seen it all at Leeds United – really seen it all – but when was the last time they heard their manager make a pop at British justice?
Long story short: Sam Allardyce (because he is) wants longtime lieutenant Sammy Lee on his team now that he has the job at Leeds. Lee is involved in jury service, so Allardyce can’t have him. Lee is 64, the criminal justice system is big enough but Allardyce thinks the judge who won’t release him has ‘left him unemployed’, notwithstanding Leeds is a four game, one gig for three year assignment and a half weeks. Allardyce is not too diplomatic. “I think that’s a really, really bad judgment,” he said.
It’s 12 minutes into Allardyce’s press conference, its first after agreeing to fight the fire that Leeds conspired to start in its own home. Even before he reaches Lee, the experience feels like Allardyce’s greatest hits, like a man who’s never been away or changed one iota in the time he’s had. passed out of football.
If you forgot him or his memory was fuzzy, then you remember him now, that thick-skinned confidence to speak his mind and not care how it reads. Soon he’ll tell us he’s as good as Pep Guardiola, and he’s not kidding.
He knows what he’s doing, though, as he’s been in the game for decades and has a lot of practice working with the media. Inevitably, questions shift to Allardyce’s character, the caricature that depresses him – fairly or unfairly, choose your side – as a 68-year-old who is not what modern football wants to see when it comes look in the mirror. Fashions have changed, the game has evolved and it is never lost on Allardyce that we speak of him in these terms, as one of the men of yesterday.
“Too many people think I’m old and archaic, which is so far from the truth,” he insists. “I may be 68 and look old, but there is no one ahead of me in terms of football. Not Pep, not Klopp, not Arteta. Everything is there with me. In terms of knowledge and depth of knowledge, I’m up there with them. I’m not saying I’m better than them, but certainly as good as them.
It’s Sam Allardycio’s benchmark, the feeling he always had that a sexier exterior would get him sexier jobs. “Here, I gave you a title,” he jokes, and not by chance. Suddenly, Allardyce-on-a-pair-with-Pep gives the rest of a club – players, board members – a day off to appear there.
He loves representing the old guard and he’s throwing a little dig at Crystal Palace supporters who grew weary of Roy Hodgson a few years ago, only to see him return in an interim role this season and immediately put their relegation fears to bed . . And that’s Allardyce’s take on Leeds, albeit with much higher levels of urgency and far less wiggle room.
He thinks he can make a difference against a team that is 17th, with 30 points, and has four games to play. He believes he can tighten them up at the back and remarked that while Leeds aren’t bad on the ball “there’s a huge problem with possession”. And you know he’ll start there, although his remark that a 2% improvement from every player would equate to a 22% improvement on the pitch isn’t strictly mathematically accurate.
It is clear that he will pay particular attention to who in the team is facing the pressure, which is fragile – the balance of trust levels. But he doesn’t sound like he thinks he definitely has it. “It’s just too early to tell,” he said. “All I can do is hope for the right reaction.”
Allardyce was at 7 a.m. Wednesday, back to 100 miles per hour after nearly two years without direction. How to get back to it cold from a standing start? “It’s adrenaline when you walk in, isn’t it?” he says and although his body language doesn’t make it look like he crawled over broken glass to get here, you can saying he’s quietly delighted to be “back in the big time” as he puts it; mixing it up, chewing the grease, shooting the breeze. He says he’s “never moved so fast in my life to take a post. Yesterday, a Zoom call. I’m here.”
His previous job, at West Bromwich Albion, went wrong, ending in relegation from the Premier League, but he makes that point. This was in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and due to related rules designed to slow the spread of the virus, clubs could not operate as they normally could, face to face contact restricted, no one free to do what they want, everything is disparate. Even press conferences have been done on Zoom and he jokes about it when he shakes hands with people at the end of yesterday’s. Taking the West Brom job in the first place, he believes, ‘was a bad decision on my part’.
The first day for him at Leeds was a training session and conversations with the players, a chance for them to tell him what they think could make them better. Over the next 48 hours, he will try to introduce some tactical thoughts into it and it matches the scenario he was predicting when he says ‘the goalkeeper and the back four are the priority’.
They almost have to be. Leeds conceded a Premier League record 23 goals last month and have allowed 67 in 34 league games so far this season. And then they have Manchester City. “It’s a nice easy race on Saturday,” he said. “But it’s done. Brentford did. Brentford won there (last November). Shocks are coming.
The biggest shock for him was Leeds calling him up. Whatever Allardyce wants from management now – longer opportunities or shorter outbursts like this – he surmised that with a month to go the Premier League was done with managerial changes until next season.
And in fact, it should have been. Leeds had no intention of taking emergency action so late.
Allardyce wishes he had more games to play. He is aiming for six points out of the next four. “It’s a tough challenge, but someone had to do it,” he says, which it basically is. “I wish it was longer. We have to get a surprise victory from somewhere.
It’s so obviously him in his element that the wish for more time could be twofold: more games to keep Leeds in place, sure, but probably the realization that he’ll find a taste for management again just when that work ends at home to Tottenham on May 28.
Could he last longer here? “Never say never,” Allardyce replies, and it should never be said that he behaves insecurely. Either way, Leeds need a better team, he points out. “If I stayed, I wouldn’t want to be in a relegation fight from the start.” So no, he won’t beg.
But then, Allardyce doesn’t really need to beg for anything. It’s a free shot for him. If Leeds stay standing, they take credit for it – and a nice bonus. If they come down, he’ll ask what he was supposed to do? It’s an odd juxtaposition of a coach in a no-loss-at-bat situation for a club that has everything on the line and it’s not easy to say whether, in this four-game shootout, those opposites will attract.
Allardyce says keeping Leeds with so little running left would be as big a feat as any of his own.
Leeds are eagerly waiting to see the weight of his impact, crossing his fingers that they will be more than a footnote on his CV when they come out the other end.
(Top photo: Leeds United FC)