Farewell then, Big Sam. We’ll always have the good times. Like that Adam Lallana goal. Or being 1-0 up for the last 40 seconds of an away qualifying win in Slovakia. Which was basically the same as that Adam Lallana goal. Plus of course there was that moment just after the Adam Lallana goal when you said “it’s not for me to say where Wayne Rooney plays”. Which was absolutely correct, as it turns out.
There have been failed England managers before. There have been funny England managers. There have been depressing ones too. Incompetent: check. Greedy: roger that. As Sam Allardyce leaves his post after 67 days one thing is clear. Never before has an England manager succeeded in being all these things simultaneously in such a thrillingly short space of time. Appointed in July, gone in September, Allardyce has been the Willy Wonka three-course dinner-gum of England managers, the whole sad endlessly moreish story in a single microdot of folly and greed.
At the end of which nothing at all has changed. Nothing has been learnt. Despite the many revelations of the Daily Telegraph sting operation – a phrase that still feels slightly odd: perhaps next the Telegraph will be reviving Page 3 – we are where we always start out.
We always knew Allardyce was friendly, thirsty, entrepreneurial, entirely football-ish in his sensitivities. We always knew top-level football, the Premier League world in which Allardyce is so thoroughly steeped, is a wretched hive of scum and villainy, not to mention a vast barfing geyser of greed. We always knew the England manager’s job – what it could or should be – is the real issue here. The rest is simply people being themselves, an industry that is what it is.
To understand the essentially doomed nature of Allardyce for England it is worth tracing the lineage of those who have been Big before him. Before Sam the Big Men had always tended to miss out. Big Mal, Big Ron, Old Big ’Ead: populists and charisma-merchants who never quite fitted the chair. Big is football code. It means wide, dangerous, fun, popular, utterly of the modern game. No one ever called Alf Ramsey Big Alf or Roy Hodgson Big Roy.
Big Sam was the first Big England manager and this is a serious point. The first appointed solely on the basis of his populism and availability, and despite reservations – that open post-Panorama file for one – that would have stymied him otherwise.
Just as Big Sam has often been ushered in at clubs in need of an injection of energising self-confidence, so it was with England. The Football Association felt it was going for a manager who could relax the players, relate to them, exist in their world: Big Sam, of the Premier League, who knows the ropes, cuts the deals, talks the talk, has business interests in common with Joe Hart and Wayne Rooney.
Except it turns out that world is also brash, morally sketchy and above all laughably avaricious. Big Sam’s big day out on the make may have been “entrapment” but clearly it wasn’t uncomfortable or startling or discomfiting in any way. Similarly the Premier League will welcome him back without qualms. Big Sam will remain Big. It’s just the England manager’s job that got small.
And this is the basic issue. The England manager’s job remains oddly undefined, unworldly, wrapped up in a moth-eaten brocade of expectation and tradition, trapped energy, unfulfilled desires. There is a pointlessness to it but an urgent kind of pointless, ceremonial prominence without power. Being the England manager is a bit like being Prince Andrew or some other high-profile but meaningless royal: kept and managed and wheeled out to face the public but always essentially in the hands of others. No wonder in both cases you end up talking to some funny people.
This is not to say it’s a doomed role. Quite the opposite. It is simply worth remembering who the England manager is actually for. Hard as it might be for the marketing wonks populating the FA’s executive ranks to gasp, the England manager still speaks not to the players but above all to people beyond those elite levels, to every supporter, to every coach working at the mille-feuille of layers below, every grassroots amateur with a badge and a set of players to whip into shape.
This is in part how the role was conceived when Walter Winterbottom became the first of the line. Winterbottom was as much a head of participation and engagement as simply a man to pick a team to beat the foreigners. He consulted on school curricular matters. He tried to formulate a national coaching style to be taught in schools and parks. He was a jovial, teacherly paterfamilias to his players (he cooked their meals and did the washing up at the 1950 World Cup).
England won’t be appointing another Big Walt. This is after all a business that needs to sell itself, a rampant commercial concern, but there is no reason why this benevolent, educational role should not be right at the front of every decision the FA makes. There are in the end only two things of any worth in football: playing the game and watching the game. Everything else is parasitic. The entire ludicrous overblown leisure industry, with its rag-bag of broadcast rights billions, £400,000 speaking gigs, agents, uber-greed, all of this is simply the monetising of human need and human pleasure.
Never mind reputation and propriety, the FA should be concerned above all with points one and two. This is not entirely separate from winning matches. Until very recently the Icelandic FA had only 15 employees and now has a national manager who is still a part-time dentist. The Fifa and Uefa millions have been ploughed into building all-weather pitches in every school.
It is a choice the FA has made to transform itself into the opposite of this, an organisation driven by commerce, just as English football as a whole has turned itself inside out in pursuit of the ever-gushing revenue stream. You get the England managers you deserve. Welcome, Big Sam. And farewell.
The fact is the England manager isn’t the second most important man in the country any more. It isn’t an impossible job. It’s not even a very hard job these days, given no one really expects England to win tournaments.
But it does come with a duty to be discharged, an opportunity to do good, or at least not to propagate the bad. Allardyce will stand now as a pub quiz question, an oddity and above all a risible failure. The FA is right to have accepted his resignation but the real mistake wasn’t so much appointing him in the first place as the culture that made him the only real option, a managerial chalice poisoned simply by the air that surrounds it.