Sam Allardyce was planning to play golf last weekend – but the phone rang. After two years away, it was a call he hadn’t expected.
Leeds United were at the other end, the latest in a long line of Premier League clubs to draft Allardyce in the hopes that it will save them from relegation.
His weekend suddenly looked very different. Instead, he found himself on the touchline at the Etihad Stadium, facing Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, engulfed in the heat of yet another relegation battle.
A 2-1 defeat was a closer result than many would have expected – but it still means the pressure is on for Newcastle’s visit to Elland Road on Saturday.
“He’s a player’s manager”
The 68-year-old is considered a survival specialist. Bolton, Blackburn, West Ham, Sunderland and Crystal Palace are among nine Premier League sides to call on his services.
“Sam is the man for this kind of situation; a special situation for a special person,” Phil Brown, Allardyce’s assistant at Bolton, told BBC Sport. “Is this a long-term strategy? I do not think so. Sam is well aware of this.
Allardyce has only been relegated from the top flight once, during his short stint with West Brom under a similar tenure two years ago.
At his first Leeds press conference, in a usually raucous way, he claimed no manager was better than him. Brown says it was all part of his strategy.
He said: “He will bring experience; he has already relieved the players with this comment.
“Sam is brilliant at getting players to transfer their performance in training into a game because he makes them feel better. Leeds aren’t a bad team; Sam looked at him and said to himself: ‘ no fuss’.”
Stewart Downing was signed by Allardyce from West Ham in 2013, and the conviction and clarity he showed helped him regain his confidence after a difficult time at Liverpool.
“His people skills made him special,” says Downing. “He normally takes the lead of a team lacking in confidence, not believing in themselves.
“I wasn’t sure if [then Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers] wanted me, I was overthinking. Sam walks in with very clear messages, “this is what we’re going to do, this is how we’re going to play”. You like to play for him; he’s a player’s manager.”
“He gets people’s respect right away”
With just three games left, there must be an impact soon. Leeds are 19th, two points from safety.
“At some point in these next three weeks, they’ll see the whites of his eyes and they’ll see how really serious he can be,” Brown adds.
“If he needs to, he can rip your head off. I’d say 95% of the time it will be light; he’s very well equipped to put it all together in a very short time.”
“He has an aura, he’s a leader,” says Morten Gamst Pedersen, who played under Allardyce at Blackburn. “You can feel it when he walks into a room, he’s confident. He’s ‘Big Sam’, the big boss. He gets people’s respect right away.
“He can be very loud. Like Sir Alex Ferguson, he can give you the ‘hairdryer’. But he’s a loving person; he cares about you. He asks you about your life, your family; he is good with people. Humble, like a grandfather.”
Allardyce had previously spoken out against the idea that he was a “long-ball” manager and was among the first coaches to incorporate the use of sports science.
“He accepts that perception because it takes the pressure off the players,” Brown said. “At Bolton, we had [Ivan] field, [Fernando] Hiero, [Youri] Djorkaeff, [Jay-Jay] Okocha.
“Sam is a great salesman; he sold his ideas so well to wonderful players.”
“When I signed for him, I lost perception,” Downing admits. “I was doing what other people do; he was the complete opposite. [to my assumption].
“He’s huge on the sports science, data and stats side. He was one of the first managers I worked with who did that. Once you work with him, you realize he is not just an old school manager throwing it long.He goes with the times;he hasn’t stood still.
“People feel safe with him in charge”
These details are going to be crucial if Allardyce is to save Leeds, who will face West Ham away and Tottenham at home after Newcastle.
“He will have found out in his first few days who is going out of his way and hiding for cover,” Brown said.
“Leeds will be a little more efficient with every game they play. At Man City they went 4-5-1 with [Patrick] Bamford ahead. His heist game must be above 75% success rate; with this you take the opposition into their own half and into the final third.
“Sam needs to get those percentages more in his favor.”
Pedersen recalls the depth of his tactical approach at Blackburn: “He plays on percentages. He was always talking about the ‘Pomo’ – the position of maximum opportunity.
“He has to be strong. It’s amazing what he accomplishes when he gets people to believe and feel good about themselves and their game.”
“He’s been coaching for 30 years,” Downing adds. “People feel safe with him as a manager because they know they’re going to get results. He’s been there before; just looking at his face when he arrived he looked comfortable.”
This may be Allardyce’s toughest test to date, but he’s ready to do it again.